George Murray

Ubicomp Moving Toward Mainstream

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In a previous post about the iPad, I introduced why I think the iPad and tablets have a place in the mainstream consumer’s everyday life. What I’ve found is that many of the attributes that make the iPad appealing and successful are also aspects that make incremental progress towards a computing concept called ubiquitous computing (ubicomp).

In this post I’ll give a brief intro to ubiquitous computing: it’s concepts, history, and current state. Most of this I’d like to be in service of us (those of us making devices) finding solutions for today out of these various historic and futurist perspectives. If we agree that the iPad fits ubicomp criteria, and we know the futurist path of ubicomp all the way to it’s ideal (networked t-shirts!), we may be able to derive a path for the consumer devices we’re working on today. We may also be able to detect future problems before they arrive. Let’s see where we can get…

Take a look at this short Intel commercial:

This commercial features a series of technological ah-ha moments. From video games to the internet, wireless internet and finally Intel’s 2010 Core processors (which features a very ubicomp ability of scaling power) each moment exhibits a technology that is not fully understood until personally experienced.

One could imagine another scene at the end:

Two 20-something, upper-middle-class men are hanging out watching an uneventful World Cup match at what appears to be a “man night”; Pizza boxes are strewn around a basement room with a Star Wars figurine collection on display in the background. One guy passes an iPad to another, sharing a YouTube video of a keyboard playing cat (or a very smart TED talk),  in sheer delight, the recipient exclaims ”It’s like you’re HOLDING YouTube in your hands!”

This is one of the promises of ubiquitous computing.

The concept of ubiquitous computing was first described by computer science researchers at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the late 80s/early 90s with Mark Weiser as Chief Technologist (who is accredited with coining the phrase) along with Alan Kay. The concept was mostly a reaction to what Mr. Weiser and others saw as flaws in the virtual reality computing paradigm in which reality was being virtualized and all user attention went into a computer screen. Weiser developed the concept the furthest, with his seminal Scientific American paper The Computer for the 21st Century in which he describes the ideal ubicomp future, it’s purposes, concerns and analogies.

Today there are many parts to ubicomp, including the latest philosophies and perspectives on the topic of computing. For the purpose of this blog post and conversation I’m going to stay pretty close to Mark Weisers description. Most of the attributes and concepts described by Mr Weiser are rooted in an opposition to virtual reality. Here are some key parts of the concept.

Ubicomp is not an attention suck

The first thing you’ll notice when comparing VR or traditional personal computing to ubicomp is the difference in user attention placement. When using a traditional computer, most of your attention is directed at one screen in which all activity takes place. In a ubicomp experience, your attention would be more distributed, just like your attention might move around the physical world.

Ubicomp is “lightweight

Let’s think about a single experience using a desktop computer and the “resources” that go into this activity. The computer is mostly one box where all computing happens. All of the CPU power is in one box. All of the monetary costs go into buying that one computer. One large space is used to place the computer in. The users attention is all direct towards the screen. Many activities can be multitasked within the computer. The PC experience is “heavy”. So there is a centralization of resources here in the PC: space, cpu, money, time and attention.

A ubicomp experience isn’t stuck at a desk with a very expensive machine, it is “lightweight” and accessible (low cost in all resources) so it can go into more situations. And that brings us to our next point:

Ubicomp is distributed

For instance, an analogy that Mark Weiser uses is that of the early 1900s factory. At the turn of the century, there would be one engine that powered an entire factory or workshop. The single engine turned a single rod that was connected to all the automated parts of the factory via belts and other rods. It wasn’t until engines became cheap, efficient and much smaller that engines could be used as they are today, distributed around factories and giving each part of the factory it’s own source of motive force.

Ubicomp is invisible

Finally, once any technology becomes sufficiently distributed, it becomes invisible. Just like you are not aware of all the motors in your car. Mark Weiser likens ubicomp to writing. Writing is our main method of storing information and understanding. It’s used to create books, signs, label candy and create UI. Writing is employed effortlessly and without consideration for what it technically is. For instances, a writer doesn’t need to know how to make ink or bake clay tablets anymore as was once the case. Currently, to use a computer you may need to know the equivalent to use a computer.

“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”
– Mark Weiser

Something like this could never happen with virtual reality because when VR becomes pervasive it replaces instead of augments life. But other technologies do disappear. For example see Louis CK’s enlightening discussion with Conan O’Brien

Are we there yet??

Obviously we are already in a world where some of our computing technology has become ubiquitous but ultimately whether or not we’ve crossed a ubicomp threshold is not very important for those of us creating user experiences today. We will never wake up with networked t-shirts and a crystal clear understanding of device design.

However, we can safely say that PC and wireless broadband internet access adoption has peaked with the roughly 70% of American households who can afford it or live in internet-accessible parts of the country. We can throw in the replacement of home PCs by laptops and most recently netbook sales. In addition, smart phones are projected to capture a majority of US mobile market in 2011 and their usage is increasingly non-voice related. Finally, Forrester projects by 2011 tablets will outsell laptops, essentially making tablets the new cheap, mobile, quotidian computer. It appears as if mainstream consumers are moving towards ubicomp.

Consider that this majority of adoption has occured in only 15 years.

One thing this means is that consumers are having that feeling of “why wasn’t I doing it this way before?” When we get used to always having smartphones — having access to a GPS-connected map, music store, social network and the internet in general — we all start to compare this awesomeness to other parts of our lives.  And then one day your Dad calls and says “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for an iPhone app!” This is why I believe we’ll find in our user research (outside tech scenes) that mainstream consumer desires, expectations and pain points will reflect an internalization of ubicomp concepts.

“Why can’t I store all my media in one place and access it everywhere?”


In a previous post I explained why tablets fit into everyday life, and in this post I’ve explain why that ‘fitting in’ is called ubicomp. In the next post I want to fill in the space between now and the ideal ubicomp future with more actionable, near-term predictions and examples of device design. Thanks for reading.

George Murray is an Interaction Designer at Punchcut in San Francisco.

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