Mark_Weiser_552
Writing and language everywhere a great analogy/comparison for ubiquitous computing. I had never thought of it this way. Helps one to imagine exactly what “ubiquitous computing” means in the mind of the person who first coined the phrase. However signage and writing is one-dimensional, with Weiser describing the need for computers to “disappear” in order to be “freed to use them without thinking”.

This view I believe does not match up entirely with the views of Elisa Giaccardi, the writing of whom I discussed in my last post. Weiser’s view of a need for computers to disappear conflicts in my mind with Giaccardi’s desire for devices to become “commensurate” with the physical world. Indeed, by disappearing, technology goes against two of Giaccardi’s principles. Firstly, for technology to disappear means removing conscious interaction with it, thereby conflicting with the principle of “creating a rich texture of material experiences.” Further, by removing this interaction, the principle of “arranging practices in ways that are open-ended” becomes impossible, as the device can now only be used the way it has been created to. After all, new uses and meanings can only happen when people are able to interact with the object and create them.

However, I do believe that Weiser’s vision is not a counter to Giaccardi’s (of course because of the time difference between their writings), but rather that Giaccardi’s three principles are merely an evolution of Weiser’s fundamentals of ubiquitous computing. Since Weiser’s writing, technology has exploded into every corner of our lives, which has raised the need for what Giaccardi describes in her three principles that simply didn’t exist when Weiser wrote his piece.

Additionally, Weiser appears to be talking much more functionally than Giaccardi. While Giaccardi focusses more on the need or desire for ubiquitous computers to allow for more meaningful interactions with our every day objects, Weiser talks of “hundreds of computers per room.” He continues;

Hundreds of computers in a room could seem intimidating at first, just as hundreds of volts coursing through wires in the walls once did. But like the wires in the walls, these hundreds of computers will come to be invisible to common awareness. People will simply use them unconsciously to accomplish everyday tasks.

I believe the contrast between Weiser’s view and Giaccardi’s view proves testament to the changing needs of technology. Whereas Giaccardi talks extensively about the social aspects of internet connected devices, at the time of Weiser’s writing modern technology and smart devices are still very much tools designed to fulfil a task, exemplified by his comparison between microcontrollers (what he’s describing in his “hundreds of computers”) and the “vanishing” of electric motors.

Weiser also talks extensively about what he describes as Tabs, Pads, and Boards. Pieces of technology that can be used anywhere at any time for a multitude of purposes. A tab is an “inch-scale” computer screen which fills the role of pocket organiser and pocket calculator, identification badge, location tracker, and even phone call receiver. This sounds very much like a smart phone. Up in scale is the pad, which fills the role of the virtual desktop whereby the pad fits somewhere between paper and a laptop. This sounds very much like a tablet (iPad?). Lastly we have the Board, Weiser’s description of which seems to lie somewhere between a smart board and a surface computer.

Screen Shot 2016-10-30 at 17.13.50Tabs, pads, and boards in their own right may sound like a humble (yet accurate) prediction of what computers themselves turned into, but it is the interactions between them that is most interesting. The way in which Weiser describes a user’s data and information being readily accessible on any pad or board thanks to network connectivity, or how a person’s tab will influence the behaviour of the room in which they inhabit sound very much like the modern ideas of the Internet of Things. In my mind it even draws up scenes from films such as Avatar and Iron man, in which characters effortlessly move their applications from their desktop hologram to their handheld hologram with a flick of the finger.

Despite this, the main flaw in the idea of tabs, pads, and boards is the continued dependency on screens. In fact, Weiser spends a significant number of words in describing how computer screen displays and even operating systems for ubiquitous computing should be designed. This goes against his earlier points in which he describes the need for computers to disappear, and against Giaccardi’s principles.

Therefore, my takeaway from this article is that the concept of ubiquitous computing, and in fact the purpose of ubiquitous computing, is not a solidly defined thing. Instead, between the time of Weiser’s writing and the time of Giaccardi’s, ubiquitous computing as a term had evolved. Whereas to Weiser it seems to mean simply “hundreds of computers per room,” today the term seems almost synonymous with the Internet of Things. We now see a need for connected devices to provide much more than just their inherent function. Ubiquitous computing now includes a desire for machines and devices to interact intelligently with each other and us, and vice versa. This may have been Weiser’s vision with the connectivity of tabs, pads, and boards, but I would argue that his vision for these devices was merely the natural progression of personal computing. It is the interaction that we have with these devices and the additional meaning and emotion that these interactions provide to us and our lives that now defines the term “ubiquitous computing”.