IoT is the Next Wave of Ubiquitous Computing

Jeroen van den Heuvel

The Internet of Things and Ubiquitous Computing

One of the best things about getting older is that you recognize the waves. The waves of ideas and preferences that rise and fall like the tides, only slightly less regularly. We see them in diverse fields such as fashion, music and politics. We also see them in internet technology. Fat and thin clients, browser wars and mobile wars, the same ideas recur in slightly different contexts. And some ideas, along the waves, actually make progress. One of them being ubiquitous computing.

What? You never heard of it? Oh, I’m sorry, you must be young. You probably know it as the Internet of Things. It’s the waves, you see. If there is nothing substantial to change to progress the idea, you change something insubstantial like the name. So ubiquitous computing has been called along the waves (among others): embodied virtuality, pervasive computing, ambient intelligence, anytime anywhere computing, and so on. But ubiquitous computing is what Mark Weiser called it in his 1991 groundbreaking article in Scientific American [1], which launched the idea into popular awareness.

Interaction with Everyday Objects

The ubiquitous computing vision basically boils down to endowing everyday objects with computing power and connecting them by a network such as the internet. But there is one more thing to it. Weiser’s ideas were born out of the desire to make human-computer interactions less frustrating. He believed endowing everyday objects with computing power would render ‘personal’ computers and the likes obsolete. Weiser’s vision was to get rid of all the ‘explicit’ computers by turning our complete environment into a computing system. That way, humans could interact with computing systems through everyday objects.

There is more information available at our fingertips during a walk in the woods than in any computer system, yet people find a walk among trees relaxing and computers frustrating. Machines that fit the human environment, instead of forcing humans to enter theirs, will make using a computer as refreshing as taking a walk in the woods. [1]

I first encountered the idea somewhere in 2003 while I was working for Philips Design. Philips had launched its vision for 2020 that embraced ubiquitous computing, calling it ambient intelligence. At the time, all large technology companies had visions based on the ubiquitous computing idea. Examples are HP, who called their vision ‘CoolTown’, and Intel came up with ‘Proactive Computing’. At Philips Design we were especially concerned with the socio-cultural impact of objects becoming almost subjects, and how they should ‘behave’.

Now, however, objects are almost becoming ‘subjects’ – intelligent and capable of independent activity. The more objects become ‘personalities’ in their own right – entities capable of interaction – the more we will need to develop some codes of conduct and learn to take into account each others’ requirements. [2]

Ubiquitous Computing vs Mobile Phones

The idea has been out of fashion for a decade or so, but since a few years it is hot again. During the decade, the internet technology sector focused on two different technologies. One being the swiss-army knife of computing, the mobile phone (or, more generally, portable computing), and the other being social media. The mobile phone is in many ways the opposite of ubiquitous computing. Mark Weiser noted this in his article. Well, he didn’t talk about mobile phones because they weren’t there yet. (Really, grandpa? Yes, really.)

"Ubiquitous computing" in this context does not just mean computers that can be carried to the beach, jungle or airport. Even the most powerful notebook computer, with access to a worldwide information network, still focuses attention on a single box. [1]

But now the mobile phone plays a vital part in the rise of the Internet of Things. Because the mobile phone is our personal gateway to the internet, and by extension to the Things on the Internet. Without the popularity of mobile phones, the idea still wouldn’t be viable. However, because of the mobile phones, Mark Weiser’s ideas about interaction styles and social development are completely absent in this Internet-of-Things wave of ubiquitous computing. All interactions focus on the ‘traditional’ interactions through phones, tablets, laptops, etc.

Our social rules are changing

It struck me a few days ago that both the rise of the mobile phone as well as social media are part of the answer to the codes of conduct of the objects in our social fabric. The mobile phone is changing how people behave in the streets, in the supermarket, at work and at parties. Something similar goes for social media. People share so much of their personal lives on Facebook, that it gets harder and harder to think of something you shouldn’t share. Privacy is dead, and that’s fortunate, because it always has been one of the toughest difficulties for the ubiquitous computing vision. Our social rules are changing. No, I’m not saying they are declining, because, well, I’m not that old, and frankly, it isn’t the point I want to make. The point I want to make is that they are changing, which makes it easier for the Things of the Internet to get accepted as part of our social fabric. It’s always easier to make a change to something that is already changing, than having to start the change.

It is clear that the Internet of Things is yet another wave of the ubiquitous computing idea. It is also clear that this wave isn’t going to realize Mark Weiser’s dream. But is clear that this round, the technological infrastructure for the ubiquitous computing vision will be realized at last. Be prepared for the next wave, interaction designers, concept thinkers and artists, because it will be time to address social, cultural and interaction issues. And we will see what the next wave will bring. In a decade or so.

[1] Mark Weiser, The Computer for the 21st Century, Scientific American, vol 265, no 3, September 1991

[2] Stefano Marzano, From Ambient Intelligence to Ambient Culture – Introduction text to the exhibition Smart Connections, 2001