February 2009 Archives

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As has been obvious in the recent past, I've been a bit focused on how and why disciplines, especially disciplines relating to ubiquitous computing, are named what they are. I'm not a language precision pedant most of the time--words mean what we want them to mean, when want them to mean those things and to the people we want to understand--but the titles of large ideas have a particularly strong impact on how we think about them. They, in effect, set agendas. If the scientists had called Global Warming something else, say "Global Weather Destabilization," that would have changed a lot of our expectations for it. People wouldn't nitpick about whether one degree is a lot or a little or whether an unusually cold winter in Michigan means that it's all a sham.

Similarly, what we call disciplines we involve ourselves in sets a lot of expectations for the agenda of those disciplines. Lately, I've been thinking about why "ubiquitous computing" has such problems as a name. When I talk about it, people either dismiss it as a far-future pipe-dream, or an Orwellian vision of panoptic control and dominance. I don't see it as either. I've never seen it as an end point, but as the name of a thing to examine and participate in, a thing that's changing as we examine it, but one that doesn't have an implicit destination. I see it as analogous to "Physics" or "Psychology," terms that describe a focus for investigation, rather than an agenda.

Why don't others see it the same? I think it's because the term is fundamentally different because it has an implied infinity in it. Specifically, the word "ubiquitous" implies an end state, something to strive for, something that's the implicit goal of the whole project. That's of course not how most people in the industry look at it, but that's how outsiders see it. As a side effect, the infinity in the term means that it simultaneously describes a state that practitioners cannot possibly attain ("ubiquitous" is like "omniscient"--it's an absolute that is impossible to achieve) and an utopia that others can easily dismiss. It's the worst of both worlds. Anything that purports to be a ubiquitous computing project can never be ubiquitous enough, so the field never gets any traction. The mobile phone? That's not ubiquitous computing because it's not embedded in every aspect of our environment and doesn't completely fade into the background. A TiVo can't be ubiquitous computing because it requires a special metaphor to explain it. The adidas_one shoe isn't ubicomp because it doesn't network.

The problem is not with the products, it's with the expectations that the term creates.

I see this problem with a lot of terms: artificial intelligence has "intelligence" as part of it, so nothing can be AI until it looks exactly like what we would call intelligence. Machine learning, that's not AI because it's just machines doing some learning. That's not intelligence. Pervasive computing can't exist until we have molecule-sized computers forming utility clouds, because nothing can be pervasive enough until then. Ambient intelligence is an amazingly bad term using this metric: TWO words with implied infinities.

As Liz (Goodman, my wife and fellow ubicomp researcher ;-) points out, when these terms are coined, they are created with a lot of implicit hope, with excitement and potential designed to attract people to the potential of the ideas. But after the initial excitement wears off (think AI in the 1970s) they create unmeetable expectations as the initial surge of ideas gives way to the grind of development, and setbacks mean that the results are never as ubiquitous, intelligent, pervasive, or whatever, as observers had been led to believe. AI was doomed to be a joke for a decade (or more) before they renamed themselves something that implicitly promised less, so they could deliver more.

So what to do about this? Well, I've done a couple of things: I've used one term ("ubiquitous computing") rather than creating ever more elaborate terms to describe the same thing, and I've tried to use it to describe the past as well as the future. In my past couple of lectures I've been arbitrarily setting the beginning of the era of everyday ubicomp as having started in 2005. It's not something in the future, it's something that's in the past and today. Is that a losing battle? Do we need to rename "ubicomp" something like "embedded computing product design," something that promises less so that it can deliver more? Maybe. I still like the implicit promise in the term and its historical roots, but I recognize that as long as it has an infinity in part of its term, there will always be misunderstandings. Some people (like the folks in New Songdo City) will actually try to create the utopian vision, and invariably fail. Some will criticize the field for even trying, while at the same time doing the same thing under a different name.

Me, I'm going to keep calling it "ubiquitous computing" or "ubicomp" until it's either clear that the costs of sticking with the name overweight the benefits I believe it has, or until a better term, one that's less likely to let everyone down, comes along.

(the title of the blog post references Finite and Infinite Games, a book I've never read, but which friends of mine tell me is quite good)

[2/18/09 Update: Michiel asked me (in email, because I have blog comments turned off) what I thought about "The Internet of Things" as a term. I've written about it before and I think it's a pretty good term. It's not as unbounded as the terms I mentioned. "Internet" is something people are familiar with and "things" is a large set, but not an infinite one. There's some internal confusion because "the internet" is seen as ephemeral, and it's hard to imagine how that ephemeral idea translates to the very literal world of "things." Likewise, there's an implication that all things will become part of this new internet, which is also potentially confusing. However, those criticisms aside, I don't think it's a bad term, but only if it's defined well and used precisely. I don't think it's exactly the same idea as ubiquitous computing, for example, since I see it as more about individual object identification and tracking, rather than smart environments, or ambient displays. If it starts to be yet another synonym for ubicomp, its value will diminish.

William sent me the following note:
Interesting observations! Two related bits:

One is Martin Fowler's thinking on "semantic diffusion":


Another was a recent conversation I had at the Prediction Markets conference with an econ professor. He mentioned that the incentives are such that whenever a term develops a positive value, people attach themselves to it until its value swings negative. I think that basic model is too simple, but from it you can develop a richer model that explains a lot of what people get up to with terms.

I like the economic idea, though I agree that it (feels) too simple. ]

Several people have asked me to describe the ubicomp UX book I'm writing. As time allows (and it doesn't allow much), I'll try to post some information about it. For now, I'll start with an annotated outline. A big caveat: the final product may little resemble this, but this this is the outline I'm writing to. I've removed some of the detailed description because I want to surprise you and I because I may change my mind.

Smart things: the design of things that have computers in them, but are not computers

[this will probably not be the final title, but it gives you the gist of what I'm trying to say with it]

0. Preface

Writing about ubiquitous computing is like trying to draw a plane as it's flying by you at 600 miles an hour. The best you can hope for is that the general outline is right, because there are certainly going to be many details that aren't.

1. Introduction: The Hidden Middle of Moore's Law

PART ONE: Frameworks

2. Broad concepts

This chapter will introduce the background issues that underlie some of the broad conceptual frameworks.
  • The relationship between industrial, interaction and service design
  • The importance of context.
  • The design of social devices.
  • Each new class of ubiquitous computing devices is essentially a new tool.

3. Information processing is a material

Embedded information processing acts like a material and creates new capabilities, and imposes new constraints.
  • Behavior as competitive advantage. When a designer can include information processing in a product for very little cost, the calculation becomes not one of engineering complexity, that’s relatively cheap, but one of competitive advantage.
  • How information processing is a material.
  • Some qualities of information as a material.

4. Information Processing as Material Case Study

5. Information shadows

Nearly everything manufactured today exists simultaneously in the physical world and in the world of data.
  • A digital representation is the object's information shadow.
  • Information shadow can be examined and manipulated without having to touch the physical object.
  • Coates' Point-at-things.
  • Sterling's wine
  • Design with information shadows.
  • Physical/Network mashups.
  • Identification as the cornerstone of the Internet of Things.

6. Information Shadows Case Study

7. Devices are Service Avatars

  • When the same information can be accessed and manipulated through a variety of devices, value shifts to the information, rather than the device that’s communicating it.
  • Devices become projections of services. A number of familiar appliances--cell phones, ATMs--are worthless without the networks they’re attached to. They are physical manifestations, avatars, projections into physical space of abstract services, but are not services themselves.
  • Objects become subscriptions.
  • Types of avatars.
  • Products and services co-design.

8. Service avatar Case Study

9. Applianceness

[all props to Bill Sharpe]
  • Defining applianceness. When computation is cheap, we no longer have to make general-purpose computers. There is no longer the need to think about a one-to-one computer-user relationship that terms like Human-Computer Interaction imply. One human to a multitude of appliances, some of which use information processing.
  • Applying applianceness.

10. Applianceness case study

11. Applianceness case study 2

12. Granularity

Ubiquitous computing devices can come in all sorts of sizes and the user experience design for them must take this into account. General purpose computers traditionally have interfaces that are person-scale. They’re designed to be used in a wide variety of ways, and what typically makes sense is to make the input device about the size of your hands and the output about the size of your head.
  • A powers-of-ten scale ubicomp experience design.
  • Location-based services. How to size up the world.

13. Granularity Case Study

14. Interaction metaphors for ubicomp

Why metaphors are important in UX design. Existing ubicomp metaphors.
  • Weiser's calm computing
  • Home automation
  • The metaphors in the names of subfields
  • Magic

15. Metaphor case study

PART TWO: Techniques

16. Design from observation

  • Introduction
  • "Design Ethnography": it's not ethnography
  • Observation techniques
  • Design probes
  • Learning from vernacular technology
  • Cross-disciplinary precedents

17. Cross-disciplinary iteration

The importance of cyclical development processes that cycle through all, or most, of the design disciplines required to create a ubicomp product.
  • Intro to rapid iteration
  • Sketching in hardware
  • Hardware hacking: hardware as tracing paper
  • Video prototyping
  • Interaction vocabularies: Saffer's gestures, Arnall's RFID interaction, etc.

18. Augmentation of existing objects

Since the concepts are so new, one particularly successful way to create new Ubicomp UX is to take an existing object and augment its functionality through technology.
  • What
  • How much
  • The right kind of augmentation
  • Functional vs. decorative
  • Physical-Web mashups
  • Smart furniture
  • Wearables

19. Scenarios

  • 10X
  • Demography is destiny, maybe
  • Mapping between domains
  • Realistic bounds, overly positive/negative scenarios, the return of Unintended Consequences

20. Simulation

  • Looks-like/Works-like prototypes
  • Wizard of Oz
  • Elmo++

21. Common design challenges

  • Configuration. Out-of-box and beyond.
  • Device interconnection. The promiscuous Wiimote holds a lesson.
  • UX consistency between devices.
  • Introducing novel functionality.

22. Explaining disruptive technologies

There's a lot of potential for disruptive technologies in ubiquitous computing, and explaining the potential disruptions to relevant stakeholders and potential customers is a challenge.
  • Is a new technology genuinely disruptive? Don't believe the hype.
  • Design for disruption.
  • Explaining the value of disruption to stakeholders.
  • Explaining disruptive technologies to customers.

23. From calm computing to everyware

  • Ubiquitous computing is here
  • As user experience designers we have a responsibility to think about how to design for it explicitly, rather than trying to use methods from Web design or industrial design.
  • In the last 20 years, the understanding of what ubiquitous computing means has likewise grown significantly, and has moved from the idea of office-based productivity that disappears into the background to encompass just about everything except the office.




A device studio that lives at the intersections of ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence, industrial design and materials science.

The Smart Furniture Manifesto

Giant poster, suitable for framing! (300K PDF)
Full text and explanation

Recent Photos (from Flickr)

Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design

By me!
ISBN: 0123748992
Published in September 2010
Available from Amazon

Observing the User Experience: a practitioner's guide to user research

By me!
ISBN: 1558609237
Published April 2003
Available from Amazon

Recent Comments

  • Katherina: Information not just material. In our days it is a read more
  • tamberg.myopenid.com: Hi Mike, totally agree on building the IoT in a read more
  • Mutuelle: Man is the reflections of his thought, some name it read more
  • Amanda Carter: You obviously placed a great deal of work into that read more
  • Molly: You might find it interesting to connect with return of read more
  • George: You might want to change "Size" to "form" for terminal. read more
  • Mike: Thanks for the reminder, Robin. I'm aware of that article, read more
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