Health IS Technology Blog

Ubiquitous Computing: Bringing Technology to the Human Level


Image representing the concept of Ubiquitous Computing in a city

In the early 2000s, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed what they called Project Oxygen. This project was aimed at creating a ubiquitous computing model that would make technology more human-centered for all.

For over forty years, computation has centered about machines, not people. We have catered to expensive computers, pampering them in air-conditioned rooms or carrying them around with us. Purporting to serve us, they have actually forced us to serve them,” (MIT Project Oxygen Team).

They predicted that technology would need to evolve so that users could interact with it as they would another human. That the technology would be able to deliver information to us immediately and freely. Sound familiar?

What is Ubiquitous Computing?

The journal, Pervasive and Mobile Computing provides the following definition of ubiquitous computing, also known as pervasive computing:

“The goal of ubiquitous computing is to create ambient intelligence where network devices embedded in the environment provide unobtrusive connectivity and services all the time, thus improving human experience and quality of life without explicit awareness of the underlying communications and computing technologies.”

Basically, it means utilizing technology that so well integrates with users that it’s almost invisible. Such technology should also aid its users in ways that make their lives easier. In the future, ubiquitous tech might include telephone-like devices that can be attached to your skin and that have the ability to communicate with other smart technologies throughout the environment at your command. Such tech would allow us to focus our attention on the most important environmental tasks, while receiving easily accessible and supportive information for decision-making, etc. Think, Tony Stark and Iron Man. Another concept that has recently been discussed, is credit or debit card implants. In the future, these might help us to seamlessly make our purchases without ever having to worry about leaving our wallets, etc. at home.

Runner using smart watch

Apple Watches are considered ubiquitous computing as they integrate with the human essence of the user.

Apple Watches have helped us make slight progress towards ubiquitous computing when they began to integrate with the human factors of their users. This is especially emphasized in the step counting ability of the watches. Essentially, these watches will monitor the number of steps being taken, as long as they are carried along with the user throughout a day. This shows how such ubiquitous computing devices can aim to encourage a more active lifestyle.

M. Satyanarayanan of Carnegie Mellon University wrote of this in his article, Pervasive Computing: Vision and Challenges (download the PDF here). He writes, “Since motion is an integral part of everyday life, such a technology must support mobility; otherwise, a user will be acutely aware of the technology by its absence when he moves.” Of course, in 2001 Apple Watches were just a glint in Steve Jobs’ eye, but they further emphasize the timeless benefits of ubiquitous computing in everyday life.

Examples of Progress Being Made Towards Ubiquitous Computing

Smartphones

The truth is, these days finding someone who doesn’t have a smartphone is pretty uncommon. This is a reflection of our society’s progression and increasing acceptance of technology. Smartphones are some of the most common examples of ubiquitous computing that we have. Because they are designed to connect to just about everything you own, smartphones integrate with life almost seamlessly. Does your Bluetooth automatically connect when you get into your car? Do you activate Siri or Google Assistant every time you have a question? Does your phone count your steps? What about directions – does your phone give you those, too? I know my phone does all of these things nearly ubiquitously.

Amazon Echo a.k.a. Alexa

Home automation

Smart homes are an example of ubiquitous computing.

Alexa provides something we’ve sought after since the invention of the Internet: Immediate and constant access to information. Being able to interact with her through voice makes her nearly ubiquitous, as well. Such modern smart home devices integrate so well with users’ everyday lives that it’s second nature to just say, “Alexa, what ingredients do I need to make a soufflé?” or the like. Devices like Alexa are helping to usher in the age of ubiquitous computing or pure integration.

GPS

It’s less likely to see a handheld GPS these days, since most mobile phones have GPS capabilities. Still, when the GPS first became operational in 1995, it was another example of a great step towards ubiquitous computing. Access to location-based information followed you into your vehicle, and wherever you went with it.

The Future of Ubiquitous Computing?

Ubiquitous computing is bound to continue to expand as technology does. MIT projected that at some point in time technology may be in the very oxygen we breathe. While this may sound a little unlikely today, at least for the near future, the sentiment still stands. Every day smart devices are evolving, and this isn’t going to stop any time soon. So, yes, maybe in a decade or two we’ll be living with and breathing our tech. But at least for now, we can enjoy some of the simple conveniences that our semi-ubiquitous devices can give us.

Where do you see ubiquitous computing evolving? Do you think technology will be in our oxygen anytime soon? Let us know on our Facebook page!