« Burning Man 2006 Art Review | Main | Tod's latest Roomba hack: control with your phone »

Notes on Vernor Vinge's ubicomp talk

Category: Smart Objects
Tags: animism, magic

Technorati tags: animism, magic

Ubicomp got a publicity boost this week courtesy of Vernor Vinge's commen ts on ubicomp, which have been linked widely since they were posted a couple of days. Much of what he says is right on (RFIDs, wireless networks, etc.) and has been discussed in the ubicomp world for a while, but he makes several interesting points and identifies (and names, in that race to name concepts) a couple of things I find new and interesting:

  • Localizers are "a feature that is on networked embedded processors, whereby the processor knows where it is in 3D space." He then couples this idea with wireless networks, "If you know exactly where things are, not only can you make use of the ultra-wideband that we already are moving into, but you could even imagine using very good localizer technology to set up extremely high bit-rate lengths that were highly directional." This is in order to keep all data from moving over all networks, a kind of spatially-informed multicasting. I think his vision of things knowing their position in 3D is insightful, but I wonder if his idea of the elimination of whole industries coming because people no longer have to arrange stuff only scratches the surface. I also wonder whether the bandwidth requirements necessary for whole environments of objects to communicate and coordinate will overwhelm the system. It becomes the kind of problem that's likely to be solved only if there's a compelling commercial reason, and self-locating objects don't exactly have one yet. That said, the accelerometers in MacBooks and the mini gyroscopes in Wii mice represent a start toward object orientation as an efficient interaction technique, which definitely has a business case. Whether objects end up using that when talking to each other remains to be seen. I've noticed that the possibilities of object-to-object communication don't get nearly as exploited as object-to-human in personal technologies. Which is probably as it should be.
  • Node guano. "If you have lot of ad hoc nodes, in a situation where nodes don’t last forever, ultimately we could be hip deep in dead nodes." I'm not sure I agree with this. There's certainly a lot of link rot on the Web, but ubicomp devices will probably require a lot more energy to maintain dead links (and on that note let me mix a couple terms from different discplines: what is the carbon footprint of all of those dead links on the Web?).
  • High-resolution heads-up displays. Continual data overlays have been the stuff of science and science fiction even before the Terminator figured out to say "Fuck you, asshole" in 1984, but it's been really hard for that technology to take hold socially. Vinge's assertion that a high resolution heads-up display "destroys all other display technology" understates the value of shared viewing. TV glasses have existed for a good decade, but the display technology that's really taken off in the home is the giant TV. In pair programming, even the space where people have traditionally been most likely to have one (or more) monitor per person becomes a shared display experience That objection notwithstanding, I think that his idea of consensual imaging among belief circles is interesting. I consider it a kind of physical manifestation of software skinning, mixed with ideas shared among members of a social-network (as a blogroll is, for example). The implications of this both excite and scare me: it would be totally cool to overlay a trusted source's view of a given scene on mine, but I feel people already ignore the complexity of reality too much and tend to live on parallel planes that exclude ideas that challenge theirs. I don't want Orrin Hatch's world skin (though I'd try it on to see what it looks like), and I don't think he wants mine.
  • Vinge starts to touch on my current favorite topic, magic as metaphor in interaction design for ubiquitous computing. "[...] Virtually every aspect of purpose, faith and fantasy could have a constituency in such a world, and that really raises a lot of possiblities for products, and the products actually go beyond games. [...] It’s not so much a question of the place of games in the future world, but a question of whether there’s anything going on besides games." He's talking about games, and I feel the kinds of games he's talking about are augmented reality fantasy games. Fantasy is explicitly not an explanatory framework for understanding the world, as genuine animism or belief in magic are, but it's a close neighbor. It's a way of trying to see how things could be if some fundamental rules were different.
  • His conclusions on how these technologies shape his version of his technological singularity I find particularly interesting. His implication is that when there's all of the bandwidth available and all of these instrumented objects, it will change society so that people will join groups (he calls them lifestyle cults) that will allow for mass leverage of their ideas economically and socially. This implies a kind of mass-mind that one either joins or is helpless to defend against as a single person. Not to reduce his argument but: 1. hasn't that already happened on the level of media consumption, which in turn drives mass behavior? People no longer have to get bad news if they don't want to (well, not exactly). and 2. Doesn't that overestimate the homogeneity of people's desires? As a social researcher, I am continuously surprised at both the similarity of people on certain levels (demographically-determined audiences are sometimes frighteningly similar) while being perenially surprisingly at others (people always surprise me, even when I think I know "their group" very well). In other words, I think his conclusions have already come to pass and we're all OK: the Singularity happened and we feel fine. Maybe I'm too optimistic.

Finally, Brenda Laurel is talking about animism at the closing keynote of Ubicomp 2006 next week, bookending Bruce Sterling's opening. I'm glad that animism is finally making it to mainstream thought about people's attitudes toward user experience design for ubicomp. I feel vindicated enough to include a gratuitous reference to the piece I wrote about it three years ago. ;-) AND I'm pretty excited to see what Brenda has to say.