Smart Things: Chapter 1, The Middle of Moore's Law, Part 1

This is Part 1 of a pre-print draft of a chapter from Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design, my upcoming book. (Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4) The final book will be different and this is no substitute for it, but it's a taste of what the book is about.

Citations to references can be found here.

The Middle of Moore's Law

Part 1

The history of technology is a history of unintended consequences, of revolutions that never happened, and of unforeseen disruptions. Take railroads. In addition to quickly moving things and people around, railroads brought a profound philosophical crisis of timekeeping. Before railroads, clock time followed the sun. “Noon” was when the sun was directly above, and local clock time was approximate. This was accurate enough for travel on horseback or foot, but setting clocks by the sun proved insufficient to synchronize railroad schedules. One town's noon would be a neighboring town's 12:02, and a distant town's 12:36. Trains traveled fast enough that these small changes added up. Arrival times now had to be determined not just by the time to travel between two places, but the local time at the point of departure, which could be based on an inaccurate church clock set with a sundial. The effect was that trains would run at unpredictable times and, with terrifying regularity, crash into each other.

It was not surprising that railroads wanted to have a consistent way to measure time, but what did "consistent" mean? Their attempt to answer this question led to a crisis of timekeeping: do the railroads dictate when noon is, does the government or does Nature? What does it mean to have the same time in different places? Do people in cities need a different timekeeping method than farmers? The engineers making small steam engines in the early 19th century couldn't possibly have predicted that by the end of the century their invention would lead to a revolution in commerce, politics, geography and pretty much all human endeavors.

[Footnote: See Chapter 2 of O'Malley (1990) for a detailed history of the effect of railroads on timekeeping in America.]

Figure 1-1: The adidas_1 shoe, with embedded microcontroller and control buttons (Courtesy Adidas)

We can compare the last twenty years of computer and networking technology correspond to the earliest days of steam power. Once, giant steam engines ran textile mills and pumped water between canal locks. Miniaturized and made more efficient, steam engines became more dispersed throughout industrial countries: powering trains, machines in workplaces, even personal carriages. As computer shrink, they too are getting integrated into more places and contexts than ever before.
We are the beginning of the era of computation and data communication embedded in, and distributed through, our entire environment. Going far beyond how we now define "computers," the vision of ubiquitous computing is of information processing and networking as key components in the design of everyday objects (Figure 1-1), using built-in computation and communication to make familiar tools and environments do their jobs better. It is the underlying (if unstated) principle guiding the development of toys that talk back, clothes that react to the environment, rooms that change shape depending on what their occupants are doing, electromechanical prosthetics that automatically manage chronic diseases and enhance people's capabilities beyond what's biologically possible, hand tools that dynamically adapt to their user, and (of course) many new ways for people to be bad to each other.

[Footnote: This book will not discuss military ubiquitous computing, although that is certainly a major focus of development. The implication of computers embedded into weapons and surveillance devices has been discussed for as long as ubicomp (DeLanda, 1991), if not longer.]

The rest of this chapter will discuss why the idea of ubiquitous computing is important now, and why user experience design is key to creating successful ubicomp devices and environments.

Sidebar: The Many Names of Ubicomp

There are many different terms that have been applied to what I am calling ubiquitous computing (or ubicomp for short). Each term came from a different social and historical context . Although not designed to be complementary, each built on the definitions of those that came before (if only to help the group coining the term identify themselves). I consider them to be different aspect of the same phenomenon:
  • Ubiquitous computing refers to the practice of embedding information processing and network communication into everyday, human environments to continuously provide services, information and communication.
  • Physical computing describes how people will interact with computing through physical objects, rather than in an online environment or monolithic, general-purpose computers.
  • Pervasive computing refers to the prevalence of this the new mode of digital technology.
  • Ambient intelligence describes how these devices will appear to integrate algorithmic reasoning—"intelligence"—into human-built spaces so that it becomes part of the atmosphere—the "ambiance"—of the environment.
  • The Internet of Things suggests a world in which digitally identifiable physical objects relate to each other in a way that is analogous to how purely digital information is organized on the Internet (specifically, the Web).
Of course, applying such retroactive continuity (a term the comic book industry uses to describe the pretense of order grafted onto a disorderly existing narrative) attempts to add structure to something that never had one. In the end I believe that all of these terms actually reference the same general idea. I prefer to use ubiquitous computing since it is the oldest.

Tomorrow: Chapter 1, Part 2

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL:




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

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Mike Kuniavsky published on April 5, 2010 7:57 PM.

"Smart Things" references was the previous entry in this blog.

Smart Things: Chapter 1, The Middle of Moore's Law, Part 2 is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.