This is Part 4 of a pre-print draft of a chapter from Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design, my upcoming book. (Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 3) 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.
Chapter 1: The Middle of Moore's Law
Part 4: The Need for Design
Part 4: The Need for Design
The ubicomp vision may have existed twenty years ago, but throughout the 90s the complexity of the technology overshadowed nearly all consideration of user experience. The design of embedded systems (as small specific-purpose computers were typically called) was the concern of electrical engineers in R&D departments and universities rather than interaction designers in startups and product groups. Just getting the pieces to interoperate was a kind of victory, never mind whether the resulting product was usable or enjoyable.
The lack of precedent for devices that combined computers with everyday objects meant that the experience design for each new object had to start from scratch. Nearly every product represented a new class of devices, rather than an incremental evolution to an existing known device. The final nail in the coffin of 1990s ubicomp was (unexpectedly) the Web: by the middle of the decade it was a known quantity with known benefits and (presumed) revenue models. There were few incentives for designers, companies and entrepreneurs to risk jumping into another new set of technologies that needed to be first understood, then explained to a consumer market.
Thus, the potential within the technology was relatively unrealized in the mainstream. However, something else was happening at the edges, outside of the main consumer electronics and personal computer worlds. Toy designers, appliance manufacturers, car designers and industrial designers realized that the products they were creating could incorporate information processing technology more deeply. These groups already used computer technology, but did not necessarily consider themselves in the same business as computer manufacturers.
Now, the market is changing and the incentives are shifting. The success of Web services on mobile phones demonstrates that networked products stretch beyond a laptop browser. Intelligent, connected toys show that objects with little processing power can exhibit interesting behaviors with just a little networking. The prices for powerful CPUs have fallen below a threshold where incorporating them becomes a competitively viable business decision. The concept of designing a single general-purpose "computation" device is fading progressively into the same historical background as having a single steam engine to power a whole factory. As it fades, the design challenges grow clearer.
Right now is the time to create a practice of ubiquitous computing user experience design. The technology is ready. Consumers are ready. Manufacturers are ready. The world is ready. Now it's up to designers to define what that practice will mean.
And what of the railroads and time? Time zones, a ubiquitous technology we've come to take for granted, were invented in the 1860s, standardized by the railroads in the 1880s and hotly debated until the 1918 Standard Time Act made them US law (O'Malley, 1990). Once trains ran on schedule, they could save countless lives, create enormous fortunes, displace native peoples, pollute the air and transform the world. Ubiquitous computing is poised to be the next such transformational technology.
Next month: Chapter 3