Coffee and the Future of Ubicomp

Ubiquitous computing, or the idea of computing technologies pervading our everyday lives, was only a dream in 1988 when Mark Weiser coined the term in his paper ‘Computing for the 21st Century’. Within the paper he painted a picture of a scene that could only come from science fiction, where technology eased everyday life through a series of seamless interactions that were automatically “in-tune” with their owner and their environment.

Now, nearly 30 years later, it would be interesting to pick a few of Weiser’s examples and analyse how ubiquitous they currently are in the 21st Century.

 

Sal awakens; she smells coffee.’”

 

The paper goes on to explain that the coffee had been prepared by a simple virtual assistant, which understood basic ‘yes’ and ‘no’ commands. Do we currently have similar technologies available to replicate this interaction?

Virtual intelligent assistants are readily available on the current market, they are embedded into phones and laptops, or contained within their own dedicated units. Google is championing its ‘Google Assistant’ and Amazon has surpassed 10 million units sold with an integrated Alexa feature. In deeper focus of the Alexa, a user can automate their home through their voice interactions, or order food, access personal music from online streaming services. Our current virtual assistants have not just reached the aim laid out by Weiser, but have in fact surpassed it through the providing a capability to respond to more complicated request beyond just ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

Can these be linked to a coffee machine, and fully replicate Sal’s morning experience?

Within five minutes I’ve found at least six brands of ‘Smart Coffee Brewers’ that can be connected to a phone or home automation assistant. There are economy options that don’t seem to overpriced, bringing in a basic unit that will cost it’s new owner just short of £180, which boasts the ability to “brew coffee without even leaving your bed”. It seems as if Sal’s experience, outlined 30 years ago, isn’t so fictitious as first thought.

Not all of Weiser’s examples from the narrative are truly ubiquitous, although technology exists to facilitate these interactions, most have been created within academic settings for research purposes. The idea of electronic trails, or ‘Footprints’ was suggested as a design concept of reflecting human traces and paths, but it brought up questions around how practical this knowledge might be and if this could draw our privacy into question when we are already so obsessed with the idea of an ‘expiry date’ around our digital footprints.

This draws ubicomp into a conflict of ideas – is it a useful tool, to seamlessly improve our quality of life, or is it simply a way to make ‘the digital’ a bigger risk of threat? There have already been cases of smart devices being hacked or being used as proof in criminal trials to guide a jury in our guilt or innocence. The overarching vision Weiser imagined for the 21st Century echoes certain truths. However, the question is not just how correct Weiser was, but what impact these ubiquitous technologies will have on the way we live our daily lives.


Author: Megan Venn-Wycherley

One response to “Coffee and the Future of Ubicomp”

  1. Matt Wood says:

    I enjoyed reading your reflections on ubicomp Megan, and particularly liked how you illuminated the potentially negative impacts of technology being so pervasive. As you say, I think it’s vital to have ongoing reflection about the implications of how technology is inherently changing our social lives. Seeing how you’ve framed this, I wonder if you could think about some overlaps with social computing here?

    It was really interesting how you focused on the coffee example, and how technology has even surpassed what Weiser predicted. But it’s interesting, from my view, that smart coffee brewers haven’t been adopted into the seamless technology enabled existence that Weiser predicted. I’d even say that, by enlarge, voice commands are still viewed for their novelty rather than a particularly convenient way of interacting with computers. This makes me wonder, how might decide whether a technology is ‘truly ubiquitous’? Have we reached “tomorrow’s age” of ubiquitous computing, albeit rather different to Sal’s science fiction world? Or, as Rodgers argues, do we need to rethink Weiser’s vision of calm computing?

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