Ambient Computing - Ubicomp Is Back
Today Google had its annual hardware announcement (#madebygoogle). Although this was a hardware focused event, each piece of hardware was framed by the idea of a new era of “ambient computing.” Rick Osterloh, senior VP of hardware, said that while it is great to have a powerful smartphone, “it is even more useful when computing is anywhere you need it, always available to help.” This is the way that Google is positioning ambient computing, as computing that is helpful and always connected. In each product announcement, the hardware was tied to a large ambient ecosystem.
For as much attention that this notion of ambient computing seems to be getting online, the concept is an old one in the history of computing. Ambient computing, particularly in the way that Google is using it, maps closely to the initial work on ubiquitous computing in the 1990s. Xerox PARC, Xerox’s research arm, developed the idea of ubicomp in the 90s. In a paper by Mark Weiser, the researcher that coined and fostered the development of the idea, he argued that “today’s multimedia machine makes the computer screen into a demanding focus of attention rather than allowing it to fade into the background.” Today Google reflected many of the same ideas that PARC imagined.
Researchers at PARC were concerned with how technologies come into contact with humans. Weiser dreamed of creating technologies that were attuned to the needs of human psychology. In his papers on the topic, he spends a great deal of time trying to create computing products that can move to the “periphery” of our attention and not constantly distract us. In this same vein, he also wanted to develop “calm technologies” that made our everyday interaction with technology more pleasant.
It is interesting to see these older ideas reappear in the context of Google’s announcement. The culmination of smart devices, cloud-driven services, and the development of AI have created an environment that is receptive to this idea of ambient technology. I suspect that the public’s general distaste for technological noise (and the technologies industries attempt to “calm” smartphone notifications) will give this old idea new life. However, I wonder how successful Google’s move towards ambient computing will be if they continue to place Google’s assistant at the center of your digital life? Will Google be willing to fade itself into the background when it is not needed (or make room for a competitor), or is that simply asking too much?