In the Future, Computing is (Cunningly) Constant

Twenty years ago, researchers at Xerox's PARC research lab theorized about the next jump in computer use, a change as profound as the personal computing revolution from ten years earlier. In the last six months, thanks to a number of chance — and seemingly unrelated — innovations, that revolution has arrived. As we enter 2011, the age of ubiquitous computing is upon us.

Ubiquitous computing is defined as a state where mobile devices, such as the iPad, cloud computing applications (such as Google Docs or Onlive) and high speed wireless networks (such as 4G or large area Wi-Fi), combine to eliminate the "computer" as the central medium for accessing digital services. With every car, camera, tablet, wristwatch, and TV screen having access to nearly unlimited computing power, prices will drop dramatically, capabilities will increase and computers will fade so thoroughly into the background that users won’t even know they are there.

[See Graphic: Your Computer is Going Away]

For years, incremental advances in academic labs moved technology closer to ubiquitous computing. But in the last few months, the commercial infrastructure needed to enable the leap arrived. Since June, Microsoft started advertising Windows 7's cloud capability as a selling point, Google announced a Chrome operating system that more closely resembled an Internet browser than a traditional OS, and industry analyst IDC predicted that in 2011, mobile device sales will overtake computer sales. Taken together, these concrete advances signal that the main barriers preventing the jump from the "PC era" to the "ubiquitous computing era" have finally fallen.

"Prototypes are easy to make, but you have to wait for the magic moment, the special confluence when these things can hum without being a pain in the ass. And we're there now," said John Seely Brown, co-chairman at the Center for the Edge, and a former Xerox PARC researcher who helped coin the phrase ubiquitous computing. "We have a magic moment, a synergy, between the cloud, between how we build batteries, between how we use screens. All these different inventions are aligned now in a way that makes this a pretty exciting time."

Ubiquitous computing explained

In the previous era, each PC or laptop was an "everything machine" that did most things well, but nothing great, akin to a personal well each person individually drew water from.

In the ubiquitous computing environment, data and processing power on the cloud serves as a collective reservoir. Just as the same reservoir water flows through toilets, kitchen faucets and fire hoses, so too will collected computing power flow out through an entire ecosystem of devices with interfaces and forms designed for specific uses.

"Ultimately, I won't interact with computers, I will interact with the services that a computer provides," said Bill Buxton, the principal researcher at Microsoft Research. "It's about listening to music or writing the great Canadian novel or doing my work. The future is going to be a rich mixture of technologies. There will be no single technology that becomes the hot new thing. There will have to be a seamless ecosystem so all the devices interact with each other."

Instead of spending money on a physical computer with lots of memory, a fast processor and different software packages, consumers will subscribe to data, computing speed and applications based on their needs, and access them at the point of service through the many devices they use that already contain computer chips, such as cameras, smartphones and cars, Buxton said.

To enable access through those devices, input devices will move beyond the constraint imposed by the current keyboard and mouse dominance. The multi-touch interface of iPads has already started this process, and motion controllers such as the Xbox Kinect point to its future. The mouse and the keyboard will not entirely go away, but more naturalistic interfaces will depose the mouse and keyboard from supremacy, relegating them to specific tasks such as word processing.

"The mouse is a very good way of addressing computational abilities of the mid 1980s," said Ken Perlin, a professor at the New York University Media Research Lab. "Computers are much faster now. The whole industry doesn’t need to be based on an impoverished way of using the hands."

The implications of ubiquitous computing

The first implication of computers essentially being everywhere, and in everything, is that "a computer," defined as a device separate from other electrical appliances by virtue of its digital capabilities, will cease to exist as a concept.

"[Ubiquitous computing] is a world where computers are all around us, but we don’t realize they're there. It's a conceptual jump," said Donald Patterson, director of the Laboratory for Ubiquitous Computing and Interaction at the University of California, Irvine. "You'll know you’ll have your phone with you, and you’ll know you'll be in your car, but you won't think about all the different computers that make those things work. To you, it just feels like you're using your phone or driving your car. If ubiquitous computing is successful, you won’t even realize it’s happening."

With digital devices unobtrusively distributed all around us — and empowered with as much computing muscle as possible — ubiquitous computing also allows for data collection on an unprecedented scale.

For instance, the morning traffic report relies largely on self-reporting and estimates from helicopter-borne reporters. With ubiquitous computing, the computer chips already present in all modern cars could report back to a central program that gives all commuters a real-time, quantitative overview of the traffic on any road in the world, Buxton told TechNewsDaily.

Additionally, ubiquitous computing will drastically reduce the cost of digital devices and tasks for the average consumer. With labor-intensive components such as processors and hard drives stored in the remote data centers powering the cloud, and with pooled resources giving individual consumers the benefits of economies of scale, monthly fees similar to a cable bill for services that feed into a consumer’s phone, television and car will replace expensive electronics purchases. Basically, all the consumer needs to purchase upfront is screens of the size they want, be it travel–sized like a tablet, or movie-screen sized like a TV, Patterson told TechNewsDaily.

The transition to ubiquitous computing

Obviously, in a world where one still encounters the occasional landline phone, fax machine and pager, simply having the technology to enable ubiquitous computing does not automatically result in its universal adoption. Over the next year or so, a number of other advances will serve as benchmarks for the spread of the ubiquitous computing revolution.

"A thing to look for is when your healthcare data goes into the cloud. That will be kind of a watershed moment. And in another year or two, when cars start communicating with each other," Patterson said.

Similarly, just as the Kindle constantly communicates with the Amazon cloud to preserve what page readers last read across all the Kindle platforms, so too will all mobile devices start communicating with the cloud, without the user realizing it, to sync up data across different media, said Brown.

Bit by bit, over the coming months, twenty years worth of laboratory research and industry development will filter out of the hands of scientists and into the pockets of general consumers, filling out the final gaps in the transformation of computing. Soon, a digital device tied to one spot, designed for multiple uses, with a limiting interface, will seem as archaic as a computer without internet connectivity does today.

Your computer is disappearing. And when it goes, you won’t even notice it's gone.

"It's the opposite of less is more. Ubiquitous computing is more is less," Buxton said.

"Computing in the right place, in the right form, means less technology in between the user and the task they want to accomplish."

Stuart Fox currently researches and develops physical and digital exhibit experiences at the Science Liberty Center. His news writing includes the likes of several Purch sites, including Live Science and Live Science's Life's Little Mysteries.