In September 1991, Scientific American published an article by Mark Weiser, then head of Xerox’s PARC computing laboratory, entitled “The Computer for the 21st Century.” In it, he discussed his ideas for a computing infrastructure that would take a back seat, calling it “ubiquitous computing.”
Weiser’s ubiquitous computing future was one where technology was everywhere and where we interacted with it through what we called “tabs,” “pads,” and “walls.”
He described it as follows: “Ubiquitous computing names the third wave of computing that is just beginning. First were mainframes, each shared by many people desktop. Next comes ubiquitous computing, or the age of quiet technology, when technology takes a back seat to our lives.”
We are witnessing this third wave of computing right now, with smartphones as tabs, tablets and touch-sensitive PCs as pads, and huge flat screens on the walls. But it’s not a particularly tranquil world, where all of our devices require attention and where we’re forced into an endless series of interactions with our screens.
Ignorance is Bliss (when it comes to computers)
Instead, we’re being drawn to another wave, one that’s taking Weiser’s pervasive computing vision and blending it with the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning, and the hyperscale computing cloud to deliver what’s been dubbed “ambient computing.” As an alternative to traditional computer models, ambient computing is modeled after musician Brian Eno, who coined the term “ambient music” for his slow-paced compositions, describing them as something that “needs to be as ignorable as it is interesting.”
Ambient computing is computing that can be ignored. It’s there, but it’s in the background doing the job we built it to do. A definition is a computer that you use without knowing you are using it. That’s close to Eno’s definition of his music – ignorable and interesting.
Much of what we do with smart speakers is an introduction to ambient computing. It’s not the full ambient experience as it relies solely on your voice. But you’re using a computer without sitting down at a keyboard and you’re talking into nowhere. Things get more interesting when this smart speaker becomes the interface to a smart home, where it can respond to requests and perform actions, turn on lights, or change the temperature in a room.
But what if that speaker wasn’t there at all and the controls came from a smart home that uses sensors to function without conscious interaction on your part? You enter a room and the light comes on because sensors detect your presence and because another set of sensors indicate that the current light level in the room is lower than your preferences. Maybe the sun has set, maybe it’s raining; What is important is that the system delivered the answer you chose without any action on your part.
Living with Ambient Computing
In ambient computing, every interaction must be voluntary and controlled by the user, not the system. Most operations take place in the background and are controlled by rules engines and machine learning. For example, the heating controls in my house are a great example of an ambient computing platform. Like most European homes, mine uses hot water radiators and a central boiler. In addition to a central thermostat, each radiator has its own thermostatic valve. These used to be simple wax engines that opened and closed the valve at approximate temperatures. A “4” on one radiator would be similar on another.
The environmental computer system that runs them now has separate IoT controlled valves that can treat each room as a separate zone by combining temperature sensors with actuators driving the radiator valves and wireless connections to central control. While these are used to control room-level temperature, they are just part of a much more complex system. Once powered up, the system as a whole spent the first month of operation creating a thermal model of the house and learning how much heat needed to be injected into each zone to reach and maintain the target temperature.
All I had to do was define the system goals and now it’s free running, turning on the boiler when needed and adjusting the valves to ensure each zone is heated properly. I can review an app to see if everything is working the way I want it to and change the goals if necessary. There are no warnings, no unwanted interactions. The only important thing is that the rooms are as warm as they need to be when they need to be. The complexity of the system is hidden as a cloud-trained machine learning model runs on more limited hardware at my home.
More importantly, the model is also tied to external conditions, trained on the house’s response to external conditions and internal heat sources, and connected to a small digital weather station on my roof. When it’s not particularly cold outside, the heating doesn’t run as long because the house cools down longer.
Ambient computing offers a smart way of working with sensors and actuators by building on their connections and the flexible computing power of the cloud. It’s a way to build smart connectors that can do more than the relatively simple hardware they use. Home automation is a logical early adopter of ambient computing technologies, but there are many more options in industry, transportation, and the environment.
Colors and light, movement and form: the ambient interface
The other key aspect of ambient computing is how it gives us information. Instead of complex screens full of information, an environmental interface could have a shade of blue that changes color when the weather changes or when the stock price moves. You can think of it as the electronic equivalent of the old analogue dials and lights or a car’s dashboard: something you can take a look at and understand what’s happening and determine if you need more information.
One of the first popular ambient computing devices was the nabaztag, a rabbit-shaped internet-connected device that changed color or moved its ears based on external information. You could choose what its signals meant to you, making each Nabaztag a very personal device. This model went even further with a Microsoft research project that created a real-life version of a family watch from a Harry Potter film using a mix of physical hands and custom screens.
An ambient interface must be visible. It’s not something you should spend time deciphering. Setup shouldn’t be complicated as no- and low-code environments provide the simple event-driven model used to deploy environment applications. When you connect an IoT-powered light to a calendar, your co-workers (and when it comes to working from home, your family) know not to interrupt you when you’re in an online meeting. Tools like Node-RED, Microsoft’s Power Automate, and IFTTT are key to building your own ambient computing environment from popular IoT hardware and simple APIs like webhooks.
The Ambient Future
We live in a world of ubiquitous computers, where they demand more and more of our attention. But as they become more powerful and distributed more globally, that attention becomes less and less important. Making them ignorable is the next step, using them in the background and only interacting with them when really necessary.
Combining ubiquitous computing with IoT sensors and actuators, and cloud and on-premises AI makes a lot of sense. All of this becomes another giant step into a sci-fi future where the environment around us responds to our needs before we even know what we want.