iSGTW Opinion - Anticipating futures: engineering expectations of ubiquitous computing

Opinion - Anticipating futures: engineering expectations of ubiquitous computing

In a 1996 presentation Mark Weiser predicted computing would become increasingly ubiquitous, disappearing "into the fabric of everyday life." But ubicomp still has a long way to grow before living up to the trends predicted in this graph.
Image © Mark Weiser/PARC

Around twenty-five years ago, in an article for Scientific American, Mark Weiser laid out a lucid vision of computing in the 21st century.

Central to this vision was the concept of "ubiquitous computing": a radical proposal for spreading computers throughout our everyday environment.

Weiser's ideas, and his work at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) in California, U.S., have since spawned an academic research agenda, in turn influencing innovative commercial research and development strategies.

But where is this so-called "ubicomp"? And what does it aim to achieve?

Pencils and light bulbs: beyond desktop computing

Where the "beige box on a desk" commands users' attention at a physical locale, "ubiquitous" computers would seemingly melt into the woodwork.

This idea was nicely encapsulated in 1991 by Marc Weiser, who said: "The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it."

"Ubicomp" is thus an attempt to "think" a new technology, as important as the pencil or the light bulb: a system of computing devices conveniently at-hand and demanding no special effort for use.

Both "ubicomp" and grid computing seek to offer users more freedom than available via the dominant computing model, which has long been a single fixed and multi-purpose computer that commands user attention.
Stock image from

Ubicomp, grids and the box

The development of ubicomp sees commonalities with that of grid computing: neither technology aims to produce a singularly significant and world-changing device.

Rather, both arenas are focused on the conglomeration of diverse devices into powerful resources, where technology is not prevalent at the fore, but is instead a capacity to be drawn from the background.

More broadly, expectations in computing design are still predominantly focused on singular devices that users are required to attend or carry around; data is processed by individual devices.

Yet a significant minority of computer scientists and engineers now imagine "ubiquitous" processing power: power not carried with you, but distributed throughout the everyday environment.

"Social" computing

This advocation of a mix of common resources and sharing of capacities implies a much more "social" use of computing. Such "sociality" both encourages reciprocal sharing of computing resources as part of a broader network of people, devices, information and data; and asks us to think of technologies not as separate mediators of the world, but as intermediaries in networks between people and things.

Today, outside of a few academic and commercial research projects, ubicomp exists largely as a set of ideas. However, these ideas remain influential: many of the companies developing the next generation of computing devices and systems subscribe to the broader vision of ubicomp.

How will this anticipation of future computing affect its design? How will future devices be further re-imagined by their users? The ongoing influence of ubicomp on computing technologies suggests we should pay attention to the ways in which ubicomp continues to be discussed.

- Sam Kinsley, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol