14 March 2008

When Users “Do” the Ubicomp

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Present-day ubicomp
When Users “Do” the Ubicomp is the great sounding title of an article by Finnish researcher Antti Oulasvirta in the March-April issue of Interactions Magazine.

Abstract: Computers have become ubiquitous, but in a different way than envisioned in the 1990s. To master the present-day ubicomp-a multi-layered agglomeration of connections and data, distributed physically and digitally, and operating under no recognizable guiding principles-the user must exhibit foresight, cunning and perseverance. Preoccupation with Weiserian visions of ubicomp may have diverted research toward problems that do not meet the day-to-day needs of developers.

The article builds on the work done by Genevieve Bell and Paul Dourish, and in particular their article Yesterday’s Tomorrows. Like them, Oulasvirta argues that there are two ubicomps: the idealised one presented at conferences and the “real ubicomp”, described as “a massive noncentralized agglomeration of the devices, connectivity and electricity means, applications, services, and interfaces, as well as material objects such as cables and meeting rooms and support surfaces that have emerged almost anarchistically, without a recognized set of guiding principles.”. This infrastructure is therefore “not homogenous or seamless, but fragmented into several techniques that the user has to study and use.”

He then takes his analysis a step further and actually shows “the many ways in which it is the users who have to ‘do’ ubicomp; that is, actively create the resources for using an application in a heterogeneous, multicomputer environment.”

Oulasvirta concludes with “a laundry list of approaches to improving ubicomp infrastructures:”

1) minimizing overheads that create temporal seams between activities;
2) making remote but important resources, such as connectivity or cables, better transparent locally and digitally;
3) propagating metadata on migration of data from device to device;
4) supporting ad hoc uses of proximate devices’ resources like projectors, keyboards, and displays;
5) triggering digital events like synchronization of predetermined documents with physical gestures; and
6) supporting appropriation of material properties for support surfaces“

To read the entire article, you need an ACM Digital Library subscription.

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