Too Much Information, an IBM research project [ACM Queue]

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IBM researchers have studied two IBM applications to reveal the key challenges in making context-aware computing a reality.

As mobile computing devices and a variety of sensors become ubiquitous, new resources for applications and services – often collectively referred to under the rubric of context-aware computing – are becoming available to designers and developers. In this article, the authors start from the observation that while the dream of intelligent devices has been alive for some time in the computer science community, it has not yet had a profound effect on the applications and services we use to get our jobs done. Why not, they ask.

The simple answer, they claim, is because it is hard to do well – or even well enough. After all, the desktop is a relatively controlled environment, whereas the real world is dynamic and complex. The gap between what technology can “understand” as context and how people understand context is significant. Indeed, some critics have asserted that context-aware computing makes a fundamental error in trying to remove the human from the control loop in creating intelligent autonomous devices. A different tactic is to capture context but render its results unto humans to decide what actions to take.

It is this tack that IBM research has taken in applying context awareness to some of the communications tools that IBM employees use every day. In particular, the authors have looked at two applications: Grapevine and Rendezvous Service.

Grapevine helps a person communicate with another individual using an aggregated and filtered set of contextual information. The IBM Rendezvous Service helps people meet and talk on the telephone. While people clearly do these things today without additional help from context-aware services, the goals of such services are to allow people to make better communication choices, engage in a richer and more valuable interaction, and waste less time in accomplishing their interactions, while providing significant cost savings to the enterprise.

The IBM approach to context awareness has however not yet had the profound effect that the authors think is possible (perhaps inevitable) and in this article they evaluate some of the reasons why.

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