It's taking me longer than planned to write this because Ubicomp 2005 (and ubicomp as in ubiquitous computing) remains both inspiring and frustrating- an unfulfilled promise, you might say.
The field of Ubiquitous Computing has gained strength as an often cited technology goal since Xerox PARC scientist Mark Weiser first defined it as a field in the late 1980s. Ubicomp is both a conference, and a discipline - and hence the term causes some confusion. 'Ubiquitous' (or 'pervasive') computing has been defined as 'technology that recedes into the background of our lives.' This excludes WIMP interfaces (acronym WIMP stands for Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointing device) and traditional desktops. But beyond that, there are no clear rules. Are mobile phones 'ubicomp?' Maybe.
What about RFID? (Radio frequency identification, or RFID, is a generic term for technologies that use radio waves to automatically identify people or objects.) I'm defining these terms because Mark Weiser's ghost still hangs over the gathering more than five years after his death, both in the memory of people who knew him and in his inspirational words. The interpretation of those words, however, remains unsettled.
Ubicomp-the-conference brings around 600 academics, industry researchers, designers and artists together every year to present papers, posters, demos and videos and also argue over what Weiser's discipline became, and where it's going. Because the discipline is still so new, there is plenty of chances to change the academic vision surrounding it. Of course, the academic vision has little to do with the artists, designers, and engineers who merrily go about building 'ubicomp' interfaces far away from the conferences. Nevertheless, conferences are official occasions for disciplinary self-definition-- a place where shared priorities and values are negotiated through both the peer-review process and discussions between colleagues.
"Ubicomp" was originally created for and by engineers and computer
scientists. As such, the conference has inherited an obsession with system design, paired with a deep-seated techno-utopianism. As the years passed, some social scientists (some academic, some affiliated with companies like Intel* and Fuji-Xerox) infiltrated it; as still more years passed, some designers joined them.
However, the event remains resolutely non-arts friendly, with only brief respites. Projects that smell of art are cloaked in the language of scientific research. For example, take the Future Applications Lab's "Picture This!." The "Picture This!" project is a Lomo-inspired cameraphone application that uses sound levels and movement captured by the phone microphone and camera to mutate the captured image psychedelically. At the "ubicomp" conference, "Picture This!" turns into a sober investigation of 'context-aware' photography and the cameraphone as an environmental sensor.
Or take Saranont Limpananont's proposal for a 'portable media habitat.' The project essentially demonstrates different ways of folding a cardboard box to visualize different activities within it. It's a theoretical study in domestic architecture, closer to an Andrea Zittel piece than a prototype for actual furniture.
A paper on creating 'Preventing Camera Recording by Designing a
Capture-Resistant Environment' presented by the College of Computing at Georgia Tech could easily be read as a provocative piece of
counter-counter-surveillance art. But it's not. The paper is a sincere
attempt to outlaw photography in some public places.
Many Ubicomp projects often feel marked by what Mike Kuniavsky has called 'baroque' complexity of system design. They keep a firm and deliberate distance from the needs and desires of actual humans. Some papers, such as 'CarpetLAN: A Novel Indoor Wireless(-like) Networking and Positioning System' do not pretend to have any relevance to everyday life. Others, such as 'Analysis of Chewing Sounds for Dietary Monitoring' are basic scientific research hidden behind a thin veneer of social relevance.
At one point, I wandered from Jennifer Rode's study of closets and clothing ('What makes a closet 'smart'?') to an incomprehensible demonstration of a "fashion coordination service" by scientists from NEC, a Japanese IT giant. Though both, social scientists and systems builders attend "Ubicomp," it's clear that they remain on separate tracks. There were a few interdisciplinary design papers. Most notable was ActiveTheater, a project from the University of Aarhus that had been built through participatory, performance-based design workshops with physicians in actual operating rooms.
Especially among the systems-oriented long papers, the 'design' in the
definition of design as a process that creates artifacts integrated into human contexts is often missing. I tend to prefer the shorter and less weighty formats such as posters and workshop papers. Paradoxically, this very lightness makes these formats more immediately relevant and often more compelling. Unlike the longer papers, they don't wear out their welcome.
Workshops often make attendee's papers public- a great opportunity to take a sneak peak at the direction of things to come. I ran a workshop myself, on physical activity and computing. Some of the workshops I wished I could attend included: "Metapolis and Urban Life," "Pervasive Image Capture and Sharing: New Social Practices" and "Implications for Technology;" "Ubiquitous Computing, Entertainment, and Games."
With regard to the final keynote speaker, I suspect that the organizers of Ubicomp this year- if not all "Ubicomp" participants - shared my concerns. It was Naoto Fukusawa who is a noted Japanese industrial designer best known for his minimalist housewares. The title of his talk, 'Design dissolving into behavior,' is eerily reminiscent of the computing that was supposed to 'recede into the background of our lives.' But unlike the invisibility promised by "Ubicomp," if flamboyant consumption drives Fukusawa's dissolution of design. His products are meant to be noticed and desired: that's why consumers buy them.
Ubicomp-the-conference and ubicomp-the-field are frustrating because they promise the impossible. The promise of computing technology dissolving into behavior, invisibly permeating the natural world around us cannot be reached. Technology is, of course, that which by definition is separate from the natural; it is explicitly designed that way. Technology only becomes truly invisible when, like the myriad of pens sold in Japan's department stores, it's no longer seen as technology at all. Deliberately creating something 'invisible' is self-defeating. I can think of few recent technologies as visible to the public as RFID, no matter how physically 'invisible' it might be.
Written for the Institute for Distributed Creativity mailing list. Thanks to Trebor Scholz for comments and added links.