Tag Archives: ubicomp

The internet of bulbs

Bruce Sterling and many others have talked about the “internet of things” for years now, but the advent of IPv6 and increasing drives toward energy efficiency have brought an example to light. (Arf!)

NXP and Green Wave Reality’s idea for lightbulbs with individual IP addresses may well turn out to be vapourware in the long run (after all, we were supposed to have arphids in everything by now, weren’t we?) and has some basic implementation flaws (as pointed out by an early SlashDot commenter, it’d make much more sense to give each light fitting the IP address, so as to avoid readdressing every time a bulb goes), but the underlying point is valid: that ubicomp/everyware is coming, and coming fast.

Form and function

As I progress into my thirties, I’m becoming more aware of my status as a demographic that is targeted with nostalgia-based marketing. In terms of pop culture ephemera, I’ve remained relatively immune – the mainstream music and fashion of the eighties repelled me at the time, and has not lost its power to do so – but there is no escape; the technology industry has matured to an extent which allows it to mine its own past for aesthetic triggers that hit us lifelong early adopters like a punch to the gut, even when the product itself is quite obviously pointless in practical terms.

Point in case: Commodore returning to the computer hardware market with Linux-powered PCs dolled up in the form factors of their classic consumer-level home computers. This is the C64x:

Commodore C64x

Hi-ho, atemporality; there’s no point whatsoever in buying one of those unless you’re jonesing for the “authenticity” of the near past (which is itself pretty close to mythological anyway). Though we’re not quite at the point where ubicomp is a reality, Commodore’s “new” products represent an interesting point in the commodification curve of computing. Function is so cheap and easy to produce that form no longer has to play second fiddle; there’s more computing juice in your smartphone than was used to run the entire Apollo moon landings program, and you can shoehorn a useable computer into pretty much any container you desire. (Worth noting that this was an enthusiast’s hobby long before the manufacturers jumped the bandwagon; casemodding has transcended its initial geeks-only cachet thanks to economies of scale.)

When computers first arrived, they looked like the vast, complex and aesthetically sterile engineering devices that they were. Now computing is sufficiently ubiquitous that they can look like whatever we want them to look like (which means that making them look like older and significantly less powerful machines is a momentary fillip of aesthetic irony; expect an imminent rash of computers that don’t look anything like what folk of my age-bracket think of when we hear the word “computer” – remember the Sandbenders custom computer from Bill Gibson’s Idoru?). The end-point of the curve will be the point where computers become effectively invisible; I hesitate to predict a solid time-scale for that, but I’d be surprised if it takes more than another decade.

Further corrosive effects of networked handheld computing

Thanks to recent events, it’s almost banal to talk about how the increasing ubiquity of  mobile devices and internet connectivity empowers the average Josephine on the street, but it’s worth remembering that governments aren’t the only hierarchies feeling the burn: the giants of retail commerce are starting to see the playing field flattened by price comparison apps [via MetaFilter].

Until recently, retailers could reasonably assume that if they just lured shoppers to stores with enticing specials, the customers could be coaxed into buying more profitable stuff, too.

Now, marketers must contend with shoppers who can use their smartphones inside stores to check whether the specials are really so special, and if the rest of the merchandise is reasonably priced.

“The retailer’s advantage has been eroded,” says Greg Girard of consultancy IDC Retail Insights, which recently found that roughly 45% of customers with smartphones had used them to perform due diligence on a store’s prices. “The four walls of the store have become porous.”

Some of the most vulnerable merchants: sellers of branded, big-ticket items like electronics and appliances, which often prompt buyers to comparison shop. Best Buy, the nation’s largest electronics chain, said Tuesday that it may lose market share this year, a downward trend that some analysts are attributing in part to pressure from price comparison apps.

The WSJ points out that not everyone has a smartphone capable of doing this sort of on-the-spot comparison, and that it tends to be applied to “big ticket” tech items rather than everyday bits and bobs like groceries. But if we assume that market penetration of handheld tech and mobile internet continues at its current pace, it’s not a wild leap to assume that price comparison will become a standard function, and possibly even the “killer app” that makes mobile internet appealing to those currently uninterested in its more abstract bleeding-edge “social” uses. If the Western recession continues for a few years, tools that save money will become extremely popular, and as a result we may see market forces narrowing traditionally huge profit margins very quickly indeed.

But hey, it’s not all about man-versus-The-Man: ubicomp also lets you single out your fellow citizens for their transgressions against the public good.

DriveMeCrazy, developed by Shazam co-founder Philip Inghelbrecht, is a voice-activated app that encourages drivers to report bad behavior by reciting the offender’s license plate into a smartphone. The poor sap gets “flagged” and receives a virtual “ticket,” which may not sound like much until you realize all the information — along with date, time and location of the “offense” — is sent to the DMV and insurance companies.

Anyone can write a ticket, even pedestrians and cyclists. No one is safe from being tattled on. Even if you don’t use the program, which went live Wednesday, you can’t opt out of being flagged if someone thinks you’re driving like a schmuck. Inghelbrecht is emphatic in saying he sees no privacy issues with the app and insists the end of road-going anonymity can only improve safety.

Now there’s a delightful conundrum for modern morality: we’d all love to be able to shop that douchebag who cut us up while clocking ninety in the fast lane, but we’d hate to be stung for the two minutes we left the car in a no parking zone so we could pop into the post office on our lunch break. The ability to mutually police each other’s behaviour represents a potentially massive shift in the way we think about society… but it also opens the gates to new forms of non-hierarchical persecution, pettiness and holier-than-thou bullshit.

For example, how about an app for reporting non-Christian (or non-Muslim, non-atheist, non-Liberal or non-Conservative) behaviour to a localised public forum? That’s sure to end well! Or an app for reporting people who throw pets into bins for a giggle, perhaps…

It’s a cliché to point out how much power the networked society offers us as individuals. But it’s less of a cliché, I think, to point out that we’re going to have to learn fast about the responsibility of individual and community power – not to mention a new need for mutual tolerance in a transparent world – if we want to avoid descending into a world even more dog-eat-dog than the one technology offers us an escape from. “Look first to the beam in one’s own eye”, and all that.

Welcome to the Networked City

urban anglesAdam “Everyware” Greenfield doesn’t seem to have much luck with editors mangling his articles and essays before publishing them. His misfortune is our gain, however, as it means he ends up putting the originals up on his website, as with The Kind of Program A City Is“, a piece which appears in a more abridged form in the latest dead-tree version of Wired UK. [image by Barbara L Hanson]

Everyone seems to be writing about urban futures at the moment, be it Chairman Bruce cheerleading the Augmented Reality types (who are working on a technology whose utility is far greater when deployed in urban spaces) or Matt Jones writing the most interesting post that’s apperared at io9 in months. Blame it on whatever you want, but cities are changing fast – indeed, as Greenfield notes, faster than even the people who saw the changes coming ever expected – and we need to prepare for urban spaces that are completely saturated by networked technology:

In the networked city, therefore, the truly pressing need is for translators: people capable of opening these occult systems up, demystifying them, explaining their implications to the people whose neighborhoods and choices and very lives are increasingly conditioned by them. This will be a primary occupation for urbanists and technologists both, for the foreseeable future, as will ensuring that the public’s right to benefit from the data they themselves generate is recognized in law. If we’re reaching the point where it makes sense to consider the city as a fabric of addressable, queryable, even scriptable objects and surfaces – to reimagine its pavements, building façades and parking meters as network resources – this raises an order of questions never before confronted, ethical as much as practical: who has the right of access to these resources, or the ability to set their permissions?

The map is no longer the territory (if it ever was). Next time you see graffiti, recognise it for what it is: the echoed report of the first skirmishes and warning shots in a war for public space which is just about to start in earnest, in multiple cities across the globe and in multiple augmented versions thereof. Let’s just hope that war continues to be fought predominantly with art and commerce rather than knives and guns, eh?

Augmented reality from off-the-shelf protocols?

Those of you who follow Chairman Bruce and other such futurist types can’t have failed to notice the Cambrian explosion of buzz around Augmented Reality in the last month or so. I sure have, and I’ll confess to having been thoroughly bitten by the bug; not only does it mesh with my long-running cyberpunk jones, but it’s the logical next step from the metaverse (which still fascinates, though I don’t have the time for exploration that I did a few years ago).

There’s a real sense of imminence about Augmented Reality right now, a vibe similar to that around the internet itself in 1994 when I started university (and my short-lived dead-tree subscription to Wired, not coincidentally). You know the feeling: that whole “you can’t do much with it yet, but give these people a few years and some VC funding and who knows?” sensation; a feeling of potentiality.

Of course, AR is actually quite an old concept (the term was coined around 1990, apparently), but only now has mobile computing technology matured to a point where it can be put into practice at a price level where people like you and I can afford the hardware that runs it. If you’re carrying an iPhone or similar device (I’m an Android guy myself), you’ve got an Augmented Reality terminal in your pocket that’s just waiting for some killer apps to arrive.

Those apps are on their way, with quite a few in demo form already, but AR is a technology that will need infratructure – not hardware infrastructure so much as network protocols to connect the hardware together effectively. Enter Thomas Wrobel, a UK based sci-fi geek (yeah, he’s one of us!) who has developed a proposal for an open Augmented Reality network that could be built using existing protocols like IRC and HTTP. I’ll freely admit that a good 50% of the technical stuff he’s talking about here is way over my head, but the other half is full of things that have the appealing ring of simplicity. Wrobel’s aim is to create an AR system that avoids the ‘browser wars’ that have afflicted the web… and while I’m in no position to judge whether his ideas could actually work, I think it’s safe to say that he (and others like him) probably aren’t too far from some sort of conceptual breakthrough.

Of course, only time will tell if Augmented Reality will become a part of our day-to-day lives just like the internet has, or whether it will be relegated to the same Hall of Unfulfilled Promise that houses its closely related cousin, Virtual Reality. One thing’s for sure: it’s going to be an interesting journey.