For our Tangible User Interfaces seminar this week (in between building code for the Dynamic Rehearsals project), I read some of the most well-known texts on Ubiquitous Computing: The Computer for the 21st Century (Mark Weiser) and Tangible Bits: Towards Seamless Interfaces between People, bits, and Atoms (Ishii and Ullmer).
Weiser’s paper, published in 1991, describes a world of the future where computers are all around us. He draws a parallel between computing and writing, poignantly noting that “carrying a super-laptop is like owning just one very important book. Customizing this book, even writing millions of other books, does not begin to capture the real power of literacy.” To combat that problem, Weiser envisions a world where we have many types of computers all around us. He describes these computers on three scales: tabs (little thumbnail screens), pads (size of a pad of paper), and board (large whiteboard sized wall screens). These computers respond to gestural interaction, are smart enough to sense our presence and preferences, and aid our everyday communication.
For 1991, this paper is extraordinary. Weiser was able to think critically about the future and where computing was headed, long before the proliferation of laptops, mobile devices, and other portable computing. While reading the paper in 2009, however, I am able to see a few places where the argument could be taken further.
First of all, Weiser has a strange conception of his board computers. He smartly describes shared displays and electronic chalk, but still notes the difficulty of using a keyboard with a smart board (which, if absolutely necessary) shouldn’t be difficult at all. More interestingly, he notes that since not everyone will be able to reach the top of a board, a menu bar will have to run along the bottom instead of the top. Today, we have pulled back from the once-necessary menu bars, finding more intuitive ways to send instructions to a computer. Here, Weiser could have taken his vision farther.
Secondly, Weiser moves into uncertain territory when he begins to describe the life of someone in the future’s computing environment. Asking for coffee is interesting, but seeing electronic trails of where her neighbors have walked throughout the morning, even if there is no video footage, does seem a little privacy-invasive. When he notes that she still prefers the paper form of the newspaper, I laughed to myself – did computer engineers not see the end of the newspaper industry, either? Throughout the rest of the day that Weiser describes, there continues to be some interesting aspects and some confusing aspects (why does she drink so much coffee?), but overall the description is not unlike the Microsoft video I posted a few months ago. I enjoyed his vision for the future; I especially enjoyed the conclusion that ubiquitous computing will help us overcome information overload, which I think is one of the greatest problems we face.
Ishii and Ullmer approached the question of ubiquitous computing in 1997 from a slightly different (and more modern) angle, looking not just to put little computers all around us but to make the objects we already have computerized, joining bits (computers) with atoms (physical worldly objects) to make a smarter world. After describing practically every TUI created before 1997, they introduce the metaDESK, the transBOARD, and the ambientROOM as three proposed parts of a solution.
Across all of the new models they describe, I was drawn most intensely to the ambientROOM, which would use ambient media (light, sound, etc) to alert a user to changes in the computing environment. Much as a darkening sky would alert us that rain was on the way, changing patterns in electronic light could alert a user to a flood of incoming messages or web traffic. Ishii and Ullman note that they “found the metaphor of light, shadow, and optics in general to be particularly compelling for interfaces spanning virtual and physical space,” and I agree.
Ishii and Ullman also use a set of physical objects they call “phicons” throughout their work: small, tangible objects that metaphorically correspond to a computer’s icons. A phicon might represent a source of information to recall, a physical handle with which to interact with the computational space. Personally, I agree with the ides of augmenting our existing objects, but I can’t see why we need to add new objects to our already physically jumbled space. When computational spaces make transition and change so easy, it seems like a step backwards to require them to interact with a static, unchanging object. We have enough objects in our world to interact with; why can’t we work computers into existing interaction modules?
For our project, Dynamic Rehearsal, we are certainly embracing a form of ubiquitous computing akin to what Weiser, Ishii, and Ullman describe. Through the use of multiple tools that can “talk” to each other, we are creating a smarter environment. Our installed video camera, RFID tags, augmented pens, etc. all capture activities that we already perform, and that information is accessible on a gestural interface provided by the Microsoft Surface. It empowers a user to work freely with the knowledge that their actions will accessible for later review, just like Weiser’s futuristic character can review the content and attendees of her past business meetings. Overall, we would be making the theater, a space which already exhibits an interesting juxtaposition of live, spontaneous, untouched emotion with fully wired, computationally rich technical systems, into a smarter space with a communal ubiquitous computing system.
Tagged as dynamic rehearsals, tangible user interfaces, ubiqitous computing + Categorized as TUI