August 2015
By Alberto Ferreira

Image: © hocus-focus/istockphoto.com

Alberto Ferreira has worked extensively in globalization services and project management with key interests in user experience and content optimization technologies and processes. He is currently working at Mekon as product manager for the DitaWeb platform portfolio, and as a consultant for the localization and content strategy industries.


alberto.viralhadas[at]gmail.com alberto.ferreira[at]sententiaprojects.com
www.sententiaprojects.com
www.mekon.com


 


 

Definitions


Ubiquitous computing
A concept where computing does not live on a visible device, but is made invisible, built into the woodworks of our surroundings, present everywhere and anywhere and communicating through wireless connections.


Industry 4.0
A concept based on cyber-physical production systems and the Internet of Things, aimed at the creation of the smart factory. The term refers to the fourth milestone in the industrialization process following 1. the use of water and steam power, 2. the assembly line and the use of electric energy, and 3. the digital revolution and the development of IT.


Internet of Things
The wireless network of physical objects – from smartphones and tablets through to coffee machines and refrigerators – that are connected to the Internet and/or to each other.


Smart factory
A manufacturing body that assists and enforces processes, providing real-time advantages in quality, time, resource, and cost management. These advantages are made possible by a flexible network of cyber-physical production systems which, to a large extent, automatically oversee production processes and assist work conducted on the premises.


 


 

Here and everywhere: Ubiquitous computing allows universal access to information

The day of the steam-powered, ash-spewing, gear-cranking machine is long gone. Ever since the dawn of the digital age, equipment has progressively become networked, embedded, and miniaturized. Technology is literally everywhere. And it can deliver any information from any point in the world in a heartbeat.

Computer and communication scientist Marc Weiser suggested in 1991 that “in the 21st century the technology revolution will move into the everyday, the small and the invisible.” Often appointed as the father of ubiquitous computing, this Xerox Parc visionary pointed the way to technology assuming an omnipresent, increasingly supportive role, reducing conscious user interaction and aiding the user instead of hindering or patronizing his actions.

This is the paradigm behind ubiquitous computing, a set of technologies that can help redefine technical communication.

What is ubiquitous computing?

As the term indicates, ubiquitous technology surrounds us everywhere: in airports, art galleries, public spaces, and even the comfort of our own homes. The term loosely refers to the “calm technology”, as baptized by Marc Weiser, where information processing and user interaction happen in the background or surreptitiously in peripheral systems, and are not constricted to pressing a button on a keyboard or using a touchscreen.

From the Internet of Things to hands-free interfaces, game consoles, media computers and mobile devices are being taken by storm by alternative interfaces that render computing less obtrusive and interaction more intuitive.

The future of interaction will eschew button-pressing keyboards and pads, and instead rely on tactile and direct-sensing interfaces. Promising research from Tactus Technology allow the creation of physical buttons on a flat smartphone screen, literally allowing users to change the way an object can feel, and the REVEL project, developed at Disney Research, aims at integrating different textures onto everyday objects.


Image 1: Manipulating texture: the REVEL project aims to change how the real world feels.
Source: www.wired.com/2013/02/haptics

 

Despite its potential, haptic research still accounts for less than one percent of all multi-sensory research. Haptic feedback carries many advantages, like the ability to use body language as an information carrier. Over 95 percent of our communication is established through our body language: to use only verbal or written input with a machine implies a tremendous waste of contextual information, including the urgency of our goals (e.g. whether we are in a hurry) and the social context (e.g. whether we have company).

Ubiquitous computing is also the perfect vehicle for transmitting information without distracting the recipient. Too often, users’ attention is distracted by other tasks, alerts or the inconvenience of having to access information physically, losing the sense of flow when doing something. Ubiquitous computing sidesteps this with an adaptive approach that can deliver the right information at the right time – and to the right people. 

Content delivery and communication

Technical communication is evolving, not only in its delivery, but also in the nature of what is delivered. Instruction manuals are slowly being replaced with assisted guidance, where instructions are placed in context when a user interacts with equipment.

Ubiquitous technologies allow us to look at content as a set subjected to responsive conditions, which can be grabbed, cropped, recombined and reused. Intelligent content using XML data models like DITA, or Linked Data formats like RDF or JSON-LD, can group and deliver shreds of content using a semantic model that enables highly adaptive and granular delivery of content. An example of this semantic indexing is Google’s massive Knowledge Graph, which displays relevant information about a search on the results page.

Dynamic content does not equal a factored version of static content, but instead a rich tapestry of text and visual assets assembled with a rich structure. In a world ruled by the ebbs and tides of social media, big data and machine processing are not the bogeyman of yesteryear: they are tools with which to understand and process content as an organic network of structures.

As such, the delivery of content in this ambient intelligence can vary wildly. In the following sections, I will highlight its main applications.

Context awareness

Ubiquitous computing is often envisioned as a natural step towards taking advantage of the prevalent miniaturization trend. It proposes a seamless context-aware approach to information and services, regardless of whether the user is on the move or located in a specially equipped environment like an airport or hospital. The success of this technology relies, however, on the adequacy and relevance of the content generated and delivered to the user and on the place, time, and profile that the user is supplied with.

Motion and proximity sensors, as well as satellite connections, allow our phones to provide contextual, relevant information depending on location, time and even our own motion. Context-aware systems can respond naturally to user activity. The usability of ubiquitous computing relies to a large degree on its adaptivity: a sensor triggered by the user’s presence should be smart enough to trigger the right action and “mute” itself should the user indicate that no action is required.


Image 2: “Smart houses” represent some of the leading current environments for ubiquitous computing.
Source: Thinkstock

 

Voice-recognition environments

Walking into your living room after a long day at work, you are concerned with the plans for the evening: that well-deserved ticket to the star-studded arena show could not come at a better time. But your tickets are not yet printed. You speak to the open air: “Computer, print the tickets for tonight’s concert. Also check a store nearby that sells leather jackets.”

Voice-activated technology is intimately associated with golden-age science fiction and Star Trek galaxy-surfing, but its actual benefit as a cross-modal interaction method is becoming a research priority. On a consumer level, there are already projects like the Ubi, an always-on ambient voice computer that can sit behind your couch and respond to vocal requests, enabling you to browse the Internet using only your voice, without any need for a screen. When asked, the system can deliver and read the weather forecast, calculations, instruction manuals, warning leaflets, and any other content accessible through the Web.

This attempt to introduce discrete voice recognition systems already features prominently in consoles like the Xbox as well as the iPhone and Android platforms through Siri and other speech recognition and synthesis software. Although imperfect, the technology works remarkably well in closed quarters and points the way to a future where keying in information will be an option and not a necessity.

Guidance

Some of the best examples of ubiquitous computing with transparent purposing are the guidance and interaction systems that are starting to populate public facilities like museums and gardens. With the growth of the digital market, traditional brick-and-mortar institutions are increasingly compelled to find new solutions to engage communities. Part of the solution is precisely to take advantage of the digital arena. For example, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One cleverly combines an Augmented Reality app called ArtLens with in situ interactive displays.

These services are not only multi-device, but also multilingual. The Ueno Zoo Ubiquitous Guide Service in Japan, for example, allows users to obtain information about animals in multiple languages by using a small iPhone-like device on code tags in the Ueno Zoological Gardens.

Real-time localization

Software giants are also aware of the role ubiquitous localization can play in today’s international market. One of the most successful examples of this technology, Word Lens, offers a glimpse into real-time localization by allowing common users to see translated signs and lettering instead of the content they display in reality. The technology is based on a set of optical recognition frameworks and graphical display methodologies that allow it to emulate a specific type font just seamless enough to provide an Augmented Reality overlay.

Acquired in 2014 by Google, the technology behind Word Lens is now being integrated into the Google Translate services.

Image 3: Word Lens technology enables smartphone users to translate any sign on their camera into a selected language. Source: Quest Visual


Real-time interpretation without human intervention is also becoming a reality, as a result of automated translation and the integration of voice recognition and synthesis. The new functionality, soon to be included in Skype Translator, can translate a spoken utterance almost immediately into the language of the person on the other end of the line. This technology can be easily transposed to an auditorium with simultaneous translation or to virtual classrooms around the world.

E-health

Mobile technology is becoming more important than ever in keeping track of health and general well-being. The explosion in running and fitness tracking apps like Endomondo and Runtastic shows the growing role of the handheld device as a personal and adaptable trainer, with far more precise metrics and records than a human coach could possibly track.

Image 4: E-health apps like Instant Heart Rate by Azumio make personal clinical data easy to collect.
Source: Azumio

 

Health is one of the most crucial as well as practical applications of ubiquitous computing. It is estimated that, in 2010, over one-third of Europe’s population had at least one chronic disease, and this number is increasing. With aging populations and receding health budgets, e-health not only provides a critical method for using mobile technology to replace traditional paper diagnosis but also stimulates awareness of the importance of quality of life.

The greatest advantage of mobile technology is that it is almost constantly available to the patient. Projects like MONARCA, which focuses on bipolar disorders, used the phone sensors as well as wearable technology in order to trace the progress of the patient’s mental state throughout the day.

Other systems like AMUSE (autonomic management of ubiquitous e-Health systems) are based on on-body sensors that can interact with ubiquitous environments. This is useful, for example, in hospitals where the environment records the body temperature, breathing rate, and other vitals of patients as they move around freely, unencumbered by monitoring equipment.

E-learning and e-training

The mobile technologies involved in ubiquitous computing empower users, allowing them to access online learning platforms anytime and anywhere. Online MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and other platforms accommodate users who want to access learning experiences by module or course according to their own availability.

Ubiquitous learning frees students to move across learning contexts and stimulates learning in non-conventional contexts, mixing both real-world situations and digital support like Augmented Reality. This implies a rethinking of the traditional curriculum that programs like LOGOS (Knowledge-on-demand for ubiquitous learning) and workshops like Digiskills attempted to prototype on an institutional level.

In the corporate setting, e-learning and training represent an opportunity to reduce long-term costs, as the average training cost of an employee in the USA is around $1,500. The past decade has seen a constant increase of studies on VLE (Virtual Learning Environments) and their applicability as ubiquitous learning environments to train prospective agents, officers, and employees.

However, the broad potential of ubiquitous e-learning as a full-fledged discipline that combines a community of learners, real-world interaction, and a task-based evaluative framework has yet to be unlocked.

Image 5: The MissionV project aims at using virtual reality in Irish schools with the aid of the Oculus Rift.
Source: MissionV

 

No end in sight

In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan foresaw that the world would be reduced to a global village. We are embedded in a sea of digital systems, where every connection is linked by information and data. It is this data that allows us to communicate with our surroundings at any time. We are designing a progressively smarter reality, and the potential of ubiquitous technology is still largely untapped. As its potential applications become wider and clearer, so will its challenges to technological progress – and our own.