[iDC] Ubicomp: Letter from Tokyo

egoodman at confectious.net egoodman at confectious.net
Fri Sep 30 01:13:31 EDT 2005

Tokyo, Ubicomp 2005

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 camera
phone 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

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.

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