If someone were to say that we’re living inside a giant computer, many people would probably think they were talking about The Matrix. While we may yet end up inside a big virtual world, the reality is we’re actually already living in a computer—or, more correctly, the computer is all around us.
The computer, or computing machine, has gone through a dramatic evolution over the past 30 years. At first, it shrank from room-filling mainframes into desktops, then it got even smaller to fit into the palms of our hands. The next epoch—the one just beginning—is seeing that computing power flow into everything, from the walls around us to the clothes we wear and even into our own bodies. With wireless networks now connecting anything and everything, the era of ubiquitous computing is upon us.
One of the ubiquitous computing gurus I spoke to for another story was actually one of the researchers who coined the term in the first place back in the 1980s. Along with Mark Weiser (who passed away in 1999), computer scientist John Seely Brown wrote some of the earliest papers on the subject while working at Xeroc PARC. The duo envisioned a future in which technology would float all around us, yet we wouldn’t really recognize it as such because it had managed to blend into the background
We’re not quite there, but almost. We have the capability to do or track just about anything thanks to computers spreading into everything and connecting to each other wirelessly. The only thing missing is making them invisible.
Seely Brown brought up the car as the best example—it’s a piece of technology into which we stick a key, and it works. It was perfected decades ago, and even though we’ve added a whole host of technologies to it since—anti-lock brakes, navigation systems, lane sensors and so on—it’s managed to retain that invisible simplicity.
If you ask the average person how many computers a typical car has, they’d probably guess one. The reality is, they have hundreds, all of which of invisibly work with each other to create a unified user experience.
“It perfectly matches your work practices so that you’re not even aware that they came in to help,” said Seely Brown. “They’re finally able to talk well with each other and create this web of help that you’re not aware of.”
Bill Buxton, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, also worked in the ubiquitous computing group at Xerox PARC in the 1980s. He also brought up the car as the perfect example of invisible computing, since it’s the antithesis of so much other flawed technology out there.
“If you’re aware of how it’s being delivered, what’s beyond the surface skin, then it’s probably a failure of design,” he said. “The only time you [should be] forced to know is when something’s broken and everything’s a mess. Computing hasn’t reached that state. It’s on the path, but we still think about apps and new gadgets.”
I was in that frame of mind a few months back when I wrote about how video game consoles were just one example of technological regression. In this particular example, game console technologies have become overly complex by requiring continuous inputs from the user in the form of logins, updates and patches. So, rather than making our lives easier by hiding away their technology, they’re doing the reverse.
Sony, at least, has recognized the issue and is promising that the upcoming PlayStation 4 will update itself and boot games in a matter of seconds. Let’s hope so.
As for the apps and gadgets Buxton mentioned, that too is a mindset we’ll need to move away from to really melt computing power into the environment around us. While devices such as the iPhone are individually simple to use, they’re creating what he calls “aggregate complexity” by not working together seamlessly. And with so many competing companies serving up their own proprietary products, we’re creating a world of technological clutter.
“All we’re doing is getting a variation of the same 10 remote controls on your coffee table to operate your living room,” he said. “It’s beyond the threshold of frustration, or the complexity barrier for most people.”