Not far from the modest office where, 30-odd years ago, Douglas Engelbart invented the mouse, multiple-window screens and other mainstays of personal computing, an SRI International computer scientist approaches a mock-up of a white convertible-representing the car of the future. He plugs a notepad-sized computer into the dash, and at once the vehicle’s 1,400-odd computerized systems become accessible through a simple user interface. Using voice commands, he demonstrates how he can request a CD track, link wirelessly to his office to check voice mail or have his e-mail read aloud by a speech synthesizer. One message is from his refrigerator asking whether he’d like to pick up orange juice on his way home. “Show me the grocery stores,” he orders the car. The vehicle quickly accesses the Internet and relays directions to the nearest supermarkets.
Shopping done, our motorist arrives at his apartment, where the Collaborative Home e-Fridge (CHeF) is waiting for the OJ it requested. The juice is duly logged in, but when lemonade is removed, the fridge announces it’s now out of lemonade-and asks whether the item should be added to the shopping list. Chef even knows the pantry contents. So when asked to suggest something for dinner, it flashes the recipe for a chicken dish on its screen: in-stock ingredients are highlighted in green, those missing appear in red, while absent items already on the shopping list are rendered in blue.
Ah, the future of computing. Whether it’s with refrigerators, in cars, around the office or on the high seas, powerful new systems that you can access through words and maybe even gestures-and which will then scurry to invisibly do your bidding-are promising to friendly-up the world. The dream is called “ubiquitous” or “pervasive” computing-and it’s fast becoming the hottest thing in computer science. The ultimate aim is to seamlessly blend the analog human world with all things digital. That way, either by carrying computing and communications power with you, or by accessing it through an infrastructure as widespread as electric power is today, you will tap into this world on your terms and in your language, not a machine’s.
Less than a decade ago, such dreams were confined to far-out future factories such as SRI, Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and MIT’s Media Lab. But recent advances in computing power, storage, speech recognition and especially wired and wireless networking, coupled with the rise of the World Wide Web, are bringing the dream within grasp of the real world. That essential truth explains why Microsoft and Intel, which built their fortunes on the stand-alone personal computer, are shifting gears toward this new, mobile, networked world. IBM has just committed nearly $500 million over the next five years to study pervasive computing and create the hardware and software infrastructure to support it. Other players include Sony, Sun Microsystems, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard (HP) and just about every corporate or university computer lab worldwide.
Uncertainties abound. Fights are under way over competing technologies and standards; and no one even knows how many computing devices people will want to carry in the future, let alone what type. Still, the field is maturing rapidly. Researchers agree more uniformly than ever on where technology is headed-or at least on which main paths it’s likely to take. This allows what was previously a hodgepodge of visions and predictions about the future to now be classified into three broad technological frameworks: 24/7/360; who, what, when, where; and the digital companion.
While these categories-signifying the importance of pervasiveness, awareness and personalization-don’t capture every aspect of ubiquitous computing, they do describe its essence. And just by walking into computer labs these days, you get the strong sense that the progress made in addressing these challenges has computer scientists convinced a major breakthrough is within their grasp. “Ubiquitous computing is viable-and will soon be commercially practical,” asserts William Mark, SRI’s vice president of Information and Computing Sciences. “The revolution is about to happen.”