Who, What, When, Where?
Computing by the billions may be too much to hope for in the near future. Still, it’s already clear that more and more computing power and services will reside in networks, and that these services will be increasingly accessible-through wires and wireless networks, and via myriad devices. Emerging software technologies such as Sun’s Jini and Microsoft’s Universal Plug and Play promise to allow systems and services to be accessed no matter what operating system or programming language they employ. On the hardware front, Dallas market research firm Parks Associates estimates that 18.1 million information appliances-things like handheld computers and Internet-connected TVs, mobile phones, car navigation systems and game consoles-shipped last year. Nascent wireless standards, such as Bluetooth for short-range radio communications, will add more flexibility for linking between devices and networks.
But before even a few folks have the benefit of truly ubiquitous computing, great strides must be made toward creating technology that serves people rather than the other way around. That means objects and services must sense and respond to what is going on around them, so that they can automatically do the right thing-hold a routine call if you’re busy, let you know if your flight’s delayed, or inform you of a traffic jam and suggest a better route. Such feats are increasingly known as context-aware computing. However, to do this job to the utmost, networks must know something about the people using them, often including their identity and location. This will force a choice: do people want to periodically cede privacy in exchange for better service?
A lot of the effort to track people and devices-and coordinate their interaction-dates back to Olivetti’s (now AT&T’s) Active Badge program. The latest twist is called “sentient computing,” which replaces the infrared-emitting active badges with ultrasound transmitters, dubbed “bats.” Since ultrasound provides far more precise positioning data than does infrared, bats make it possible to construct a computer model that follows people, objects and their relation to each other. The computer, explains researcher Pete Steggles, creates a “circle around me that’s about a foot in radius-and there’s another little circle around this device. And when the one is contained in the other, then I’m in a sense the owner of that device, and appropriate things happen” (see “Sentient Computing,” sidebar).