Blog: May 13, 2016
Topics: Education

Technology in the fabric of everyday life

By Ticky Thakkar, Head of Emerging Compute Lab, Chief Technologist Personal Systems, HP Fellow
And Louis Kim, Global Head and General Manager, Immersive Computing, HP


Lets talk what “ambient computing” really means.

What do you think of when you hear the phrase, ambient computing? It doesn’t conjure up a sleek device you can hold or wear, nor an ingenious app you can download. Ambient computing—or ambient intelligence, a term used synonymously—is more abstract: it’s a condition, a state of the art. It describes a computing era that is unfolding around us, as technology continues its staggeringly rapid evolution.

To understand it, focus not on the word computing but on ambient. Think of ambient lighting. Ambient music. An ambient element is tuned to your immediate environment, adapted to enhance a particular mood or activity. As the IoT landscape populates with smarter devices and the data they generate, ambient computing is the fabric that knits them together. It is the intelligent synthesis and analysis of many disparate elements, generating insights and taking action based on those insights. 

The idea of ambient computing has been around for a long time. In 1988 Mark Weiser, a scientist at Xerox PARC, described its precursor, ubiquitous computing͟—as he imagined a future in which people would interact with computers not constrained to a desktop but anywhere at any time, on a host of different devices. It would be years before technology’s physical capabilities caught up with the dream of anytime, anywhere computing. An idea we can nearly take for granted today was decades ahead of its time.

Today, the physical capabilities are there. Computers are woven into our environment to a degree that most of us are not even conscious of, and more so every day. Just as importantly the data is there, courtesy of computers aboard devices, machinery, vehicles, and anything you can stick a sensor on. Extracting intelligence from oceans of data is a monumental task—way beyond what humans could do unassisted.

We can use ambient computing to help us turn massive volumes of data into insights and useful guidance. From Altair to ambient: we’ve come a long way...and quickly. Not a single segment in the world has transformed like computing. If cars had transformed since their introduction the way computers have, we’d be flying around like George Jetson in solar rocket cars. On the other hand, we carry devices in our pockets with many times the computing power that once could be harnessed only by an enormous water-cooled machine, a behemoth in a dedicated room, serving one user at a time. Even as computers evolved they were locked away in offices and universities. In 1983 the personal computer was born.

Apple and a few other makers had existed before that, but they were mostly the domain of tech enthusiasts. More accessible PCs with graphical interfaces soon appeared and improved through the early 90s. Then they met with a fresh new current: the Internet. Overnight, or so it seems, PC users around the world could connect to information and each other. With this confluence of developments, we were off to the races. Computers were becoming lighter, wireless connectivity was introduced, as was broadband at home.  In 2006, the iPhone was introduced, and changed how we used mobile phones forever. Three years after that came the first tablet—introduced to a skeptical public, and wildly embraced shortly thereafter. Today we have multiple computers that we easily carry with us through our days. From lighter laptops to tablets to watches to phablets to fitness bands and watches, we live and work and play in a mobile world. And beyond those things we carry, display technologies are advancing rapidly as well—bendable, projected, and all at ever increasing resolution.


 

Sensor sensibilities

The sheer amount of data coming through sensors is mind-boggling. If the IoT’s data had to be interpreted solely by humans, its potential would be severely limited. Ambient computing includes the analysis to turn bits and bytes into insight, and the intelligence can take actions and learn from feedback of those actions. What will life look like when ambient computing is fully realized? We believe it will put technology in its proper place relative to people and their potential: Anticipating needs and proactively addressing them. Adapting to changing conditions, and making suggestions that enhance our lives, at work and at play. Today, we gaze at our screens large and small, with obsessive attention—sometimes diminishing our experience of everyday life. Ambient computing makes the technology pay obsessive attention to us—serving us, helping us make good decisions and operate more efficiently. As we pursue advancements, it’s not just ambient computing’s potential we stand to unlock. It’s our own. Ambient Computing is an area of research in HP labs that relates to fusing our physical and digital worlds through Ambient Intelligence, Smart Surfaces and Natural interaction.

About the authors:

Ticky Thakkar is Head of the Emerging Compute Lab, Chief Technologist of Personal Systems, and an HP Fellow, leading efforts relating to the convergence of technologies and bringing customer insights and new thinking into product development efforts. Louis Kim is Global Head and General Manager of Immersive Computing at HP, with direct responsibility for engineering, design and marketing, and for developing new business models and strategic partnerships.

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