Ugh, wake up on Sunday morning and there's Warren Ellis, posting at the top of his game. I haven't even had coffee yet.
Here's an interesting article for you about ubiquitous computing. Apparently, there was an interesting convention on the other side of the planet. Fortunately, Mr. Nova gives us a summary.
I tend to focus on the software side of things, so when I think of ubiquitous computing, I have a specific vision: the hardware fades away and we're left with ubiquitous transparent interfaces. The thought exercise is how being "virtualized" or "made smart" can make things in your life easier and better to use.
The classic example is a toaster. We have a toaster in the office. It is almost unusable because it is "too smart". Instead of letting you set a heat level, a timer, and then press a button, it requires you to select an exact type of thing you want to toast ("bagel", for example) and a number of slices. Of course, the list of things you can toast is too long to be easy, but too short to actually include the things you're likely to want to toast, and the idea of "slices" is insufficient for that all-important browness level. So you end up guessing: is toasting this cut-open croissant more like toasting a single slice of bagel, or more like toasting two slices of bread?
Whatever you choose, the toaster is a bad design. It looks nice, very Star Trek, very chrome, but it actually does its job worse than a toaster with two dials and a button.
I can't really think of a toaster that's significantly better than two dials and a button. There's not much need for a toaster that's smarter than that. The next step would be a toaster that could fetch the bread, butter it, and toast it up while you're still figuring out whether your pants are on frontwards or not. That's not something that can be virtualized, and your toaster will never get there by simply being smarter.
But there are things in your life that can be made better if they are smarter.
Almost all of them are, for me, methods of putting yourself into a community without needing to actually be there. As an example, I wouldn't at all mind if my stereo played songs recommended by my friends (or even respected strangers). Sure, the music tastes sweeter hunted down track by track, but I seem to spend most of my time hunting down ridiculous futurism articles instead.
How about a picture frame which fades between images that your friends have recommended, or even to newly taken pictures from their photo galleries? Or displays a virtual world where you all "live"?
This just starts to touch on the idea of passive integration into some kind of community. It will be a while after that when we start to see more aggressive integration. This is because A) we haven't come to the stage where an on-line community is as strong as a real community and B) it'll take us that long to figure out the privacy concerns.
Still, think about all the more aggressive options.
For example, your notebook that you scribble little notes in. What if there's a "public notes" section which works a bit like Buzz, except it's got a tablet interface for doodles and scribbles as well? Doodles and scribbles are a lot more interesting for everyone involved, and I find that half-formed ideas often offer more potential than the final idea, simply because they can go a dozen different ways while the final idea can only go one. I call this "idea aji", which I won't bother to explain.
This notebook idea has no place in our current lives. There's just no mechanic for it. Even if we had a notebook capable of doing that (which we do, actually, but let's pretend we don't), there's no mechanic in our on-line life for this kind of sharing. It looks like Twitter on the surface, but it's very different underneath.
There are dozens more examples. For example, my piano keyboard would be a lot more entertaining if it could connect to faraway piano keyboards and allow us to play distant duets. My kitchen would be a lot more useful if the various cabinet doors were screens for recipes and labels. My clothes would be more entertaining if they could arbitrarily change their patterns, especially if you lost a bet.
And it'd all be a lot more useful if I could "flip" windows from one screen to another across the hall, or in my pocket, or across the city.
Really, ubiquitous computing isn't about ubiquitous computing at all. It's about ubiquitous interfacing. The problem is that, at the moment, we don't have the community infrastructure to allow for that interfacing
Even if all the technology was cheap, even if all the software existed, we still wouldn't be ready, socially, to use it.
So the question then becomes "which baby steps get taken first?"
The more immediate question is "why am I posting stuff like this before coffee?"