Sunday, February 21, 2010

Talkative Technology

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?"


Falkreon said...

ubiquitous computing is going to have the same vector it's always had - television. What's happening is that the internet and its related computer-type gadgets (phones, picture frames, etc.) are learning how to do oldschool push media. we'll start seeing screens pop up in places we're not used to having them - in cars and planes, then later maybe restaraunts, kitchens, bathrooms, airports, a second screen in the living room. These new screens will be largely hooked to social network push data and streaming video, and the question of privacy will be glossed over if not completely ignored. control systems will lag a bit, starting with push and then gestures, with voice in a distant, improbable future. we are also nearing a turning point: where we no longer see screens as screens. this will provide a secondary vector for the invasion of the real world from cloud data.

Craig Perko said...

I disagree, but it's complicated.

Christopher Weeks said...

The toaster could recognize the product, analyze its history with that product, analyze its history with you, develop an action plan and confidence level and either toast it based on all that or hit you up for some input.

"Craig, this looks like a croissant, but it's straight and you haven't sliced it in half. Do you want me to cook it like we normally do your croissants? Or maybe we should go a little cooler and longer..."

Craig Perko said...

See, I'm not sure that would be an improvement. I already know it's a croissant, and I know how I want it toasted. What benefit is there to having the toaster analyze it again, and also have to try to guess which toastee put it in?

The data is already there and ready, the ideal is to let me enter it with as much ease as possible. Having it do a teraflop of thinking and then TALK to me is an inefficient method.

Christopher Weeks said...

It's unreasonable -- in a discussion of ubiquitous computing, to suggest that the toaster would have to "guess" who you are. It's meshed into the office net and acts as a router just like your pencil. It knows who you are. And funny that you budget your teraflops. Thtat's not futurism man...Bring on the petaflop toasters!

And yeah, if all you do is toast the same croissants from the same bakery in exactly the same way, it probably isn't particularly advantageous -- unless maybe it can preheat when it sees you leave your desk heading for the break room or something, but even so, you might be able to just drop your sliced croissant in and not adjust the heat and time at all when it knows you that well.

But if you sometimes toast muffin-tops or bagels or slices of bread or even whole tempeh reubens and you only do that once every four months and don't really remember whether you want it set to four or six, then y'know, if it were good at what it did (not like your toaster of today) then it would be pretty super.

But if your only point is that every user should, at each use, have the ability to just dial to four and slide the "go" lever down, then yeah, I agree. I just think that extra stuff would be spiffy.

Craig Perko said...

Ah, see, you're looking further ahead. I'm talking initial baby steps, which have to presume that there is not yet any kind of distributed net of computing machines.

kane.zach said...

I'm pretty sure I like what you're saying. That we're talking about eliminating barriers instead of introducing ridiculous robotics. You're also right of course on the social advancement necessary for such grandiose and wide reaching connectivity.

Sure, a lot of people communicate with strangers everyday for one reason or another but I'm betting most out of a handful are like friends of mine, who only connect to the same 'buddy list' every time. More importantly, that connection happens when & only when they want it to happen.

As the digital barriers fade and it becomes easier to slip into the network, so does our fear rise of the consequences.

Craig Perko said...

Whether you're afraid of something or not, it happens. People have feared every technology since the dawn of time.

Your close friends are probably the only people you'll interact with regularly, but there's an ambient web of contact behind that to give you a depth and soft-connect that's going to become a cornerstone of future social software.

Textual Harassment said...

A toaster is not a machine that makes toast, it's a tool you use to toast bread.

If you did want to automate it, take away the timer knob, so there's just a "doneness" knob. Then the complicated toast sensors do their work to meet that specification. It's up to the user to know how done they want their bagel.