Saturday, September 20, 2008

Context Aware Computing Applications

This paper presents an interesting summary of current (1994) activities in the field of context-aware applications. This consists primarily of applications developed for the workplace which leverage the user's physical location, as well as the locations of coworkers and resources within said workplace. The authors present four areas or application features that rely on context, implemented with Xerox PARC tabs and boards: proximate selection, automatic contextual reconfiguration, contextual information and commands, and context-triggered actions. Proximal selection is a UI technique that visually makes objects closer to the user's physical location easier to select. Automatic contextual reconfiguration refers to a process through which ubiquitous devices (boards, tabs, etc) can be accessed by a user simply by being in their immediate vicinity. Contextual information and commands can be used to display default appropriate information, or alter the standard set of commands (or parameters to these commands) based on the user's location. Lastly, context-triggered actions represent actions (in this paper, unix shell commands) that are executed by context events. That is, when a predefined context state occurs.

The application features that Schilit et. al. present in this paper have proven to be insightful in that they have found their way into many pieces of modern ubiquitous devices. The proximal selection UI outlined bears a striking resemblance to fisheye menus, most notable found in Apple's OSX. Automatic contextual reconfiguration performs a similar function to modern BlueTooth networks, with the exception that BlueTooth doesn't rely on a centralized network to control all devices within a building.

One issue that I believe the authors may have overlooked, especially in respect to proximal selection and contextual reconfiguration is that of permissions. In the example of a user printing a document, the closes printer may not be the optimal choice if it is a restricted resource. Aside from this, the only element of context that the authors seemed to use was the location of individuals and resources. Other environmental variables could be utilized to augment the function of a ubiquitous device to better suit the needs of it's user. For example, by monitoring the ambient noise level around the user, a phone could decide change its ringer volume to match, or simply vibrate if the room is too noisy for the device to compete.

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