Sunday, September 14, 2008

Gregory D. Abowd et. al. The Human Experience

Gregory D. Abowd et. al. present a follow-up to Weiser's The Computer for the 21st Centry. In this paper, the authors closely examine some of the ideas proposed by Weiser, and explore the changes in traditional design and development patterns needed to adopt ubiquitous applications. This is loosely broken down into three categories: defining physical interaction models to and from ubiquitous computing devices, discovering ubiquitous computing application features, and evolving the methods for evaluating human experiences with ubicomp. The physical interaction problem examines new ways to gather input from a user, beyond simple keyboard/mouse combinations. This includes gesture-based and implicit input. Also, non-standard output methods are explored, different from the traditional video display (ex. Ambient output). Utilizing these non-standard IO methods to create a 'killer app' is the next challenge the authors discuss. Applications which use the user's context (location, identity, etc) as input for providing useful features, as well as relative changes in context, are discussed. The use of changes in context lead to the problem of continuous input, whereby applications must respond to constant subtle input from users over extended, possibly infinite, time frames. This is in sharp contrast to current application mentalities, which are meant for discrete usage sessions (ie. Word processor). Lastly, the authors propose that traditional HCI evaluation techniques will be at a disadvantage when used with ubiquitous computing applications, and so they introduce three new cognition models: Activity Theory, Situated Activity, and Distributed Cognition.

This paper provided several new examples of ubiquitous computing devices and applications, and served to 'pin down' some of the specific details that Weiser left for further research. The showcase of new devices and technologies clearly illustrates the path of development between the time the Weiser paper was published (1991) and 'present' (2002). One noteworthy insight presented by Abowd et. al. is that of the physical means of interaction with ubiquitous devices, drawing particular attention to 'implicit input'. It seems apparent that the future of the embodied virtuality will not be interfaced with a keyboard and mouse, and the devices presented in The Human Experience demonstrate subtle input and output methods (ex. Network traffic monitor) which clearly show success.

Although this paper provided excellent insight into the concepts previously proposed by Weiser, I feel that it didn't introduce as much original work as could be possible. It can be argued that this was the purpose of the paper, in which case it has succeeded. However, I feel it may have contributed more value to the scientific community had it contained more unique ideas. Apart from this, the paper presented a discussion of using ubiquitous computing applications to perform one of the fundamental activities humans perform on a daily basis: capture and access of data. That is, the recording of information presented by a colleague and summarizing it for later retrieval. It is my opinion (and this clearly is not, nor should it be, shared by all) that automating a fundamental process such as this will contribute to a strong dependence on said application, reducing an individual's ability to be self reliant. In addition, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that regularly exercising the intellectual system by absorbing and recording information in this way is beneficial, and removing the need for this exercise could have negative impacts on cognitive ability. This, however, just just my opinion. This represents an area of further research, which should be pursued with as much importance as the technical developments in the field of ubicomp (that is, the implications of ubiquitous devices).

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