Sunday, September 14, 2008

Mark Weiser's The Computer for the 21st Centry

The paper by Mark Weiser presents the current (as of time of publishing, 1991) efforts of Xerox PARC in the field of ubiquitous computing devices and applications, and follows this with speculation/projection of possible future scenarios. At time of publishing, these devices were divided into three classifications: tabs, pads, and boards. A tab is similar in size and function to a post-it note, except that it contains a dynamic display. A pad can be thought of as a scrap piece of paper, but again with a dynamic display and stylus-based interface. A board functions like a dynamic white board, or any large display. The intermixed use of these three classes of devices, the author argues, will form the basis of the future of ubiquitous computing in the “embodied virtuality”. Extrapolation on trends in technology evolution suggests that it would be capable to implement Weiser's embodied virtuality in the not-too-distant future.

I found the discussion of 'current' technology and research into ubiquitous computing devices quite interesting. I was previously unaware of the efforts of Xerox PARC toward these ends. The details of these devices operation, at the time, were a major innovations and greatly enhanced the field of computing. Also, the author presents a very insightful discussion on how reading became a ubiquitous technology, and how this can be used to define computing (ie. Anywhere you currently read, you could potentially compute as well). This idea, coming from the father of ubicomp, is of enormous significance to the scientific community. The paper mentions that this idea of ubiquity, in the same way as reading, means a drastic change in not only application features, but methods for measuring terse human actions which will eventually define the features of ubiquitous applications.

While the majority of Weiser's paper was interesting and beneficial to the scientific community, there were some holes which needed to be filled in before ubiquitous computing can fully take hold. The issue of privacy and security is one which I feel requires further investigation. The proposal to have relatively loose security seems like a bad idea to me. For example, in a current system, it is impossible to 'break in', until someone finds a way never thought of by the developers of the system. This makes Weiser's argument that someone can 'break in', but it is impossible to be unnoticed, invalid. This presents a possible area of further research: how to guarantee that an unwanted intruder can leave 'fingerprints' which can readily be discovered. Also, if embodied virtuality were to be implemented, I believe much more emphasis should be placed on an individual's privacy than is proposed in The Computer for the 21st Century. Simply having a system that knows where an individual is located at all times represents a serious invasion of privacy. I would propose a system where an individual can disconnect themselves from the ubiquitous network, should they so desire, and possible 'black-out' zones, in which no ubiquitous devices will operate.

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