The origins of ubiquitous computing research at PARC in the late 1980s

This is an abridged version of the article. You can find the full version here.

Mark Weizer, Xerox Parc

Ubiquitous Computing


by M. Weiser, R. Gold, J. S. Brown

Accepted for publication May 11, 1999.

In late 1987, Bob Sprague, Richard Bruce, and other members of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) Electronics and Imaging Laboratory (EIL) proposed fabricating large, wall-sized, flat panel computer displays from large-area amorphous silicon sheets. It was thought at the time that this technology might also permit these displays to function as input devices for electronic pens and also for the scanning of images (by placing documents directly against the displays). Quickly, members of other labs were willingly drawn into designing both the hardware and software for this new kind of computer system—one that seemed to honor the transparent ease of use of a traditional whiteboard while extending its power computationally, particularly when networked with other such devices. The research vision these “computer walls” inspired was far different from the then-current “one person–one desktop computer” paradigm and opened up to researchers at PARC the idea of spreading computers ubiquitously, but invisibly, throughout the environment.

At the same time, the anthropologists of the Work Practices and Technology area within PARC, led by Lucy Suchman, were observing the way people really used technology, not just the way they claimed to use technology. To some of the technologists at PARC, myself included, their observations led toward thinking less about particular features of a computer — such as random access memory and number of pixels or megahertz—and much more about the detailed situational use of the technology. In particular, how were computers embedded within the complex social framework of daily activity, and how did they interplay with the rest of our densely woven physical environment (also known as “the real world”)?

From these converging forces (“from atoms to culture,” as we like to say of PARC) emerged the Ubiquitous Computing program in the Computer Science Laboratory (CSL) in early 1988. The program was at first envisioned only as a radical answer to what was wrong with the personal computer: too complex and hard to use; too demanding of attention; too isolating from other people and activities; and too dominating as it colonized our desktops and our lives.

We wanted to put computing back in its place, to reposition it into the environmental background, to concentrate on human-to-human interfaces and less on human-to-computer ones. By 1992, when our first experimental “ubi-comp” system was being implemented, we came to realize that we were, in fact, actually redefining the entire relationship of humans, work, and technology for the post-PC era.

Like all great research, the Ubiquitous Computing project gave us more questions than answers. Once the infrastructure was up and running we clearly saw the vast potential of such a system for augmenting and improving work practices and knowledge sharing, by essentially getting the computers out of the way while amplifying human-to-human communication. But simultaneously we came across an unexpected problem, often blared in newspaper headlines as: “Big Brother Comes to the Office.” The problem, while often couched in terms of privacy, is really one of control. If the computational system is invisible as well as extensive, it becomes hard to know what is controlling what, what is connected to what, where information is flowing, how it is being used, what is broken (vs what is working correctly, but not helpfully), and what are the consequences of any given action (including simply walking into a room). Maintaining simplicity and control simultaneously is still one of the major open questions facing ubiquitous computing research.

In the last several years a few of us at PARC have begun to speak of calm computing as the goal, describing the desired state of mind of the user, as opposed to the hardware configuration of the computer. Just as a good, well-balanced hammer “disappears” in the hands of a carpenter and allows him or her to concentrate on the big picture, we hope that computers can participate in a similar magic disappearing act. But it is not so simple. Besides the daunting computational and infrastructural problems, we must also find the balance between control and simplicity, between unlimited power and understandable straightforwardness, between the seduction of smooth digital mediation and the immediacy of those complex fellow workers called humans. But in the end, it is hard to imagine a more important task for twenty-first century technologists.

Cited note

We placed a ParcTab on the CSL coffeepot. Whenever anyone made a new pot of coffee we pushed the reset button on the ParcTab, which sent an infrared signal to the computer network. A message popped up on our computer screens letting everyone know that there was a fresh brew. This caused an instantaneous gathering around the coffeepot, and as a result generated lots of fresh hallway discussion—which is one of the best ways to create new research ideas.

Epilogue

On April 27, 1999, Mark Weiser passed away following a sudden encounter with cancer. Young as he was, he leaves behind many great legacies, ubiquitous computing being the one most known to the world. As this brief essay describes, his vision of ubiquitous computing transcends the issues raised by technology and searches for ways to redefine how we relate to each other, particularly in situations where computing and its various interfaces become transparent to our actions. Creating transparent computing is as much a study in phenomenology as it is of user and community interface design. For Mark, sharp boundaries between the social and the technical, between the artistic and the scientific, and between work and play never existed. He sought to create a technological world that honored the human and social spirit. We will all miss his constant drive to challenge current conceptions of computer science, human-computer interaction, and today’s computer-mediated workscapes. Perhaps it will sound like a cliche´ to claim that we need more like him, but let’s face it, we really, really do.

John Seely Brown

References

  1. See http://www.ubiq.com/ for more information.
  2. S. Elrod, R. Bruce, R. Gold,D.Goldberg, F. Halasz, W. Janssen, D. Lee, K. McCall, E. Pedersen, K. Pier, J. Tang, and B. Welch. “LiveBoard: A Large Interactive Display Supporting Group Meetings, Presentations, and Remote Collaboration,” Proceedings of the Conference on Computer Human Interaction (CHI), Monterey, CA (May 4–7, 1992), pp. 599–607.
  3. C. A. Kantarjiev, A. Demers, R. Frederick, R. T. Krivacic, and M. Weiser, “Experiences with Xin a Wireless Environment,” Proceedings USENIX Symposium on Mobile and Location-Independent Computing, Cambridge, MA (August 2–3, 1993).
  4. R. Want, W. N. Schilit, N. I. Adams, R. Gold, K. Petersen, D. Goldberg, J. R. Ellis, and M. Weiser. “The ParcTab Ubiquitous Computing Experiment,” Mobile Computing, T. Imielinski and H. F. Korth, Editors, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Boston, MA (1996), pp. 45–102. Also available as Xerox PARC Computer Science Laboratory Technical Report CSL-95-1 (March 1995).
  5. M. Weiser, “TheComputer for the 21stCentury,” Scientific American 265, No. 3, 94–104 (September 1991).
  6. M. Weiser, “Some Computer Science Problems in Ubiquitous Computing,” Communications of theACM36,No. 7, 74–83 (July 1993).
  7. M. Weiser and J. S. Brown, “The Coming Age of Calm Technology,” Beyond Calculation: The Next Fifty Years of Computing. P. Denning and R. Metcalfe, Editors, Springer-Verlag, Inc., New York (1997).

Copyright 1999 by International Business Machines Corporation. Copying in printed form for private use is permitted without payment of royalty provided that (1) each reproduction is done without alteration and (2) the Journal reference and IBM copyright notice are included on the first page. The title and abstract, but no other portions, of this paper may be copied or distributed royalty free without further permission by computer-based and other information-service systems. Permission to republish any other portion of this paper must be obtained from the Editor.

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