UbiComp 2006: Day 2
Techno-Spiritual Practices and New Technologies of Enlightenment (A UbiComp 2006 Postscript)

UbiComp 2006: Day 3

Today was the final day of the 8th International Conference on Ubiquitous Computing (UbiComp 2006). I'm going to include some notes from today's presentations (continuing a series of notes I've posted from day 1 and day 2 of the conference), and finish off with a few reflections on the conference as a whole.

Mark Corner, from the University of Massachusetts, presented "Ferret: RFID Localization for Pervasive Multimedia" [slides], a system to locate, store (locations), update (location changes), and display information about "nomadic" objects. The system combines passive RFID, multimedia capabilities and a location system, and uses an online and offline algorithm (with multiple readers taking positive and negative readings) that achieve an accuracy of 0.2 cubic meters.

Shwetak Patel, from Georgia Tech, described "PowerLine Positioning: A Practical Sub-Room-Level Indoor Location System for Domestic Use" [slides]. The system uses the electrical power system in a house rather than special purpose beacons (which are expensive in time and labor to install and maintain), or GSM or WiFi signals (which have spotty coverage and offer no control over the infrastructure), which consists of 2 plug-in modules installed at far ends of a home. The modules send low frequency signals back and forth. Receivers can detect the strength of the signals thought he nearest electrical wiring outlet, and a fingerprinting algorithm is used to estimate a position based on those signals. The approach achieves an accuracy distribution of 92% for 3 meter regions, 67% for 1 meter regions, and 42% for 0.5 meter regions.

Keith Edwards, of Georgia Tech, organized and introduced a panel on "Interaction and Infrastructure: Crossing the Divide in UbiComp Research". Mark Ackerman, of Univesity of Michigan, urged us to consider social activity as fluid and nuanced (Goffman),  socio-historical social constructions that guide action (Biljker, Garfinkel) invisible technologies (Postman), and bricolage (Hutchins). A.J. Brush, of Microsoft Research, argued that ubicomp technologies should be designed for the uninterested (!= stupid) users and facilitate management by professionals, using the analogies of car engine lights, clogged toilets and refrigerators. Anthony LaMarca, of Intel Research Seattle, invoked an analogy from the software development world, "worse-is-better", which states that simplicity of both interface and implementation is more important than other system attributes, including correctness, consistency and completeness. Matthew Chalmers, of the University of Glasgow, proposed that awareness and interaction with infrastructure is like [what I think of as] a dance between visibility and invisibility. During the Q&A, Paul Dourish noted the recent spinach E. Coli outbreak, and how the lack of visibility into the infrastructure resulted in a much broader recall than might be necessary (Anthony quickly dubbed this the "spinach industrial complex" ... a neologism I predict we'll hear about again at UbiComp 2007 ... reminiscent of "fornicating baboons on a runway" being referenced for a few years at CSCW / ECSCW). Mark noted that simplicity can be complicated (on a certain level, very much in keeping with worse is better).

I had never heard of worse-is-better, but it was grating at me, and a quick search revealed additional context for this idea:

The lesson to be learned from this is that it is often undesirable to go for the right thing first. It is better to get half of the right thing available so that it spreads like a virus. Once people are hooked on it, take the time to improve it to 90% of the right thing.

I ranted remarked that if one visualizes a UbiComp "stack", most of the work presented at the conference would be in the lower half (enabling technologies and techniques), and that for UbiComp to become [more] viral, we need to focus [more] on the upper half (applications and user experiences), and follow the lead of Web 2.0 and provide lightweight tools that can be easily combined in UbiComp mashups ... that UbiComp 2.0 idea I mentioned in my notes yesterday.

Brenda Laurel, of the California College for the Arts, provided a closing keynote on "Designed Animism: Poetics for a new world". In her talk, she posed the question How do we design new sources of pleasure with the new affordances of ubiquitous computing?, and invited us to move away from central control and instead embrace an invitation for emergent phenomena (using the clock and windmill as examples of those two poles). She invoked elements of dramatic structure (and dramatic causality): plot (whole action), character (agent), thought, diction (significance), music (pattern) and spectacle (sensation), and showed how Freytag's triangle of complication and resolution over time exhibited self-similar structure at scale (i.e., drama is, essentially, fractal in nature). She then talked about art, which mimics the world, or the spatial aspects of nature, and music, which mimics the way the world changes, or the temporal aspects of nature.

I found all of this interesting and engaging -- almost entrancing -- but it did appear (to me and to Brenda) that there were other members of the audience who were not as engaged. Albrecht, who was sitting next to me, noted that the style of speaking and references were very American, and thus difficult to follow for a non-native English speaker. I think another aspect of the disconnection was that this was that much of the talk was not directly related to technology.

Toward the end of the talk, Brenda did introduce some technological aspects, describing Autonomous Light Air Vessels (ALAVs) -- blimps -- that had cameras for automatic video blogging (reminiscent of Eric Paulos' earlier PRoPs work), and the Electronic Field Guide Project at Columbia University, that created a mobile augmented reality interface for botanical species identification, enhancing the users awareness of and connection to nature. She finished off by describing some sensor-laden "garden ferries" she had, through which she felt that her body included the garden, the yard and the surrounding canyons ... and speculated that "If I had more sensors, my body could be the world".

Looking back over the conference, I was impressed with the very high quality of the presentations (content as well as form, i.e., audio and visual), and the quantity and quality of questions and answers. Most of the papers I saw were pretty good, although I did notice a strong bias toward the lower end of the aforementioned "ubicomp stack". There were some user studies, but very few were in service of what I would consider a "real" ubicomp application.

The field seems to be moving beyond "technology in search of a problem" (an early rant, or concern, of mine) and appears to be reaching a consensus on some problem areas: location, location and location ... and so I might recast my earlier concern as "technology in search of an application" within a problem domain. I am glad to see so much progress being made on location sensing and tracking technologies, and I do share the underlying intuition that these technologies will support useful applications. I am even happier to see a few [more] examples of ubiquitous computing applications in the service of instigating and supporting engaging interactions among people, and I hope that we will see even more examples of technosocial engagement in the future ... so that rather than -- or in addition to -- having presentations being motivated by speculative "imagine, if you will" scenarios, future UbiComp conference(s) will offer more opportunities to "experience, if you will..."

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