Ubiquitous Computing — Keeping Up With the Digital Consumer

Today we find ourselves amid rapid innovation that is turning the idea of ubiquitous computing into reality. Consumers, who tend to move quicker than most businesses, are already advancing toward a fully digital life. Here we look at four ways ubicomp is already reality, and how your business should respond.

This spring when Google released a concept video showing off glasses that will put all the information you need right in front of your eyes, it sparked a firestorm. Some users were excited by the augmented-reality technology. Some thought Google was once again touting technology that wasn’t anywhere near shipping. And some thought it was a fake.

Regardless of where Google is in regard to the development of Project Glass, this kind of skepticism is well-placed. Perhaps more than any other consumer tech topic, the idea of ubiquitous computing, or ubicomp, is subject to over-selling and disappointment. While most of us would love to live in a world where all of the nagging details of life could be managed by devices, we are far from being there yet. The idea of ubicomp has been discussed, debated and lusted after for decades. But progress has, for the most part, been painfully slow. Instead of flying to work with jetpacks every day, we fume over not being able to get a picture from a smartphone to be displayed on a TV screen. As such, it’s easy to dismiss the concept as some far-off dream of science fiction fans. In truth, however, today we find ourselves amidst rapid innovation that is turning that dream into reality.

That was the key takeaway from the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2012, where there were no breakthrough products that set everyone abuzz. Instead, it was a series of incremental advances suggesting evolution, rather than massive leaps forward. But when you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, a portrait of real progress starts to form. Those incremental steps, while not as dramatic as the launch of some radical new product, are the building blocks of the vision of a fully digital life.

The next 10 years will open unprecedented opportunities for the integration of tiny, inexpensive electronics into every corner of our lives. We’ve watched in recent years as mobile computing has exploded and disrupted companies of all kinds. Consumers have practically become spoiled by magical experiences on mobile platforms, while the time it takes for technology to evolve from novelty to something taken for granted can now be measured in months, or even days, rather than years. In fact, in many cases, consumers are moving faster than brands. This year is sure to mark another exciting point in this history, as we see technology transcend our handsets, tablets and laptops, creating whole new ecosystems of interconnected consumer appliances and environments.

Not all innovation is coming from the old-line electronics manufacturers. The DIY, hardware-hacking maker movement is a subculture that drives the digitalization of physical goods and environments. Access to low-cost electronics and open hardware platforms like Arduino, FLORA [ Read article ], Raspberry Pi and 3D printers enables these creative minds to innovate rapidly and bring ideas to life — making them akin to Silicon Valley’s garage startups from the 80s. By inserting electronics into previously “dumb” appliances, a whole world opens up for autonomous or connected prototypes that are shared online, presented at the Maker Faire (the Woodstock of DYI) or funded for mass production on Kickstarter.

Let’s look at four ways ubicomp is already reality:

1. Pervasive sensors

Twine, a puck-sized object that’s loaded with sensors and connectivity, promises to let users monitor environments and set up electronic triggers that alert you if something isn’t right at home. It could send you an email when the basement floods, or a tweet when you’ve forgotten to close the garage door. The project raised the third highest total via Kickstarter, more than $500,000, and is due to ship in May.

This level of connectivity is also made possible by the recently released Bluetooth 4.0 specification. The spec introduced a new subset, Bluetooth Low Energy (or Bluetooth Smart), which enables connectivity for extremely low-power applications, like devices powered by cell batteries. This allows almost indistinguishable sensors to live in pretty much everything and integrates nicely with digital channels.

Even old-school sensors are getting digital upgrades. The beautifully designed Nest Learning Thermostat can be controlled remotely through the user’s smartphone, accessing a digital profile that reveals insightful information about energy use that can be shared via social media channels. Internet connectivity enables feedback and analytics channels between the device and the vendor, and allows collection and analysis of massive amounts of usage data, to help drive product development.

Advances in pervasive sensors aren’t just about tricking out your home — they also impact matters of sickness and health, even life and death. For instance, consider GlowCaps™, which are replacement caps for prescription medicine bottles. They sense when the bottle has been opened, issue reminders when it’s time to take a pill, and can send updates to family members and doctors alike, in hopes of improving compliance with treatment plans.

Proliferation of sensors means accumulation of enormous amounts of data. Whether a sensor assists in supporting an app on a handset or contributes to a Big Data pool in the cloud depends on its role. Regardless, there are many ways to extract knowledge from these bits of information collected around the clock by busy little autonomous sensors.

2. Wearables

The trend toward miniaturization will ultimately lead to a whole range of smart components that will be considered disposable. This low-cost factor is especially interesting for wearables, as the integration of electronics in fabrics opens up new dimensions for creativity.

We’re not talking about cheesy LED suits with built-in GPS sensors. The most exciting opportunities lie within the things we choose to wear everyday. Wristbands and glasses may evolve to a point where they can track what’s going on in our daily lives, and use augmented reality overlays to provide context-aware notifications that relieve us from having to reach into our pockets to read messages and reminders. Running shoes will automatically monitor our physical activity and terrain, while tracking huge amounts of detail about our workouts.

Some examples:

  • Nike continues the digital integration it began with Nike+ years ago, launching new extensions including Nike+ Training and Nike+ FuelBand.
  • AT&T is working with companies on connected clothing for monitoring vital signs [ Read article ].
  • Recon Instruments has built a tiny module that projects data about your day of skiing or snowboarding right onto your goggles.

3. Fluid content

Consumers expect a media experience to move seamlessly from one screen to the next. Start an episode of The Office upstairs, then pause it, go downstairs, and pick it up from the very point where you left off. This isn’t yet as easy as it ought to be, and there are both technical and business-model challenges impeding progress. But tech, like Apple’s AirPlay, begins to show the possibilities. This device allows users to wirelessly transport video from an iOS device to a big screen TV via AppleTV. Pushing content from handsets to other screens, projectors and speakers is another step toward frictionless content sharing. It’s also a way for us to make any environment our own — personalizing the space with a high level of control and customization. This is especially important for environments in which we rely on media — including cars, airplanes, hotels and conference rooms.

Razorfish’s own 5D platform [ Read article ] is another example of fluid content, enabling consumers to effortlessly engage with retail brands across multiple devices.

Near field communication (NFC) will also be a pivotal technology for enabling content to travel between devices in close proximity. Digital out-of-home ads can suddenly become approachable in a way that allows passers-by to instantly grab some piece of information being advertised, or easily take part in a campaign. By lowering access barriers and making it easier to take away and share brand and product information, retailers can regain some control over the digital in-store experience, and nudge the social sharing habits of their customers.

4. Natural user interface

With so many new forms of computing on the horizon, it’s natural that some people are concerned about becoming overwhelmed by the increasing amount of technology abound. At its best, ubicomp will simplify, not complicate, by helping to make technology seamless. Abstraction and complexity in traditional user input, like the keyboard and mouse, will give way to intuitive experiences that are less feature-driven, require less attention and feel more natural to use. In the future, we’ll be touching, tapping and speaking our way to better tech interactions.

Vision-based systems such as motion sensing or face recognition can make interactions smoother and more intuitive. As we’ve seen with Microsoft’s Kinect and other systems, interfaces can leverage gestural interactions that range from subtle facial expressions to full body movements, with an increasing awareness of context. Face and body analytics can be gathered entirely behind the scenes and generate insights about age, gender and other demographic traits — so that automatic targeting methods can further simplify the experience.

NFC enables physical “tap gestures” for instant connectivity, taking greater advantage of devices in close proximity. In some markets, especially outside the U.S., contactless payment has already taught people to “tap to pay.” Soon, “tap to connect” or “tap to share” will allow consumers to conveniently consume digital information and services advertised in physical proximity, a problem QR codes and printed URLs were trying to solve.

We’re already seeing signs of what may be next after touch and gesture interaction: voice control. It’s already part of Kinect, and many TV manufacturers demoed voice-enabled TVs or remotes at CES. With Siri, Apple took a technology that has been around for years and created a user experience that’s driven by speech recognition, combined with intelligence and search, which made it appealing to the average consumer. The iPhone 4S flew off shelves, even if over the long term, Siri hasn’t proved as useful as we might have expected. Clearly, consumers want to be able to use their voices to command devices. The way users can now interact with a computing device by using natural sentences shows how delightful experiences can grow simply by adding context awareness and removing artificial complexities, even though the underlying technology has not dramatically changed. A Siri-like speech interface has enormous potential to simplify TV (“Please record the Super Bowl tonight.”) and car controls (such as Mercedes A-Class [ Read article ]).

What does it all mean for your business?

Now that we’ve looked at where ubicomp is headed, let’s examine how your business should respond.

Digitize relevant physical environments. This is happening today in many ways. One example is augmented reality — layering digital content/information on top of the physical world when viewed through a camera-enabled digital device such as a smartphone. Another is Apple’s use of iPads in their retail stores to replace static signage. The devices not only provide detailed, interactive product information, but also let the shopper page a salesperson for assistance. These advances represent the beginning of environments themselves becoming digitally connected, creating much deeper integration than existing location-based services. Businesses of all kinds can benefit from this universal connectivity, and it will quickly become a customer expectation. Now is the time to take a closer look and reveal hidden potential within businesses. Identify potential touch points for consumers and build communication channels around them to empower platforms that generate valuable insights and facilitate a smoother experience.

Prepare for the expectation epidemic. When the iPhone was launched, touch was a relative novelty. Within a few short years, it has become the expectation. Consumers tend to move quicker than most businesses. A company’s commitment to staying on top of increasingly pervasive technologies and placing smart bets will be key to its survival. The best businesses will use this to leapfrog their competition. We suggest that product-driven companies go out and get their hands dirty with Arduino and other inexpensive electronics, in order to identify new opportunities for smarter product lines that will drive innovation for years to come.

Reinvent experience design. How much is too much? When is a little not enough? Big questions loom for those who shape user experiences. The increased focus on simplicity requires the removal of features, often making the consumer feel like they have lost control. We’ll see devices that try to be to smart, but fail, leaving the customer annoyed. It will take careful experience design considerations to strike a balance between simplicity and control.

Think omnichannel. Consumers are already expecting seamless experiences that move from desktop to mobile and back again. They expect digital-style personalization, instant gratification, utility and communication from physical environments. Ubicomp will add fuel to this. While most brands are just now wrapping their heads around how to deploy across mobile and desktop Web environments, it’s already time to think about deploying to other digital channels like connected TVs and physical environments. Understand the tension between privacy and personalization. Context and personalization are probably the most important keys to unlocking truly magical experiences. You must move forward in leveraging Big Data across channels, but there are corresponding privacy concerns. Consumers will inevitably have to make tradeoffs between convenience/personalization and giving up some elements of privacy. Enabling control and transparency will help to mitigate these concerns — and it doesn’t have to be a big deal. Get active in this space, help the industry figure it out and make sure your legal team is prepared.

Evolve product development. As everything becomes connected, Web services like ecommerce, software updates and social connectivity are suddenly accessible, even to analog products. Hardware can unlock additional features on demand, through one-time purchase or subscription models. These features were previously only available to Web sites and traditional software. Platforms and APIs need to be built as a foundation for enabling communication infrastructures between vendors, devices and end-users.

Embrace the enterprise. Ubicomp isn’t just impacting how you market your products. As noted above, it should evolve the way you think about product development. It’s impacting your internal IT teams as they deal with employees suddenly bringing more connected devices onto the network. It’s affecting even the most analog of industries. Every part of your business needs to be injected with digital thinking and a hunger for innovation.

What does ubiquitous computing mean for your business? Write to Jeremy or Heiko to share your thoughts.

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Jeremy Lockhorn VP, Emerging Media Twitter
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Heiko Schweickhardt Technology Director LinkedIn
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