Seamless and Seamful Computing

A few weeks back Ben and I met at Three Monkeys for a chat about work and life in general. Inevitably, our discussion turned to pervasive computing. Ben spoke about the idea of seamfulness as opposed to seamlessness, which I found interesting. He’s written a short blog entry about it. I think the quote in his blog entry is from Elizabeth Goodman’s blog. Here’s what she said:

Ubicomp-the-conference and ubicomp-the-field are frustrating because they promise the impossible. The promise of computing technology dissolving into behavior, invisibly permeating the natural world around us cannot be reached. Technology is, of course, that which by definition is separate from the natural; it is explicitly designed that way. Technology only becomes truly invisible when, like the myriad of pens sold in Japan’s department stores, it’s no longer seen as technology at all. Deliberately creating something ‘invisible’ is self-defeating. I can think of few recent technologies as visible to the public as RFID, no matter how physically ‘invisible’ it might be.

Yet again, confusion reigns supreme in the UbiComp debate. Much of this confusion stems from the notion of invisibility and the relative importance conferred to that concept. UbiComp doesn’t seek to make all technology invisible, no matter what it’s critics believe. What it does try to do is hide those aspects of technology that needn’t be visible to humans. Take the RFID example. For many applications, RFID is a better solution than older technologies like bar code scanners because it does away with user interaction in a situation where user interaction is not required. When Elizabeth Goodman talks of RFID being highly visible despite its small size, I can only assume she means it has gained wide exposure in the media and in research publications. But this is talking about a different kind of visibility! Any technology, when first deployed, is bound to attract attention. It’s what happens after the hype dies down and the novelty wears off that counts. The fact of the matter is that RFID is closer to being invisible than bar codes and the other technologies it will replace. That can hardly be argued with under the assumption that RFID works as it is supposed to (and given the uptake of the technology by logistics companies, e-ticketing systems and the like, it appears that it does work well for many applications). Furthermore, this talk of having computers blending with the natural environment is a complete red herring, designed to draw your attention away from one of the real goals of ubiquitous computing, which is simply to release users from explicit interaction with technology as far as it is possible and sensible to do within certain applications of technology. The extent to which this is possible and the degree to which it remains sensible is determined by the users themselves.

It strikes me that it is often those criticising UbiComp whom attribute the most marvellous traits to it. Of course the more outlandish the "promises" of UbiComp become, the easier it is for its critics to knock it down. Ubiquitous computing is just that: computing that has moved beyond the desktop and which becomes integrated with many aspects our everyday lives. The technologies that will enable this in a way that is satisfying to users are subject to ongoing research and debate within the UbiComp community.

Slowly but surely, some technologies are receding to the background. This will not happen for all computer technologies: users gain value from many technologies precisely because they are visible and their boundaries are well-defined. But by the same token, there is a large category of technologies which the user need not be conscious of. RFID is an example already given, but there’s also simple things like sensors that switch the airconditioner on when you arrive home from work, or the software that seamlessly re-routes a telephone call to an appropriate device nearby, doing away with the need for a human operator to redirect the call. These are all examples where their users do benefit from their invisibility and seamlessness. It will be users (the market) who decide the extent and rate at which technology recedes to the background and becomes part of our work, home, shopping and social environments, but it will certainly happen for some technologies.

For sure, seamfulness has its place too. Ben gave me this really cool example. There’s a game played with GPS- and Wi-Fi-enabled PDAs. There are two teams, and each team has a safe. The playing field is randomly seeded with virtual coins that are visible on the PDA screen. The object of the game is to move as many coins as possible from the playing field to the safe. You collect a coin by moving to its GPS coordinates. Coins can be stolen in transit (kind of like a mugging). But Wi-Fi suffers from gaps in coverage, especially when there are buildings and other objects around. The game works because players can take advantage of these black spots to sneak a coin back to the safe without getting mugged. Upon collecting a coin, a player can jump into a black spot and then emerge from it at a point closest to the safe. Thus the seams of the Wi-Fi technology can actually be of some value in certain applications. However nobody woud dispute that it is also highly useful to a much larger range of applications when it maintains invisibility and seamlessness, showing that there’s a place for seamlessness and seamfulness in the future of computing.