Ubiquitous Computing: People who inspire me

A few weeks ago, I discovered that IEEE Distributed Systems Online maintains a list of the key people in the field of mobile and pervasive computing. Here’s a much shorter list of people in pervasive computing whose work has inspired me. The list might be biased towards the sub-areas of ubiquitous computing with which I am more familiar, and in all cases, I acknowledge the involvement of Ph.D. supervisors and colleagues without explicitly mentioning them.

Mark Weiser

Often called the father of pervasive computing, he wrote the seminal paper on the topic (I know some people have their own views about this, but history will always see it this way).

Most important, ubiquitous computers will help overcome the problem of information overload. There is more information available at our fingertips during a walk in the woods than in any computer system, yet people find a walk among trees relaxing and computers frustrating. Machines that fit the human environment, instead of forcing humans to enter theirs, will make using a computer as refreshing as taking a walk in the woods. (The Computer for the 21st Century, 1991)

Anind Dey

Dey provided the first useful (i.e., operational) definition of context in this field, and one of the first non-monolithic approaches to developing context-aware applications by way of the Context Toolkit (Schilit was perhaps the pioneer in that respect).

Context is any information that can be used to characterize the situation of an entity. An entity is a person, place, or object that is considered relevant to the interaction between a user and an application, including the user and applications themselves. (Understanding and Using Context, 2001)

Karen Henricksen

While Dey provided the often-quoted definition of what context is, Henricksen filled in the details about the nature of context information in ubiquitous computing environments, and made one of the first real attempts to formally model it. Henricksen, in conjunction with her colleagues, also developed one of the most sophisticated approaches to engineering context-aware applications, beginning with modelling and ending with a set of programming abstractions. Henricksen and Indulska authored the Elsevier Journal of Pervasive and Mobile Computing‘s most downloaded article of the year from May 2006 to April 2007.

[Our] system will allow abstract models described in our notation to be mapped with little effort to corresponding implementation models that can be populated with context information and queried by applications. It will be responsible for a range of management tasks, such as integration of context information from a variety of sources, management of sensors and derived context, detection of conflicting information and so on. (Modeling context information in pervasive computing systems, 2002)

Guanling Chen

Chen and Kotz developed a novel platform, called Solar, for building context-aware applications. I found their approach particularly inspiring for what I would call its bottom-up approach. What excited me about their idea is the same thing that excited me about the DSTC’s Elvin protocol: the ability to quickly build an application by mashing up various sources of information.

A fundamental challenge in pervasive computing, then, is to collect raw data from thousands of diverse sensors, process the data into context information, and disseminate the information to hundreds of diverse applications running on thousands of devices, while scaling to large numbers of sources, applications, and users, securing context information from unauthorized uses, and respecting individuals’ privacy. (Solar: A pervasive-computing infrastructure for context-aware mobile applications, 2002)

The Cambridge Contingent

Andys Hopper and Harter, Roy Want and others gave the world Active Badges, which were initially used to divert incoming phone calls to the nearest phone to the user. Active Badges soon gained a following in ubiquitous computing research centres around the world, with installations at MIT, Xerox PARC, EuroPARC and elsewhere. These researchers also showed remarkable awareness of the social impact their technology could have in the world. The honesty and openness with which they wrote their papers is something that ought to be replicated in more of the papers of the current generation. I’m sure this project has inspired many a ubiquitous computing researcher.

The most important result of this work is not, “Can we build a location system?”, but, “Do we want to be a part of a location system?” There is a danger that in the future this technology will be abused by unscrupulous employers. (The Active Badge Location System, 1992)

The Lancaster League

Nigel Davies, Adrian Friday, Gordon Blair, Keith Cheverst and maybe a few others have made a large contribution to the field. I remember reading their stuff – about mobility, adaptation, service discovery and more – around the year 2000 and thought it was fantastic. Their papers often disclosed important findings.

Interaction with a context-aware/location-aware system is not affected by the design of the user interface alone. In fact, interaction with GUIDE is, to a large extent, governed by the design of the infrastructure, i.e. the strategic placement of cells in order to provide appropriate areas of location resolution and network connectivity. (Developing a context-aware electronic tourist guide: some issues and experiences, 2000)

Jack Schulze and Matt Webb

Although these guys aren’t strictly ubiquitous computing researchers, I find their work inspiring on a number of levels.

Tangible interactions can be more immediately familiar than ones we regularly use with our computers. (The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Interaction Design, 2007)

So, that’s my list. It’s short and sweet. As I said at the beginning of this year, I’d like to move my work more towards the HCI side of things, which means that if I were to rewrite this list in a year’s time, it might feature a different bunch of people (like Paul Dourish, perhaps).