Report from UBICOMP 2003
The Westin Hotel

Seattle, WA, USA
Oct 12-15, 2003
By Jonah Brucker-Cohen



Picture of the “Living Sculpture”

Despite Seattle’s rainy weather and cold winds, UBICOMP 2003 got underway without a hitch. The conference was billed as the premier academic conference in ubiquitous computing, a field that examines a future of seamless integration of computing power and resources into everyday objects and spaces. From integrated wireless environment monitoring on mobile ad-hoc networks to musical pets and wifi-gaming, this year’s conference brought together a diverse range of speakers, presenters, posters, demonstrations, and events that attempted to illustrate the state of current technology and the future to come. Despite the hope of this utopic vision, the question remained as to whether or not this technology infiltration is a welcome or wanton development overall.

The conference began with a keynote address from MIT Media Lab’s William Mitchell. His talk focused on the integration of architecture and distributed networks in urban spaces. As the modern day city transforms into an information space, emerging patterns and textures of data exchange begin to blur physical boundaries. This shift signifies a fundamental extinction of certain types of neighborhood symbols such as a local bank branch that has subsequently been replaced by distributed ATM machines and credit card use in commercial spaces. According to Mitchell, the overlay of networks in cities will result in: 1) major transformations of social patterns, 2) A loosening of person to place relationships. With the recent proliferation of Wi-Fi hotspots, the distinction between work and public space have disappeared where location awareness restructures the urban information overlay. His main example was the global anti-war protests of 2003, of which he postulates demonstrated the physical manifestation of global wireless community and connectivity. Although he was trying to encapsulate an overarching theory for pervasive media spaces, his talk never mentioned the individuals who would either benefit or detract from this utopic vision. This human question was omitted and broadened to the point where technology seemed more important than the way it was used or disseminated.

Moving past numerous coffee breaks, the paper sessions stuck to specific themes with a variety of approaches and challenges. Some highlights included Microsoft’s “RightSPOT” watch, a wristwatch that receives location aware information such as traffic, sports, weather, and personal messages from data piggy-backing on live FM radio feeds. The SPOT watch (short for Smart Personal Object Technology) triangulates its location by scanning 32 different radio stations signal strength in real-time. It will be released as a commercial product early next year. Another simple technical innovation presented was Mitsubishi’s “Very Low-Cost Sensing and Communication Using Bidirectional LEDs”. By creating a simple circuit that allows any LED to become a sensor, they showed how any device that integrated an LED with a microcontroller (especially toys) could transmit data at short range. Or using their “iDropper” tool, you could pick up the data from one device, store it on Flash Ram, and transmit it to another device later. I felt as if their applications needed to be stronger since they only showed instances where a computer’s LED would be able to transmit files. Ideally, this technology should be used in situations where a device doesn’t have any other type of communication medium – such as older machines or non-digital devices. Although the range is limited to a few centimeters, this should only allow for more creative use when devices have to be within close proximity.

One of the more exciting conference sessions was “1 Minute Madness”, a rapid introduction of Posters, Demos, and Videos where each presenter had 1 minute to give the gist of their entry into UBICOMP. Some creative people sang poetry describing their work, put on short plays, pushed PowerPoint design to the limit, while others simply enticed visitors to visit their exhibitions. Some amusing projects included the MIT Media Lab’s Jeana Frost’s “Picture of Health: Photography Use in Diabetes Self-Care”, where Diabetics were encouraged to take pictures of their meals and upload them to a shared website for collective care. Others included the “AuraLamp: Contextual Speech Recognition in an Eye Contact Sensing Light Appliance”, a gaze and speech enabled Lava Lamp, the Ambient Wood, kids toys for learning about nature and the environment in the Wi-Fi enabled outdoors, and Intel’s”Wishing Well”, where people deposit colored rocks into a pool of water and associate images and content with each stone. Hopefully next year the paper presentations will follow this format so that they can accept twice as many.

When stepping into the demonstrations area, I began to forget why this was called UBICOMP. For a conference that prides itself on the disappearing computer, the projects that seemed to get the most attention were the ones that people could touch, feel, and interact with. No project was more tangible than Ariel Churi and Vivian Lin’s “Platypus Ameoba”, a rubbery creature that purred when you pet it and emitted red and green glows under it’s translucent exterior. Other interesting projects included the “Living Sculpture”, an eight-legged Octofungi, consisting of a 12-inch-tall sculpture of colored polyurethane, micro glass beads, and natural fibers. Driven by a neural network, Octofungi moves its legs in graceful patterns somewhat resembling the movements of a sea anemone. I tried playing with it but it was a bit unresponsive, possibly because it received too much attention. Also Yury Gitman ran a Seattle version of “Noderunner”, a team-based game where people scour the streets with laptops and try to connect to public wireless hotspots. I played and won because the trick is to head into the residential areas where people setup home networks without encryption.

On the final day, the panel “Mobile Play: Blogging, Tagging, and Messaging” got underway where chair Eric Paulos outlined the origins of “play” in society and how this theme has infiltrated our actions and behaviors from early childhood to adulthood. His aim was to show how during play we make use of learning devices and treat objects in novel ways that ultimately opens our minds to new possibilities, skills and social roles. The panelists included Nina Wakeford (University of Surrey), Bill Gaver (RCA), Barry Brown (University of Glascow), and Mark Smith (Microsoft Research). The overall focus looked at different aspects of play both in public and private space as a method of learning and introducing new interfaces and information delivery mechanisms. Gaver gave the most humorous take with a video of “The Key Table”, a picture frame that moves to look down at a table. The project examines how by giving inanimate objects a personality people begin to project themselves onto those objects. It also brought up the question of playing with designed devices and “open objects”, who’s main goal is to adapt to user response.

As UBICOMP came to close, the most difficult questions pertained to the human side of ubiquitous computing. Who are the people pervasive computing is affecting? Why does it affect us the way it does? A seemingly forgotten aspect was not only who the user was or would be, but also finding out what the user wanted before designing a system to dictate this want. For instance, when I sit down in front of a computer how will it know that I do or don’t want the monitor to switch on automatically? Seems like the real question is – why am I even sitting down in front of a computer? Why do we need all of this extra computing power to help dictate how we use our other machines? The true strength of UBICOMP seemed to be in ways of augmenting already ubiquitous technologies by hacking, repurposing, and upgrading them for new forms of data transmission and retrieval. Hopefully this topic will be explored further at UBICOMP 2004 in Nottingham, UK.