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Ubiquitous Computing, Mark Weiser & Xerox Parc

Xerox Parc (the research facility in Silicon Valley that invented the graphical user interface later popularized in the Macintosh) began research in the late 1980’s into something they named Ubiquitous Computing (Weiser’s definition of it).This idea looked to a future where computational power would become small enough and cheap enough that it could be embedded in everyday objects and spaces instead of being limited to traditional computers. Mark Weiser initiated much of this research at Parc (along with John Seely Brown – member of the MDP braintrust), and in 1988 invented the term and wrote the seminal paper describing the potentials of ubiquitous computing (published in Scientific American in 1991).

More recent terms for this idea include ubicomp, pervasive computing, calm technologyambient computing, sensor networks, smart dust, the Internet of Thingstangible bitsthings that think, and now mobile computing.

The Info-Sphere, Bruce Sterling & Shaping Things

In 2005, MDP professor Peter Lunenfeld (now at UCLA) was editing a new book by Bruce Sterling called Shaping Things as part of his pamphlet series. The pre-publication version of this book was used as a text for the original NET class in fall that year. Sterling himself came to the MDP for a year-long Visionary in Residence appointment, and was one of the teachers of the NET class (along with Philip van Allen and Graphic Design Chair Nik Hafermaas).

In Shaping Things, Sterling explores the many possibilities of a new type of object he calls a “spime” which are made possible through a comprehensive set of technologies including digital manufacturing, sensing, tracking, and pervasive wireless and wired network communications. In particular, Sterling looks at how RFIDs and GPS enable the unique identification and tracking of objects, and how combined with vast databases about these objects, a new “Internet of Things” emerges – i.e. objects become searchable, bloggable, trackable, historicized, and dataminable (what I call the Info-Sphere — a kind of digital aura that surrounds things). He also challenges designers to engage with these potentials and help make sure they are applied in a beneficial, sustainable way (since there are many dangers and possibilities for misuse).

The New Ecology of Things, Publication, Research Initiative, Lab, & Toolkit

We are now on the cusp of reality for the possibilities posited by Weiser in the late 1980’s, and those that Sterling anticipated just a few years ago – the technologies have now become small and low cost. The New Ecology of Things is an updated view of how this vision might manifest, and a call for designers to take a lead in the definition and creation of this transformative set of ideas.

The New Ecology of Things initiative at the MDP grew out of the class taught in Fall 2005 based on the ideas of ubiquitous computing, the MDP’s original Interactive Objects & Spaces (IOS) class, and Bruce Sterling’s book Shaping Things. This class was sponsored by Sun Microsystems Labs and used early prototypes of a wireless sensor system called the SunSpot. Student teams developed projects to explore the design terrain of NET.

The NET publication is a transmedia project that emulates the ideas in NET as a networked system of different media forms including a Book, cell phone content triggered by 2D barcodes embedded in the book (also accessible at, a poster that uses the physical positioning of the book to reveal new relationships, and a website that both complements and interacts with the book via URL links and structures throughout the book.

The Models essay in the NET book proposes a particular approach to designing ideas for NET, using the ideas of Productive Interaction, Embodied Interaction, and Mythological Interaction.

Since the publication was released, NET has developed into a full research initiative in the MDP. Along with collaborators and student research associates from the MDP, we’re exploring new modes of interactive communication in his research through speculative and practical projects.

As another essential part of the initiative, the NET initiative continues the development of NETLab Toolkit that enables designers to easily do “sketching in hardware” – i.e. quickly create working prototypes of NET projects in the physical world, without having to learn complex programming and electronics.

Recent Trends

As real products are shipped, designers have to think beyond what’s here now, and continue to push the boundaries and concepts. A few areas to look at include:

  • The emergence of mobile – The advent of the iPhone, iPad and Android systems create a distinct variation on the idea of ubicomp, in that they have multiple functions, a bit more like a traditional computer. Yet mobile devices come the closest to the original idea of always connected, always on, multiple censored devices (and I suspect the name of the iPad is an acknowledgment of Mark Weiser’s “Pads”). Each device has a GPS, accelerometer, microphone, gyro, camera, etc. See my article on Slabs, Sofducts, and Bespoke Objects for more discussion of this landscape.
  • The new Internet of Things (IOT) – In the last year or two, The Internet of Things has become a fairly standard name for the field in the popular press. It’s a somewhat different interpretation than the original description by MIT and Bruce Sterling. Less about RFIDs and tracking, and closer to the Mark Weiser’s original conception combined with the more tangible orientation and DIY aspects of physical computing.
  • – A live system that enables open-source sensor feeds from all over the world.
  • The Human Network – New products such as Up, and Fitbit make the human body part of the network.
  • Animism – An area of my own research that looks at the actual design of objects and spaces in a system, and how to make them fit into people’s lives in a more natural way. Instead of treating the user interactions in a traditional computer “user interface” and give the objects and spaces an apparent internal life and personality so they can be understandable, and simper to relate to by people.