Technology works best when usability and functionality combine to free us from having to think about technology. So when we are considering its role in our future, we should try to imagine a sort of invisible technology, inserted into the background of our lives like the brushstrokes in a living landscape. That, at least, is the Philips company’s vision for what it calls ambient intelligence.
In the world they see, interconnected sensors, devices, and computerized services surround you as you go about your day. To give you an idea of what that will mean, following is a scenario based on the work of Philips researchers.
Scenario: Life in 2020
You wake naturally, not to the buzz of an alarm. Sensors in your mattress have been monitoring your sleep cycle, and your bedroom has slowly been increasing the amount of light and noise around you to coincide with your body’s needs and the time you have specified you would like to get up. It hardly feels as though you are interacting with machinery at all, but sensors, bits, and electronics are everywhere.
Your room this morning is decorated in accordance with your preferences, but not simply with wall paper and paint. To the eye, ear, and nose, it is as though you have awakened in an open-air room overlooking the Caspian Sea-a completely credible virtual-reality setting.
This sort of immersive environment will be possible thanks to what researchers at Philips call physical mark-up language (PML). In the same way your computer allows you to surf the Internet (through hypertext mark-up language or HTML), so PML will enable vivid digital projection and then inform computer-enhanced objects in your surroundings of how they should be rendered to suit your ever-changing preferences.
The tiles in your bathroom floor check your weight. In the mirror, you can see how your protein levels, blood sugar, and other health indicators have changed over the course of the month. A dietary program that monitors your physiology recommends that you skip that barbecue sandwich today.
Biosensors imbedded in your coat dialogue wirelessly (and constantly) with your personal health and preference profile, monitoring your heart rate and caloric intake and updating information as needed. On the subway ride to work, your personal digital assistant or “infotainment compardon” allows you to surf several million published texts at once, or watch Brazilian soap operas, if you’re so inclined. You couldn’t resist that sandwich? No worries; your infotainment companion has already alerted your spouse that you might enjoy a light salad this evening.
This sort of personalized computer interaction will be possible once researchers are able to make handheld devices that can process highly complex computer code, possibly in a dozen different formats, using only the low amount of electricity available in portable batteries.
At the art museum, you decide to skip the Warhol and proceed directly to the interactive exhibit. You find your way not with a complicated map but via a lighted path that has been laid out just for you. On the way, you pass a child standing before a famous work-The Night Watch by Rembrandt. The child is downloading information about the famous Dutch painter directly from the piece itself.
At last you reach your desired section. You wave your hands before what seems to be a flat screen and immediately you’re “painting”-not simply with color, but with sound and language. You can select from a palette of shades, patterns, and even film clips while you surf the Internet for artistic inspiration. In the meantime, others can watch you create your masterwork, from either across the room or across the globe. You call your junior-year studio-art teacher to show her how you’ve improved. She congratulates you and assigns your picture a grade: B+
According to Philips, this world of “ubiquitous computing” is certain to arrive before 2020. It is a place that is both strange and strangely familiar -because it tunes and retools itself constantly to reflect changing preferences, moods, and desires. It serves as both mirror to the user and window to an ever-changing world.–Patrick Tucker
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, March-April 2006