ubiquitous computing

Apple's Missed Opportunity

Apple refreshed the iPhone 5 and a new line-up of iPods today, but in doing so, it missed an opportunity. Handily dominating the world market for smartphones and tablets, Apple now faces the challenge of expanding its market significantly while introducing merely more mature versions of existing products.

In 2008, Apple introduced the iPhone 2, which made locative media a reality through its App Store and integrated Assisted GPS (aGPS). To be fair, earlier phones had the ability to install apps and aGPS*, but the iPhone's ease of use, large user base, and often-fanatical developer following made it a huge hit. But the now what? The iPhone 5 is merely a refinement of the iPhone 4. Apple CEO Tim Cook has promised "Amazing new products," but thus far we've seen little we wouldn't reasonably expect. The predicted smaller iPad is no different, just a smaller form factor at a lower price.

What then, would be the proverbial "next big thing?" I think the answer is clear: DIY ubicomp. I've been watching with interest a number of Kickstarter projects that aim to bring remote-sensing capabilities to the masses. Twine is the most sophisticated of these. This simple sensor will hook up to a Wi-Fi network and, when outfitted with appropriate sensors, can Tweet that your basement is flooding, e-mail you that your TV has been on for three consecutive hours, or send a text message you when a major earthquake happens. Operating for months on AAA batteries, Twine is a huge step forward in taking the kind of capabilities recently available only to hobbyists who bought Arduinos and went through complicated processes of assembly and programming.

So when Apple announced the new iPod Nano, it was quite a let down. The previous Nano was a small, square device that could fit on a wristwatch. Even though it only appeared to run the iOS, there is no reason why Apple couldn't have come up with a rudimentary programming interface that could let developers program Apps for it. With Wifi and one more port, perhaps the "Lightening" port Apple introduced today, a new Nano could have had access to a new market of inexpensive sensors that could make it aware of the world. Even at $99, which is more than the price of a Twine, marketing and momentum would likely have made the device a huge hit. If Apple had then committed itself to downward price migration, a ubicomp world could have been ours quickly.

I'm looking at my BBQ and imagining a future $50 device that I could plug into my temperature probe to text me to let me know when the temperature gets out of range. I think about my back yard, where deer are all too present and wonder if such a device might not wait in ambush to alert me with a message to my phone to let me know that there was motion in my back yard. I imagine that the tiny screen on the device might communicate some basic, useful information to me, like the temperature outside and the air quality, as sampled by another sensor connected device.  I wonder what my crafty children, or for that matter, someone like Mark Shepard or David Benjamin would do with such a thing. 

It may be that Twine itself is the next Apple II, to the Arduino's Apple I, and certainly that could be a better thing if Twine is a more flexible and open platform than the notoriously closed one at Apple. But still (and perhaps only because I own Apple stock…a disclaimer that I need to make), I regret that Apple has not rethought the Nano. For ubiquitous computing is already here, but it's just not yet for the masses. And that, I am convinced, is the proverbial next big thing.       

*Memory fails me, but I believe my Kyocera 7135, which ran the Palmo operating system and was first released in 2002 had aGPS.

goodbye to the proximate future

In his insightful blog Pasta and Vinegar, Nicholas Nova posts today on the need to get over proximate futures. Nicholas is actually referring to an article by Geneviene Bell and Paul Dourish, "Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Notes on Ubiquitous Computing’s Dominant Vision." I have just downloaded the paper and look forward to reading it, but in the meantime, I couldn't resist commenting on this deadly lure that Bell, Dourish, Nova, and I agree on and respond with regard to the Netlab's relation to this question.

As a field that has recently been re-invigorated by technology and neo-modernism, architecture is also susceptible to the temptations of an endlessly deferred future. Whether it be leakproof flat roofs or mass production of carbon nanotubes, architecture has an inherent drive toward futurology that gets in the way of seeing the real and massive potential within the contemporary, both as it already is and as it could be, with some tweaking. We've lived through 1984, 2000, and 2001. So now what? The Netlab sets out to look at the contemporary condition.

To be sure, however, visionary, utopian, and dystopian projects do have a role, as for example, Superstudio's Continuous Monument or Archizoom's No-Stop-City. Yet these are most useful when they don't rely on a proximate future but rather suspend the question of their nearness, thereby being both already present and objects of contemplation.

Architecture and Situated Technologies Symposium

From Thursday to Saturday, 19-21 October, 2006, I will be taking part in the Architecture and Situated Technologies symposium @ The Urban Center and Eyebeam, NYC.

Here is the description from the organizers of this promising event:

Since the late 1980s, computer scientists and engineers have been researching ways of embedding computational intelligence into the built environment. Researchers at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) began to look beyond the model of personal computing, which placed the computer in the foreground of our attention, to one of “ubiquitous” computing that takes into account the contingencies of human environments and allows computers themselves to vanish into the background. Recently, the UN released a report produced by the International Telecommunications Union predicting an “Internet of Things”, where the “users” of the Internet will be counted in billions and where humans may become the minority as generators and receivers of information. As GPS modules, RFID tags, sensors, and actuators are becoming available in ever smaller packages, everyday objects and spaces are being networked with computational intelligence. Current research has focused on how situational parameters inform the design of these technologies. Incorporating an awareness of cultural context, accrued social meanings, and the temporality of spatial experience, situated technologies privilege the local, context- specific and spatially contingent dimension of their use.

This symposium, organized around the notion of an "encounter," will attempt to articulate new research vectors, sites of practice, and working methods for the confluence of architecture and situated technologies. What opportunities and dilemmas does a world of networked objects and spaces pose for architecture, media art, and computing? What post-optimal design strategies and tactics might we propose for an age of responsive environments, smart materials, embodied interaction, and participatory networks? How might this evolving relation between people and "things" alter the way we occupy, navigate, and inhabit the built environment? What is the status of the material object in a world privileging networked relations between "things"? What distinguishes the emerging urban sociality enabled by wireless communication technologies? How do certain social uses of these technologies, including (non-) affective giving, destabilize rationalized "use-case scenarios" designed around the generic consumer? How do distinctions between space and place change within these networked media ecologies?

Through a combination of workshops, presentations, and panel discussions, the symposium will attempt to stage a set of encounters between invited participants, an audience encouraged to participate, and the City of New York.

Organised by: Omar Khan, Trebor Scholz, and Mark Shepard

Participants include Jonah Brucker-Cohen, Richard Coyne, Karmen Franinovic, Michael Fox, Anne Galloway, Charlie Gere, Usman Haque, Peter Hasdell, Natalie Jeremijenko, Sheila Kennedy, Eric Paulos, Mette Ramsgard Thomsen and Kazys Varnelis.

Co-Produced by: The Center for Virtual Architecture, The Institute for Distributed Creativity, and the Architectural League of New York

Reservations/advance ticket purchase are required.

Network Architecture Lab Established

Why has this blog been so barren lately? Am I giving up on the Net? No! Far from it. I have, however, been a little busy lately. Now that the project is safely established, we can announce that...

AUDC Establishes Network Architecture Lab

@ Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation

Formed in 2001, AUDC [Architecture Urbanism Design Collaborative] specializes in research as a form of practice. The AUDC Network Architecture Lab is an experimental unit at Columbia University that embraces the studio and the seminar as venues for architectural analysis and speculation, exploring new forms of research through architecture, text, new media design, film production and environment design.

Specifically, the Network Architecture Lab investigates the impact of computation and communications on architecture and urbanism. What opportunities do programming, telematics, and new media offer architecture? How does the network city affect the building? Who is the subject and what is the object in a world of networked things and spaces? How do transformations in communications reflect and affect the broader socioeconomic milieu? The NetLab seeks to both document this emergent condition and to produce new sites of practice and innovative working methods for architecture in the twenty-first century. Using new media technologies, the lab aims to develop new interfaces to both physical and virtual space.

The NetLab is consciously understood as an interdisciplinary unit, establishing collaborative relationships with other centers both at Columbia and at other institutions.

The NetLab begins operations in September 2006.

goodbye, supermodernism

With a huge amount of work to do and some crucial transitions underway into next year, blog posts have been all too scant lately, unfortunately.

But if you're starved for reading material as a consequence, try my article "Goodbye, Supermodernism" in the July issue of Architecture magazine, dedicated to mobility. My brief piece””?part of my history/theory column for the journal, addresses the impact of telecommunications on architecture. If Hans Ibelings saw Marc Augé's Non-Places as the future of space and understood an acontextual modernism as the inevitable result, I suggest that both Non-Places and supermodernism have seen their day. Instead of the formally based movement that aimed to express the solitude and lack of meaning inherent in contemporary life, we need to develop a programmed architecture for the new place of today in which we dwell, floating, between virtual and physical spaces. The future of communication in architecture isn't semiology or its denial, but code and cable.

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