Art + Thought / AF 2005 - Rebecca Allen


"The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it."

This was written over a decade ago by Mark Weiser, widely considered to be the father of ubiquitous computing. He used the term "embodied virtuality" to refer to the process of embedding technology everywhere; in every kind of object, building and space, and even in humans.
The essence of this vision is the creation of environments saturated with computing and wireless communication, yet gracefully integrated with humans. Many key building blocks needed for this vision are already viable commercial technologies, including such things as wearable and handheld computers, high bandwidth wireless communication and location sensing mechanisms.
With embodied virtuality many things that have long been considered inanimate will begin to take on more life-like behaviors and appearances. Everything from toys, tools, appliances, clothing and cars to buildings, factories and even whole cities will eventually be seamlessly interconnected via high-speed networks. They will be able to communicate, react and respond not only to people but to each other as well.
As pervasive or ubiquitous computing continues to spread, it will have an increasingly dramatic effect on how we perceive and relate to objects and spaces. Embedded sensors and actuators allow inanimate objects to move, see, hear, talk and sense the surrounding environment: not in the ways that humans do this but in a way that can create the illusion of life.
The superficial qualities that separate a person or animal from a human-made artifact are being challenged. As artifacts react and respond in ways that imply intelligence and "aliveness", people will naturally tend to interact with their artifacts and environment in a more personal and, perhaps, more emotional way.
In addition, pervasive computing implies pervasive connectedness. Not only will people and things be interconnected through wireless technology, human presence will also be distributed throughout this vast network. People will increasingly communicate and interact with each other through multiple channels in various states of virtuality and physicality.
Pervasive connectedness, which encompasses such technologies as global networks, virtual environments, artificial life and various biological and environmental sensors, will continue to blur the boundaries between physical reality and virtual reality and between biological life and artificial life.
Whether this emerging reality enhances rather than overwhelms our daily lives will depend on a serious effort to understand, define and develop aesthetically designed solutions in the deployment, integration and application of embodied virtuality. Weiser called for the design of "calm technology" to address issues of information overload and other overwhelming sensations that occur with such a profound integration of embedded technologies.
This is one crucial area that needs to be addressed for ubiquitous computing to succeed. Of equal importance is the aesthetic process for defining and creating the emerging personalities, relationships and sensory qualities of objects and spaces as they take on more responsive, interactive and, ultimately, life-like qualities.
Living objects and sensitive spaces are provocative concepts, but ones that should be considered by artists, social scientists and technologists alike. Before ubiquitous computing irreparably weaves itself into the fabric of our everyday lives, we need to ask: How do we want pervasive computing to behave?

References:
- Weiser, M. "The Computer for the Twenty-First Century," Scientific American, pp. 94-10, September 1991.
- Weiser, M., Brown, J. S. Designing calm technology. PowerGrid Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1996.
- http://www.computer.org/portal/site/pervasive/
Text originally published in ArtFutura's 2005 catalog.


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