Wearable Tech Gadgets: Rise of ubiquitous computing - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Wearable Tech Gadgets: Rise of ubiquitous computing

Ubiquitous computing is the wave of the future. It moves our interaction with the web away from the current paradigm of communicating with others, sending and receiving messages, and retrieving information from the internet through discrete devices such as PCs, tablets and smartphones, to embedded processes in our homes, our cars, and through the nascent shift to smart buildings, stores, even items in the stores we are considering buying.

But ubiquitous computing is still in its infancy, and the devices needed to receive the information being broadcast via WiFi or Near Field Communication (the same technology in many of the newest tablets and smartphones which allow you to transfer files simply by tapping the devices together) is still being built out. Wait five years for the technology to mature, and you’ll see, through heads up displays and such inventions as Google Glass and soon-to-come smart contact lenses, we will be presented with information overlays on all these places and things containing a wealth of information telling you what’s in these buildings, advertising in the stores projected right to your receiving device, or details of products in stores including cut-away schematics, consumer ratings and pricing.

DARPA leads, again

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the creators of the internet, and many other research institutions are busily researching the many ways information drawn from the internet can best be delivered to the individual. One intriguing yet slightly worrisome method is through direct stimulation of the brain, whether it be through implantation of electronic receivers directly into the neural cortex of the brain (it has already been done in a very limited experiment) or through the beaming of ultrasound to those regions. Sony has audaciously patented a method of stimulating those neural regions creating the ultimate immersive virtual reality gaming experience, or direct thought control of game controls for soon to be developed game consoles capable of such interaction.

Direct control of computers and weapons systems is of great interest to DARPA of course, creating an intimate relationship with weapons systems that are controlled at the speed of thought.

Though this future is fast approaching, the exact form it will take is far from certain, with research being conducted on many fronts by many facilities, industrial research labs and the government. Google Glass, in my opinion, will be first to market, or I should say mass market, with the equivalent capabilities of smartphones and their ability to interact with the internet of things, smart things, but there are other companies also looking into their own solutions.

But make no mistake. The groundwork and infrastructure for ubiquitous computing, and its goal of creating near universal augmented reality, while still allowing interaction with the real world, is already well under construction. It will happen, not twenty years from now but will likely be well into place five years from now.

Think how far we’ve come in just five years in technological advances in our smartphones, since Apple virtually created the concept just sx years ago with the introduction of the iPhone.

But what about today?

The era of ubiquitous computing, with distributed embedded tiny processors in all the devices and buildings and appliances and cars we use, is upon us but not yet available to us, nor are the precise mechanisms for its delivery to the user decided upon. There is one application of ubiquitous computing that is already in the marketplace, and achieving consumer acceptance. This is in the field of wearable tech. These divide roughly into three areas of daily life, fitness monitors, smartwatches, and the any-day-now of widespread commercial release of Google Glass. We’ve already discussed the presumed uses of Google Glass.

So we will look at the remaining two categories. Of the two, fitness monitors are the most mature technology with the widest market penetration. Many smart watches are on the market, but they are still rather clumsy and limited in abilities, and most depend on Bluetooth connection to a designated smartphone to achieve the tasks they are designed for.

In fact, though capable smart watches are on the market from Samsung, (the models available known collectively as Samsung Gear) and offerings from Pebble and a few other, lesser known manufacturers, everybody in the industry and the potential consumer market is awaiting news of Apple’s rumored iWatch. Today’s smartwatches are clunky, big and mostly ugly, and as mentioned before generally slaved to dedicated smart phones. Apple however, the ultimate source of industry leading aesthetic design and ultimate functionality, will undoubtedly address these issues and come out with a smartwatch that not only looks good, but does more than just alert you when you’ve received a text or phone call, or control the music on your phone, or take pictures.

Apple is being more than usually cagey about the product’s appearance and capabilities, but bear in mind it was the unusually accurate prophetic Steve Jobs who announced the dedication of substantial resources in Apple’s research and development departments to a groundbreaking new smart watch, so all eyes are on Apple’s promised device.

Smart fitness monitors

One class of consumer item, which people are not embarrassed to wear as a fashion accessory, is the growing number of fitness monitors. These come in various configurations: wrist bands, attachable brooch-like devices, even headbands. Most have just reached the market within the last couple of years, have proven popular, and are in refined second or third iterations already.

These are not just for those who regularly exercise, but also for people in good health who simply want to keep track of their daily physical activities and their bodies’ daily exertions.

Humble origins

In essence they are highly advanced improvements, web- connected descendants of the common pedometer, but they have features those lowly devices could only dream about. Most of them measure and monitor not just how many steps you have taken, but your heart rate, the amount of calories you have expended throughout the course of the day, your blood pressure, the amount of sleep you have had ( yes they can distinguish between lying down and whether or not you are actually asleep). Many are connected to fitness apps to relay summaries of the information they have collected. Many have Web accounts that also connect to smart Wi-Fi enabled scales, blood pressure monitors, and other devices to give you more accurate readings of what’s going on with your body as a whole.

Some are bracelets, and double as watches, while many are clip ons, that fit into a pocket or can be tucked into a bra. As mentioned, these highly accurate devices, whether they are web enabled or report to an app, are not just for those who are seeking to improve their physical fitness. They are also, more importantly, of great use to people with chronic illness, from high blood pressure, to overweight people on fitness and weight loss regimens, to those with chronic sleep problems.

Among those which come with the highest recommendations are those rounded up by PCMag.

As you can see, form factors, and reporting methods vary widely, but these are mature, attractive devices and what’s more they are very affordable. They are highly functional, devices, as opposed to the offerings from the smartwatch industry.

Waiting for Apple

As of this writing  I wouldn’t  recommend any smart watch to purchase immediately. They remain, for the most part, wearable accessories to your smartphones. Wait until Apple comes out with its iWatch.

Apple, which practically invented the modern tablet computer as a widely used best selling consumer commodity, also is known for taking existing tech, applying its particular design and technological prowess, and creating a massive market for their devices. Apple, for instance, did not invent MP3 players, but existing brands were a niche market and a mere blip on the many ways we listen to music. It was their innovative and attractive iPod however that first brought these devices into the mainstream, creating a huge market where none existed previously, and changed forever not only the way we listen to music but the entire music distribution industry as well.

Augmented reality now

If you are interested in the subject of augmented reality, I’d recommend you try such smartphone apps. One of the best is AcrossAir for iPhone, which is much more than a simple navigation aid. Hold your smartphone on a city street with which you look around with your camera to view restaurants, hotels, landmarks, cinemas and other geotagged entries. Floating image balloons present on screen display information of the chosen picture.

Hold it horizontally to switch to Google Maps to show your position and pin it to view it later or find your parked vehicle.

Integrated Facebook, Twitter and Flickr let you share and store location photos. Explore the iTunes app store under the search category augmented reality to find many more.

For Android, I suggest Google Goggles, which uses image recognition technology to deliver information about various logos, landmarks, barcodes or QR codes. Add contacts with business cards, read novel summaries by scanning the title, all by taking its picture.

This new app, which harnesses the power of the Google search engine with your camera, is definitely cutting edge and gives you a good idea of the future of the way we will perceive the aborning internet of things. It also recognizes paintings, DVDs, CDs, paintings and books and provides links to descriptions, reviews, and where the items may be purchased. It also has the unnerving ability to solve Soduko puzzles.

I must also mention the new Google Sky Map, with which you aim your camera at the night sky and objects such as constellations, nebula, individual stars and even satellites are named and constellations connected by the dots of its component stars.

Sooner than you think

The age of ubiquitous computing is upon us, and is growing even more rapidly than the internet its early days and also faster than the technology which powers our smartphones. One major use of ubiquitous computing, augmented reality, is growing even faster.

The direction this will take is clear. What remains uncertain is the medium through which all this information will be accessed. Today it is mainly through smartphones. But within five years we will have many such enhanced delivery systems. They will be characterized by their transparency, that is, They will be always on, ,unobtrusive, wearable and integrated with our perception of the world around us.

To paraphrase British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, they will be technologies sufficiently advanced as to be perceived by most people as magic.

“First were mainframes, each shared by lots of people. Now we are in the personal computing era, person and machine staring uneasily at each other across the desktop. Next comes ubiquitous computing, or the age of calm technology, when technology recedes into the background of our livesm”  said Mark David Weiser, the late chief scientist at Xerox.


About the author

Paul Croke

Paul Croke, former newspaper editor and longtime Washington DC area freelance writer, has loved gadgets and consumer electronics since he saw his first Dick Tracy watch. He writes about consumer technology. Contact the author.
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