From Ubiquitous Technologies to Human Context (World Congress of Architecture)

Yesterday in Turin, Italy for the World Congress of Architecture (UIA) where I've been asked by the organizers to put together a session about ubiquitous computing and human needs/desires. It was called “From Ubiquitous Technologies to Human Context" and three great speakers joined me on stage: Adam Greenfield, Jeffrey Huang and Younghee Jung. See the text I wrote for the conference leaflet below. The recent dissemination of information and communication technologies in the everyday environment, also referred to as “Ubiquitous Computing”, is expected to influence the design of our environment. More specifically, tangible examples concern the use of location services to track people’s or goods movement in space, temperature or pollution sensors to collect information about the state of the environment and enable the reconfiguration of building component based on these information. Other examples are not so distant in the future as shown by different examples. For instance RFID chips in the London subway allow people to swipe access card against metro terminal to enter the underground premises. Or, Singapore’s road transit system is based on wireless communication and vehicle identification to provide drivers with different pricing schemes.

In the field of architecture, some envisions the presence of “ambient displays” on walls, ceilings or billboards to represent various flows of information integrated as visualization in the everyday human environment. A tremendous amount of projects in this field also deals with interactive table that aim at supporting collaboration and new affordances for collective usage. Operating at a different level than interactive furnitures, smart home systems are meant to allow voice control, distant access to home features (like starting the heating before being at home) or automating certain functions. At the city scale, location-based services refer to applications that take advantage of the users’ location in space to provide them with dedicated services such as navigation aid, the tracking of individuals or the possibility to attach text or audio messages to specific places. Some applications running on cell phones allow people to assign ratings to places such as restaurants or clubs so that others passers-by can be notified about the quality of the place.

Such services are enabled by wireless communication, the combination of the availability of sensors, identification technologies and the miniaturization of chips in charge of data-processing. As this description reveals, the inclusion of technologies in our environment and objects appears to be highly technical and mostly driven by the development of new technologies. There is indeed a growing gap between what technologies make possible and their relevance to people. In lots of case the scenarios promoted by designers of these services are often transferred from past work in other fields such as business applications or collaborative work. The representation of the user propelled by the early scenarios of ubiquitous computing is often the one of a quest for efficiency and very limited models of people’s desires. Translated into the home domain or the city level, these scenarios are often irrelevant or purely instrumentalist vision of individuals and groups behavior. They for example assume the need to fill “dead moments” when waiting for a bus or the absolute need to “connect” to other people, regardless of the actual context, mood or culture of the users of such systems. In addition, the notion of “automation” is taken for granted, as if every action should be transferred to machines that may anticipate what the users want to do based on previous behavior that was “sensed” and “mined”. Moreover, the notion of “user” itself can be questioned when you have services that operate invisibly in the environment without any specific sign of their presence to remind people that they can be tracked or that sensor collect information about their behavior.

In the context of day about “Hope, Future, Technology”, this session will address the relation between these technological innovations and human needs as well as desires. We would describe how there is a crux need to take people, their culture, desires and context into account in the building of such applications.

I've put my introductory slides here. The whole point of the session was to show why architects should pay attention to ubiquitous computing:

  • Designers of such systems are implicitly dealing with architecture in their projects BUT they are not architects so they apply their previous knowledge: generally utilitarian, “design an augmented house like designing MS Word”
  • Ubiquitous computing is a complex problem, lots of issues need to be taken into account: human expectations, acceptance of automation...
  • Start the dialogue to create this “parallel world”

Thanks Raffaela Lecchi for the invitation, thanks Adam, Jef and Younghee for participating!