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Ambient Computing Challenge: Please Abstract My Digital Life

My plan is for this to be the first in a series of posts that talk about specific medium term challenges facing technologists as we move forward in the Ambient Computing Era.  The challenges will concern things that I think are inevitable but which may not be getting enough attention right now. But with attention, we should see significant progress towards solutions over the next five years.

Here’s the first challenge.  I have too many loosely coordinated digital devices and digital services. Everyday, I spend hours using my mobile phone, my tablet, and my desktop Mac PC. I also regularly use a laptop, a FirefoxOS test phone, and my DirecTV set-top box/DVR.  Less, regularly I use the household iPad, an Xbox/Kinect in our family room, and a couple of Denon receivers with network access.   Then, of course, there are various other active digital devices like cameras, a FitBit, runner’s watches, an IPod shuffle, etc.  My car is too old to have much user facing intelligence but I sure that won’t be the case with the next one.

Each of these devices is connected (at least indirectly) to the Internet and most of them have some sort of web browser. Each of them locally hold some of my digital possessions. I try to configure and use services like Dropbox and Evernote to make sure that my most commonly used possessions are readily available on all my general-purpose devices, but sometimes I still resort to emailing things to myself.

I also try to similarly configure all my MacOS devices and all my Android devices. But even so, everything I need isn’t always available on the device I’m using at any instance, even in cases where the device is perfectly capable of hosting it.

Even worse, each device is different in non-essential, but impossible to ignore ways.  I’m never just posting a tweet or reading my favorite new streams.  I’m always doing it on my tablet, or at my desk, or with my phone and the experience is different for each of them in some ways.  In every case, I have to focus as much attention on the device I’m physically using and how it differs from my other devices as I do on the actual task I’m interested in accomplishing.  And, its getting worse. Each new device I acquire may give me some new capability but it also adds to the chaos.

Now, I have the technical skills that enable me to deal with this chaos and get a net positive benefit from most of these devices. But it isn’t where I really want to be investing my valuable time.

I simply want to think about all my “digital stuff” as things that are always there and always available.  No matter where I am or which device I’m using.  When I get a new device, I don’t want to spend a day installing apps and configuring it.  I just want to identify myself and have all my stuff immediately available. I want my stuff to look and operate familiarly.  The only differences should be those that are fundamental to the specific device and its primary purpose.  My attention should always be on my stuff.   Different devices and different services should fade into the background. “Digital footprint” was the term I used my Cloud on Your Ceiling to refer to all this digital stuff.

Is any progress being made towards achieving this? Cloud hosted services from major industry players such as Google and Apple may feel like they are addressing some of these needs. But, they generally force you to commit all your digital assets to a single corporate caretaker and whatever limitations they choose to impose upon you.  Sometimes such services are characterized as “digital lockers”.  That’s not really what I’m looking for. I don’t want to have to go to a locker to get my stuff; I just want it to appear to always be with me and under my complete control.

The Locker Project is something that I discovered while researching this post that sounded like relevant work but it appears to be moribund.  However, it led me to discover an inspirational short talk by one of its developers, Jeremie Miller,  who paints a very similar vision to mine. The Locker Project appears to have morphed in to the Singly AppFabric  product, which seems to be a cloud service for integrating social media data into mobile apps.  This is perhaps a step in the right direction, but not really the same vision.  I suspect there is a tension between achieving the full vision and the short-term business realities of a startup.

So, that’s my first Ambient Computing challenge. Create the technology infrastructure and usage metaphors that make individual devices and services fade into the background and allow us all to focus our attention on actually living our digitally enhanced lives.

I’m interested in hearing about other relevant projects that readers may know about and other challenges you think are important.

(Photo by “IndyDina with Mr. Wonderful”, Creative Commons Attribution License. Sculpture by Tom Otterness)

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