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Ambient Computing; Emerging Applications

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The Santa Fe Complex has issued an invitation to technologists and artists to participate in the development of a "permanent installation demonstrating the power of ambient computing." This installation is but one example of the commercialization of concepts and ideas that were first proposed over twenty years ago.

Ambient computing is concerned with issues of interface design and interaction arising from ubiquitous computing (Ubicomp) environments. Mark Weiser, when he was Chief Technologist at Xerox Parc coined the term ubiquitous computing (ubicomp), authoring and co-authoring with John Seely Brown (Director and Chief Scientist at PARC) numerous papers describing the concept - in the late eighties and early nineties. Numerous research and academic projects followed including the Oxygen Project at MIT. Pervasive computing is a near synonym for ubicomp. Pervasive computing and projects like PARC's MEMS / Smart Matter Project are concerned with embedding computing and networking power into every day objects, and in the case of MEMS, making "smart molecules." Ambient intelligence and ambient computing are also near synonyms and are concerned with human interactions in computing rich environments.

The roots of the current ambient computing efforts at the Santa Fe Complex include the SimTable. The SimTable is a sand table (you can shape the sand into any kind of topographic shape you desire and change the shape at will), an infra-red camera to scan and map the topographic shape, a computer program running simulation software, and a projector to map the output from the program back onto the surface of the sand table. An example of SimTable use: shape the sand to reflect the topography surrounding the city of Santa Fe. Project a simulation of ground cover (trees, bushes, grasses and controls for setting wind speed and direction, and use a fireplace lighter to create a spark (picked up by the infrared camera) that starts a forest fire. The simulation then shows how the fire would burn and what parts of the city would be affected. You can simultaneously project a street map and run a simulation of traffic flow as residents seek to flee the fire. The Simtable is a commercial product and its initial customers are fire departments and emergency preparedness organizations.

The ambient computing efforts take the SimTable technology but use any surface as the projection medium. The interior of the Complex itself has been mapped and calibrated with projectors to allow computer simulations to be displayed on walls, floors, ceilings, and even furniture in the room. You could project simulations (or live streaming data) throughout the room, add people, use various devices to capture human input, and you have a highly sophisticated "situation room." Or, put Wii controllers into empty paint spray cans, give the cans to a group of kids who can then "spray" the walls of the room with virtual graffiti. The computer tracks the Wii enabled cans and uses a paint program to create the colored images which are projected onto the wall.

Ambient computing represents the next step in a trend, also pioneered at Xerox PARC in the eighties, of tiered devices - desktops, laptops, pad computers, and smart phones - with one important difference. At each tier, the devices embody models (computation, apps), views (the display), and controllers (input and interaction capability. In ambient computing the environment is the view, computing can be anywhere, on a local server or in the cloud, and the device serves primarily as a controller. This vastly expands the kinds of devices that can take on the role of 'controller' in an ambient environment. Laser pointers, Wii controllers, smart phones, even human gestures; all can be used as sources of input and control that affect the software simulations and affect what is projected into the environment. One other added advantage, ambient environments are inherently 'multi-touch,' you can have numerous people interacting simultaneously.

The Santa Fe Complex is working with the University of New Mexico, The Santa Fe Institute, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory to create ambient environments focused on scientific visualization. One such project involves projecting onto a reflective dome, like the ones used in planetariums, simulations or visualizations of massive data sets. Imagine standing in a dome and watching the Sun go nova - from the inside, as if you were in the center of the star watching the plasma currents swirl, contract, expand, and ultimately explode. This work has lead to a not yet released product called AnySurface that will be commercialized and marketed by Ambient Pixel.

The "call for participation" issued by the Santa Fe Complex reflects the fact that ambient computing is ready to leave the research lab and spin off commercial applications. Potential examples: virtual murals painted on the walls of your room, interactive simulations of gondola traffic on the canals of Venice (a project underway at the Complex), or even teleconferencing with live projections of remote participants, ala the Jedi Council room in the Star Wars movies.

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  • A comment on Ambient computing being distinct from other things.

    by Ted Selker,

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    Ubiquitous computing and Pervasive computing are not the same in my mind:
    Ubiquitious computing was coined by PARC> lots of things to interact with everywhere.

    Pervasive computing was defined by IBM> infrastructure to support so many things everywhere

    ambient computing came later as a statement of technology that is there and might not have to be paid attention to.

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