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what is ambient computing

What is Ambient Computing?

Cameron Cashman
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Reading time: 6 minutes

Recently, we’ve been hearing a lot about things like artificial intelligence and machine learning. But among all the existential discussion surrounding these topics, we’ve lost sight of some of the practical ways this technology can help us in our day-to-day lives.
For example, have you ever heard of ambient computing? It’s not a term you hear often, although ambient computing is becoming more commonplace every single day. There’s a strong chance you’ve encountered it before!
If you’ve ever interacted with a “smart” voice assistant such as Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, or Apple’s Siri, you’ve seen ambient computing in action. The truth is, as impressive as they are, voice assistants are only a simple form of ambient computing.
Have you ever wondered how these technologies might evolve to become even more impressive? Then you’re already familiar with the concept of ambient computing.

Defining ambient computing

defining ambient computing
Ambient computing is more of an abstract concept than a phrase that can be truly defined. You may see it referred to as ubiquitous computing. Both phrases imply two things: natural integration and automatic function.
So, the simplest way to look at ambient computing is “invisible” technology, working in the background to complete tasks with little to no manual intervention.
Of course, the AI voice assistant on your computer, phone, or tablet responds to spoken commands, which is why it represents a simple - even rudimentary - form of ambient computing.
In its purest form, “true” ambient computing refers to a series of interconnected devices that work together to assist with or automate everyday tasks based on information gathered about your surroundings.
Imagine a smart home that automatically adjusts the temperature indoors based on your body temperature, all fed by live biometric data from your smartwatch.
With the recent advent of automated home systems like smart bulbs and thermostats, this kind of technology might not seem too far off. But you might be surprised to know that it was being developed back in 1988, when computer scientist Mark Weiser, chief tech officer at Xerox PARC, coined the term ubiquitous computing.

A brief history of ambient computing

In 1996, Weisner lamented the current era of computer technology. “Now we are in the personal computing era, person and machine staring uneasily at each other across the desktop.” He described the upcoming third age of ubiquitous technology as a time when technology will recede into the background of our lives.
In a presentation, Weisner laid out a set of four principles that he thought best represented ambient or ubiquitous technology:
  1. A computer’s purpose is to assist in any sort of task.
  2. The best computers are quiet and invisible.
  3. The computer should be an intuitive extension of one’s unconscious.
  4. Technology should “create calm,” that is, inform but not demand focus or attention.
  5. Elaborating further, Weiser envisioned a true network of ambient computers would consist of three types of devices: wearable “tabs,” handheld “pads,” and “boards,” which he imagined as larger, interactive displays.

The current state of ambient computing

the state of ambient computing
Despite the phrase’s relative obscurity, ambient computing is one of the most prominent fields of computer science today. That’s because it encompasses three rapidly growing types of technologies: smart devices, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. As this tech becomes more powerful, the closer we’ll get to a truly “ambient” or “ubiquitous” experience.
Here are some current examples of ambient computing in use today.

Voice assistants

AI voice assistants have already been mentioned, but they’re one of the most prominent and widespread examples of ambient computing today – so they’re worth exploring a bit more.
Apple was the first to introduce consumers to an AI voice assistant, Siri. Since then, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Samsung’s Bixby have revolutionized the way we interact with technology. These voice-activated systems provide a wide range of functionalities: They can control smart home devices, manage schedules and reminders, answer questions, play music, and provide weather updates. Voice assistants also support personalized experiences, such as recommending movies or restaurants based on set preferences.
Through integration with other devices, they enable seamless automation and control of various aspects of our environment. Their continuous development and integration into a growing number of devices further enhance the convenience and connectivity of our daily lives.

Fitness wearables

While not quite as ubiquitous as mobile phones, fitness wearables have become popular companions for individuals striving for a healthier lifestyle. Some of the most common brands include Fitbit, Apple Watch, Garmin, and Samsung Galaxy Watch. These devices offer a range of features to track physical activity and monitor biometric data.
For example, they can measure heart rate, steps, distance, calories burned, and even monitor sleep patterns. Plus, they seamlessly integrate with smartphones and other devices, allowing users to receive notifications, control music, and access workout data.
This last point is especially important. Fitness wearables give computers the exact kind of data they’d need to make effective adjustments to the environment around them. As ambient computing develops, these devices will be integral in certain functions - remember the previous example of the thermostat automatically adjusting based on a person’s body temperature?

Healthcare

Companies like Philips, Withings, and Medtronic have developed advanced devices that enable healthcare providers to monitor patients' vital signs and deliver remote consultations. Much like the previously mentioned fitness wearables, these devices allow for continuous monitoring of vital signs such as heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen levels. They provide accurate and timely data to healthcare providers, enabling proactive healthcare management and early detection of potential health issues.
By leveraging ambient computing technologies, remote health monitoring devices enhance patient care, improve convenience, and contribute to the shift towards personalized and remote healthcare delivery.

Agriculture

Companies like John Deere, IBM, and Trimble provide smart technologies that optimize crop production, monitor soil conditions, and manage irrigation systems efficiently. Sensors collect real-time data on soil moisture, temperature, and nutrient levels, allowing for data-driven decisions about planting and fertilization.
Drones equipped with cameras and sensors can assess crop health, detect pests, and monitor field conditions. Data analytics platforms process this information, providing valuable insights for crop management and resource allocation.
Smart Agriculture maximizes productivity, minimizes resource waste, and promotes sustainable farming practices, thus ensuring food security and environmental friendliness.

Retail

ambient computing in retail
Connected Retail is transforming the shopping landscape by leveraging advancements in ambient computing to enhance the shopping experience.
Beacons enable personalized offers and notifications based on a customer's location within the store. RFID tags streamline inventory management, enabling real-time tracking of products and reducing stockouts. Mobile apps provide personalized recommendations, convenient mobile payments, and digital loyalty programs. Moreover, the "just walk out" concept allows customers to scan and pay for items automatically as they shop, eliminating the need for traditional checkout lines.

Smart homes and communities

Smart homes leverage ambient computing to create automated and convenient living spaces. With the rise of Internet of Things (IoT) technology, smart appliances like thermostats, lighting systems, security cameras, and voice-controlled assistants such as Amazon Echo and Google Home have become commonplace. These devices enable homeowners to control their environment remotely, adjust temperature settings, manage energy usage, and enhance security through smart locks and alarms.
Expanding beyond individual homes, smart communities are emerging, connecting multiple households and municipal services. These communities integrate technologies for efficient waste management, energy distribution, and traffic control. Through interconnected systems and data analytics, smart communities strive to enhance sustainability, optimize resource allocation, and improve residents' quality of life.

Summary

Ambient computing is a concept that revolves around the seamless integration of technology into our surroundings to automate tasks and enhance our daily lives. It leverages interconnected devices, data analytics, and artificial intelligence to create personalized experiences and improve efficiency. Voice assistants, fitness wearables, remote health monitoring devices, IoT-enabled sensors in agriculture, and connected retail technologies are all examples of how ambient computing is already being implemented. As IoT continues to expand and strengthen, the potential for ambient computing to transform our lives becomes even more promising.

About the Author

Cameron Cashman is a contributing writer for HP Tech Takes. Cameron is based in New England and has experience writing for a variety of industries, including technology, gaming, finance, HR, and recruiting.

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