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When computers disappear and computing bleeds into the world around us, it also means that instead of interacting with separate small computing devices, we will essentially live inside one giant computer. (Photos.com)
When computers disappear and computing bleeds into the world around us, it also means that instead of interacting with separate small computing devices, we will essentially live inside one giant computer. (Photos.com)

Long Read

We live inside the machine now: The arrival of ubiquitous computing Add to ...

This year, AR glasses that are indistinguishable from regular sunglasses will hit the market for the rest of us when the likes of Google and Vuzix roll out consumer products. These will connect wirelessly to a smartphone and serve as a sort of secondary display. In the context of ubiquitous computing, they’ll free digital information from the confines of a handheld screen and bring it out into the real world.

The same goes for so-called pico projectors, which can turn smartphones into miniature movie projectors. When combined with sensor technology such as cameras or motion detectors, pico projectors also become two-way, interactive communication tools. Projected virtual keyboards, already on the market, are a good example.

Input is also undergoing its own quiet transformation. In the past few years, touch screens, voice command and gesture control – think Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Kinect – have all arisen to complement and in many cases supplant the traditional mouse and keyboard. In many situations, they make computing feel natural and intuitive.

Motion or gesture control, in particular, will be integral in a world of ubiquitous computing. The original vision relied strongly on the ability to affect information and machines with just a wave of the hand. That capability arrived only recently through video game consoles. Nintendo popularized motion-controlled computing with its Wii controller in 2006 while Microsoft took it a step further in 2010 with the Kinect, which allowed for full-body gaming without the need for any handheld device.

The technology is now iterating and improving quickly. Leap Motion, a San Francisco-based startup, will soon start selling a chocolate-bar-sized plug-in for computers that, like Kinect, will allow users to control what they see on the screen with their hands. The device promises to be more fine-grained than Microsoft’s product in that it can accurately track finger movements. Microsoft itself will likely unveil a new-and-improved second-generation Kinect with its next Xbox console later this year.

Leap chief executive Michael Buckwald sees motion control being incorporated into smartphones, where it will integrate with AR glasses to create immersive, 3D computing experiences akin to what has been seen in movies such as Minority Report and Iron Man. In the spirit of ubiquitous computing, the experience won’t feel like computing.

“Suddenly, data will become so much more intuitive,” he says.

Keyboards are likely to be rendered obsolete in all but the most specialized of cases by devices that simply allow us to issue commands to the walls. The Siri-like “Ubi,” a puck-sized box that plugs into any electrical socket, is just one example. The Ubi attracted attention on Kickstarter last year by looking up recipes and connecting phones calls when asked to do so.

It may not be Star Wars exactly, but it’s certainly approaching Star Trek , where the crew spoke to their ship – and it spoke back. There’s little doubt: we’re quickly being surrounded by computing, and the ways in which we interact with it are becoming much more natural and invisible.

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So what happens if and when we want to unplug? Can we even do that anymore? Unfortunately, when you’re surrounded by the Force, there’s no off switch, and some people are already feeling those detrimental effects.

Back in the 1990s, when you weren’t “at your computer” you couldn’t be expected to check it. But with the rise of the “Crackberry” phenomenon – the obsessive use of one’s smartphone, particularly the BlackBerry – computing is now location-less for being online, for text messages and e-mail. Employees are always reachable.

Studies have found the large majority of people check e-mail after work hours, take smartphones and laptops with them on vacation and send e-mail or texts during meals with family and friends. Often, employers don’t officially require them to do so, but the tacit expectations are there. The work day and its related stresses and pressures have, for many people, effectively blended into personal time.

Socially, many are also finding it preferable to spend time on Facebook than with real friends and family. A recent study by researchers at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business found that most people consider Facebook, Twitter and e-mail harder to resist than cigarettes and alcohol, while a report from the Pew Research Center and Elon University last year concluded that young people in particular will suffer from a loss of patience and a lack of deep-thinking ability because of the sort of “fast-twitch wiring” enabled by perpetual connectedness.

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