What is Ambient Reality or Ubiquitous Computing?

 Ambient Reality

Gary Smith for Imaginet

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Imagine living in a world where everything from your fridge to your car and your working environment are all interconnected in a way that offers a lifestyle that is more effective and dynamic and which increases your immediate interaction with the world around you. Now take this vision a quantum step further and imagine a world where everything, including the everyday objects in your surroundings, your electronic communications, TV, car, and so forth interact with you contextually, and where there are multiple and seemingly invisible interconnections between yourself  and the world around you. This is the beginning of ambient reality, also referred to as ambient intelligence. While this might sound like science-fiction, ambient reality is rather a technological reality that is already being developed.

The introduction of ambient reality or ubiquitous computing has been described as a new and exciting feature in the development of computer technology and communication; it also acclaims a new era of possibility in terms of human consciousness in the way that humans interact within our hi-tech environment.  In other words, this emerging technological intelligence impacts the way we think and experience ourselves in the world. As one expert puts it:

[Ambient Intelligence’s] presence in our lives will transfigure our notions of space and time, self and other, citizen and society in ways what we haven’t begun to contemplate. [1]

Ambient reality works basically as follows.  The intention of ambient intelligence and technology is to apply sensors to various objects or surfaces in the home as well as public environments. These sensors use various software algorithms to enable and facilitate communication and the exchange of data.

The exciting and perhaps scary thing to bear in mind is that this form of technological intelligence has the potential to completely alter our view of reality mainly because it changes the conventional way in which human’s interact within their environment and relate to the objects that surround them.  This interface between humans and technological objects is seen as a new phase in human evolution and is characterized by an intersection between man and machine that is no longer experienced as a one-way process or simply the effect of human manipulation on passive technology. In this sense, technology is nascent in its interactive potential and its impact on human perception and consciousness.

In an increasingly networked world where mobile and online interconnections have become meshed into the structure and function and the very fabric of everyday life, ambient intelligence is in fact becoming a realistic probability. The European Commission (ISTAG 2001) and other similar bodies have posited the various possibilities that ambient intelligence (AmI) holds for future society. As a report, entitled, Science and Technology Roadmapping: Ambient Intelligence in Everyday Life by ESTO, The European Science and Technology Observatory, states,

“The concept of Ambient Intelligence…provides a vision of the Information Society future where the emphasis is on userfriendliness, efficient and distributed services support, user-empowerment, and support for human interactions. People are surrounded by intelligent intuitive interfaces that are embedded in all kinds of objects and an environment that is capable of recognising and responding to the presence of different individuals in a seamless, unobtrusive and often invisible way”.[2]

To simplify, ambient intelligent interfaces will be contextually aware and will not only respond to direct human manipulation but also to certain situations and contexts that they may even play a part in creating.

Another important aspect of this technology is that it will be invisible and a part of everything.  Mark Weiser, a researcher at Xerox Palo Alto Research, published a paper entitled “Ubiquitous Computing #1”. In this paper he puts forward the idea of ‘invisible computing’. This refers to a form of computing that “does not live on a personal device of any sort, but is in the woodwork everywhere.” [3] In essence, this refers to unobtrusive but ubiquitous computing.

What Weiser was describing would be nothing less than computing without computers. In his telling, desktop machines per se would largely disappear, as the tiny, cheap microprocessors that powered them faded into the built environment. But computation would flourish, becoming intimately intertwined with the stuff of everyday life. [4]

The key elements of ambient intelligence can be summarized as follows:

  • embedded: many networked devices are integrated into the environment
  • context aware: these devices can recognize you and your situational context
  • personalized: they can be tailored to your needs
  • adaptive: they can change in response to you
  • anticipatory: they can anticipate your desires without conscious mediation.[5]

Fundamental to this view is the idea of a ‘smart environment’. This includes sensor technologies, RFID systems, nanotechnology and miniaturization. These technologies constitute what has been termed The Internet of Things.

The visionary future of ambient intelligence and its use is seen in the creation of environments where everyday objects will be able to communicate with one another and with people. This has a multitude of practical, philosophical and psychological consequences, all of which need to be taken into account – and that is where the runaway idealism stops!  There is an implied sense of threat and more than a hint of Terminator in the following expert view of ambient intelligence: objects will, taken within the ambit of the concept of ambit of ambient intelligence, take on a very different perceived role. They will not be seen as static objects but as “…socially relevant actors and strong-willed agents”[6] , which will be capable of reconfiguring and to a great extent reshaping our social and habitual worlds. This has very obvious and profound existential and social ramifications.

What do you think? Please add your comments. Our next article on this topic will look at the social and personal implications of ambient intelligence and the ways in which it is already being applied – including the possibilities that it holds for modern marketing.


[1] Greenfield, A 2006,  Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing, New Rider, New York

[2] Friedewald  M. and  Da Costa O. (2003) Science and Technology Roadmapping:

Ambient Intelligence in Everyday Life. The European Science and Technology. < http://foresight.jrc.ec.europa.eu/documents/SandT_roadmapping.pdf>.

[3] Greenfield, A 2006,  Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing, New Rider, New York

[4] Greenfield, A 2006,  Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing, New Rider, New York

[5] Concept of Ambient Intelligence.<http://www.perey.com/smartobjectsenvironments.html>

[6] Bleecker J, A Manifesto for Networked Objects — Cohabiting with Pigeons,

Arphids and Aibos in the Internet of Things. <http://www.nearfuturelaboratory.com/files/WhyThingsMatter.pdf>


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