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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Towards Mobile Environments: Ambient Intelligence

For a few years, computer technology has been pervading larger parts of our everyday environment. First it spread in “technological” artifacts such as cameras, mobile phones, car radios, etc. Now, researchers consider its integration into even more commonplace objects such as clothing, doors, walls, furniture, etc. This trend is referred to by terms like pervasive or ubiquitous computing, the disappearing computer, mixed systems, ambient intelligence, etc. All of them describe the same kind of concept, that of giving everyday objects additional capabilities in terms of computation, wireless communication and interaction with human users.

Although the basic concept dates back to the early 1990s, its implementation was long deemed impractical because electronic devices could not be miniaturized enough. However, recent advances in the fields of miniaturization, wireless networks and interaction techniques are quickly removing these technical barriers. Moreover, until recently, researchers in the field had to master both hardware and software, which limited the development of these systems. Now, off-the-shelf hardware platforms are readily available, thus software specialists can experiment with ambient systems without being hardware experts.

When characterizing the specificities of ambient intelligence, three core properties can be highlighted:

 Ubiquitous computing: microprocessors can be embedded into everyday objects that traditionally lack any computing ability, such as furniture, clothing, wallpaper, etc. Some people already envision embedding RFID into construction materials (concrete, paint) or furniture.
 Ubiquitous communication: these objects must be endowed with wireless communication abilities, rely on energy sources that provide them with good autonomy, and be capable of spontaneously interoperating with other objects, and without human intervention.
 Intelligent user interfaces: human users must be able to interact with these objects in a natural (using voice, gestures, etc.) and customized way. The object must therefore take user preferences and context into account.

Ambient intelligence systems interact with users when they are not in “classical” interaction situations, i.e. sitting at one’s desk or using a portable device (PDA for instance). These systems must be able to discretely and non-intrusively react to user actions. This can be significantly useful in mobile situations, when it is impractical to use a device, even a handheld one such as a mobile phone. For instance, when one is finding their way at an airport, they generally do not want to hold their mobile phone, it is much more appropriate to receive information from the background, for instance from loudspeakers or stationary display screens.

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