Sometimes, Reality Just Isn’t Real Enough

One of the most fascinating aspects of evolving mobile platforms like Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android is their  promise of ubiquitous computing.

Now there’s a scary phrase: ubiquitous computing. What does it mean?

First, ubiquitous = omnipresent. Like, everywhere. As in, tripping over it all over the friggin’ place.

But, really: who wants to find computers around every corner?

So it seems ubiquitous + computing does not necessarily equal the culinary nirvana that is chocolate + peanut butter. (“Hey, you got ubiquity in my computer!” just doesn’t have that same… je ne sais quoi.)

But, hold on. Computing does not necessarily mean computer.

No, what ubiquitous computing (ubicomp for short) suggests is the constant presence of “intelligent” technology in our personal worlds.

And that’s not intelligent in the human sense. It really just means awareness of several sources of information, and their relationships, at once.

The best real-world example of ubicomp is another catch-phrase: augmented reality.

Augmented as in supplemented, or added to.

It’s a method of providing context to one’s surroundings.

The root of augmented reality, as with so much of our lives, is location.

Where am I?

Ergo, what’s around me?

Augmented reality answers that question.

In a sense, it’s the opposite application of the crass “virtual” reality.

Instead of synthesize a pretend location, it enhances your real sense of place and space.

An augmented reality app will provide you with in-depth information about your surroundings.

Like, what real estate is for sale within my current view, and how much does it cost?

Where’s the nearest café?

Where can I get a copy of Gulliver’s Travels within 3 blocks of where I am?

An augmented reality application can answer all of those questions and more.

It does this by establishing where you are and what you’re looking at.

Then it goes online to look up relevant information.

Existing augmented reality apps use a combination of a device’s GPS, compass, and camera to identify a person’s whereabouts.

The GPS knows where you are in the world.

The compass can assess what direction you’re looking.

And the camera can establish what you’re looking at.

Presumably you’ve already told the augmented reality app what it is you’re trying to learn about your environment.

Based on the information it’s collected, it then overlays information on the device’s screen to identify where what you’re looking for is in your environment.

So say if you point your device at a building, it may display information about offices that are for rent inside.

If you point it down a shopping street, it may identify the stores with the best sales.

Augmented reality is a great first step into ubicomp.

And it suggests that the computing aspect of ubicomp doesn’t have to be around us, it can be with us.

Many fictitious versions of ubicomp present a world in which the machines invade our space and distort our reality.

Like in Minority Report with Tom Cruise, where every billboard calls his character’s name like a mythological siren.

Ubicomp as augmented reality, however, permits us to control the terms on which we engage.

When we need our surroundings enhanced, we pull a device out of our pocket.

Otherwise, leave it there and let reality – the real reality – be.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, October 23, 2009.