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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Pushing Functionality Into Even Smaller Devices


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In today's society, people need computers, computers that are not only functional in terms of computation, but functional in our mobile, dynamic, and social lives.

As computing becomes more pervasive, people will carry their access devices with themeverywhere, all the time. So, in the design of these access devices, we must understand users' needs beyond just functionality.

Current devices are following two trends: miniaturization and the inclusion of additional functions to a single device. Each of these trends is understandable. Users don't want to carry large devices, they also don't want to carry too many devices. But, as more and more functionality gets pushed into smaller and smaller devices, they are getting more difficult to use. Problems include smaller screens, tiny input methods, and multimodal interfaces confined to a single device.

Perhaps digital jewelry can address the situation by breaking the device apart and putting the appropriate pieces in the appropriate places. For example, the earphone goes near your ear, the microphone goes near your mouth, the keypad and navigation device goes near your fingers, and the display goes where your eyes are looking. By allowing them to communicate wirelessly with your mobile phone, PDA, and other devices in your environment, digital jewelry is a practical, natural, and personal way to address the needs of pervasive computing.

So as the device disappears, what's left? As soon as you are connected all the time, everywhere, some components of the computer are less essential, and some aspects of the network services are more essential. For example, storage is less essential to carry with you, because storage services can provide you with as much storage as you require. Though you may want to carry personal data, just a single ID will allow you to access the data at any time. Likewise, CPU power may not be critical, because you can farm out your data through the network for processing elsewhere. Some components will remain, however, like a power source (batteries for now, with many more options to follow) and user interface devices. The latter is part of a more general category of sensors, which will continue to become more important as we create network services that can do interesting things with this "sensed" information. Speaking of network services, we know the service offerings must match users' needs for personalization, and respect their privacy. The way in which information will reach users will not only depend on who they are, but where they are, and what they are doing at the moment. As we observed, there is an aspect of personalization that corresponds with the users' needs for self-expression and social communication. And as for privacy, this goes beyond protecting your credit card numbers. The fact that they are with you everywhere, all the time, and with sensors to pick up most any aspect of your life, means they must become trusted companions.

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The Function of Digital Jewelry and Where it Will Take Us

In building our digital jewelry, we started by looking at the long and interesting history of how jewelry has been created for a variety of functionsenhancing our personal attributes, displaying our interests, reminding us of others. How can we apply new technologies to give jewelry new abilities to function? What are the opportunities created as we bring new network applications and services to bear on our daily business, social, and personal lives? What are the emerging needs for power, wireless communication, security, storage, and natural interfaces? By prototyping the future today, we can begin to identify and address the critical issues facing truly pervasive computing in the future.


Wit lives in the present, but genius survives the future.
Lady Marguerite Blessington, writer


As we look ahead, I think we can see how nanotechnology, quantum computers, and genetic engineering begin to enter the picture. The trend toward ever-smaller devices allows us to create invisible machines that work together to provide an appropriate interface to the incredibly powerful and completely intangible quantum computers. These systems will begin on the exterior of our bodies, but just barely. Such notions as active tattoos will probably contain sensors and ID tags at first, but will begin to contain active memory and computation. Certainly, we will use them to enhance our senses and capabilities, as we have used so many technologies before. I can foresee a stage where these devices will live under our skin, and we'll apply the knowledge we have gained about our genetic structure and the processes that govern our bodies' systems to the creation of algorithms that allow these new systems to dynamically reconfigure themselves to each of our own bodies. Purchasing new hardware may require an injection at the early stages of this technology, but soon enough, we can simply ingest the components needed to upgrade our systems. Eventually, our systems will become resourceful enough to utilize the resources available within the body. Of course, there will be risks associated with such invasive technologies, and in an ironic twist of fate, contracting a virus will no longer be used metaphorically.

But, I believe we will maintain control by designing systems that continue to serve us. These systems will bring us closer to the promise of machinery, automating the processes to which we are not well suited. Machines are perfect for those functions that exceed our mental or physical attributes, like those requiring exceeding precision, extreme speed, perfect memory, sensing beyond our perceptual abilities, or are too large or small for us to interact with. Also, we can use them to perform tasks that don't suit our interests because they are too repetitive, dangerous, emotionally unpleasant, or even socially unacceptable. In all, the systems we create allow us to focus instead on those things we enjoy doingthe more creative and social acts that define us as human.

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Author

Cameron Miner (miner@almaden.ibm.com) is Principal of the designLab, which is part of the USER Group, IBM Almaden Research Center.

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Figures

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Copyright held by author.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2001 ACM, Inc.


 

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