Section: Research Program

Using and Programming Context

The goal of ambient computing is to seamlessly merge virtual and real environments. A real environment is composed of objects from the physical world, e.g., people, places, machines. A virtual environment is any information system, e.g., the Web. The integration of these environments must permit people and their information systems to implicitly interact with their surrounding environment.

Ambient computing applications are able to evaluate the state of the real world through sensing technologies. This information can include the position of a person (caught with a localization system like GPS), the weather (captured using specialized sensors), etc. Sensing technologies enable applications to automatically update digital information about events or entities in the physical world. Further, interfaces can be used to act on the physical world based on information processed in the digital environment. For example, the windows of a car can be automatically closed when it is raining.

This real-world and virtual-world integration must permit people to implicitly interact with their surrounding environment. This means that manual device manipulation must be minimal since this constrains person mobility. In any case, the relative small size of personal devices can make them awkward to manipulate. In the near future, interaction must be possible without people being aware of the presence of neighbouring processors.

Information systems require tools to capture data in its physical environment, and then to interpret, or process, this data. A context denotes all information that is pertinent to a person-centric application. There are three classes of context information:

  • The digital context defines all parameters related to the hardware and software configuration of the device. Examples include the presence (or absence) of a network, the available bandwidth, the connected peripherals (printer, screen), storage capacity, CPU power, available executables, etc.

  • The personal context defines all parameters related to the identity, preferences and location of the person who owns the device. This context is important for deciding the type of information that a personal device needs to acquire at any given moment.

  • The physical context relates to the person's environment; this includes climatic condition, noise level, luminosity, as well as date and time.

All three forms of context are fundamental to person-centric computing. Consider for instance a virtual museum guide service that is offered via a PDA. Each visitor has his own PDA that permits him to receive and visualise information about surrounding artworks. In this application, the pertinent context of the person is made up of the artworks situated near the person, the artworks that interest him as well as the degree of specialisation of the information, i.e., if the person is an art expert, he will desire more detail than the occasional museum visitor.

There are two approaches to organising data in a real to virtual world mapping: a so-called logical approach and a physical approach. The logical approach is the traditional way, and involves storing all data relevant to the physical world on a service platform such as a centralised database. Context information is sent to a person in response to a request containing the person's location co-ordinates and preferences. In the example of the virtual museum guide, a person's device transmits its location to the server, which replies with descriptions of neighbouring artworks.

The main drawbacks of this approach are scalability and complexity. Scalability is a problem since we are evolving towards a world with billions of embedded devices; complexity is a problem since the majority of physical objects are unrelated, and no management body can cater for the integration of their data into a service platform. Further, the model of the physical world must be up to date, so the more dynamic a system, the more updates are needed. The services platform quickly becomes a potential bottleneck if it must deliver services to all people.

The physical approach does not rely on a digital model of the physical world. The service is computed wherever the person is located. This is done by spreading data onto the devices in the physical environment; there are a sufficient number of embedded systems with wireless transceivers around to support this approach. Each device manages and stores the data of its associated object. In this way, data are physically linked to objects, and there is no need to update a positional database when physical objects move since the data physically moves with them.

With the physical approach, computations are done on the personal and available embedded devices. Devices interact when they are within communication range. The interactions constitute delivery of service to the person. Returning to the museum example, data is directly embedded in a painting's frame. When the visitor's guide meets (connects) to a painting's devices, it receives the information about the painting and displays it.