Ambient intelligence: the next generation of user centeredness

XII.4 July + August 2005
Page: 28
Digital Citation

Living in metamorphosis

Jukka Vanhala, Frans Mäyrä, Ilpo Koskinen

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The Finnish Academy of Sciences is funding a three-year research program on proactive computing [1]. The program integrates technological innovations in hardware and software with psychological and social-science research. The 14 funded projects span the wide field of proactive computing ranging from modelling the user's behavior to proactive healthcare systems, to controlling the environment via a direct brain interface. The program is organized in cooperation with the National Technology Agency of Finland and the French Ministry of Research.

Proactive systems or proactive computing is a new approach to help in understanding how intelligence should be embedded into the everyday environment [2]. It is closely related to, for example, ubiquitous computing, autonomous computing, and ambient intelligence, which all deal with different aspects of the same domain of study. Proactive computing connects embedded systems and sensor technologies with a user-centric view on design, which necessitates research into which activities should be automated and which should be left to the human operator. On the one hand, proactivity in its full "strong" form is an ability of the system to anticipate the needs of the user, and on the other, an ability to take control of the situation whenever the user is unable or unwilling to act appropriately.


Morphome Project. The research project examines the interface, engineering, design, and acceptance issues related to proactive applications in a social and material, everyday environment. New solutions are needed for controlling intelligent objects and services, and for mediating awareness of their capabilities and internal state to the users. Environments that contain proactive functionalities often call for different kinds of attitudes or actions from their users or inhabitants as compared to their non-enhanced counterparts. Proactive systems thereby require social and cultural, as much as technical, research to make them successful in everyday life.

The main research problem of the Morphome project is: How can the distributed, non-intrusive access and input be designed and implemented so that they facilitate adaptive control and awareness in a proactive home environment?

Home as the use context forms a social and cultural as well as material environment that has to be taken as the starting point of proactive implementations embedded into its fabric. Home is an important and challenging research area: All kinds of people need to be served by the applications implemented in homes. People's primary aims are in the areas of relaxation and social interaction. It is particularly important that people's focus should not be diverted and encumbered by system-control functions in homes. Proactive technologies therefore face both great promises but also particularly tight challenges in home environments.

The problem in studying how people understand proactive technology is similar to any advanced technology. Since people have no experience of this technology, they cannot formulate their opinions about it realistically. We build a series of "mini-designs" (the term is used in Philips Design and Technical University of Eindhoven, the Netherlands) to give people experience needed in reflecting not just technology, but also design issues involved. Mini-designs are in technological terms less advanced than prototypes, but their design is polished and aims at realism. The first mini-design, aimed primarily at studying wireless communication, power consumption, and durability in the hands of children, was a cushion implemented with RFID technology. The second design was an IKEA-style lamp: Its latest version reacts to changes in sound levels. The final mini-design will be a lighting system combined with a mixed-media environment. Combined with scenario-based interviews probing more-advanced technological possibilities, these mini-designs helped us to give people experiences for interviews that were not based on negative stereotypes of technology.



The information derived from the research has been relevant to all three areas: proactive technology research, research into the design of home as a material as well as social environment, and on the general design and research principles guiding the introduction of new technology into everyday life environments.

Some of the key principles suggested and supported by our research involve:

  • principle of consistency (new, "invisible" and intelligent functionalities should be consistently implemented and communicated to users)
  • principle of personalization (in home environments it is particularly important to provide room for individual taste and preference)
  • design for play (as the guiding principle for making proactive environments supportive of relaxing social interaction)
  • principle of open-ended tangible designs (to support making a proactively-enhanced home of the future also reassuring and manageable)
  • principle of animism (to guide easily approachable design of places and objects that show characteristics of being alive or intelligence).

Technical Interpretation of Proactivity. When electronics penetrate to the everyday environment, digital convergence gets a new form [3]. Besides computing, communication, and digital content, there is digitalized real physical world. Real objects are controlled by computers; they can communicate with other objects digitally; they create new content to the global network by measuring the environment; and besides their traditional properties, they have new functions enabled by the digital content and services. The emphasis is no longer in information-processing but rather in the events in the real environment.

The structure and behavior of a proactive system can be seen as a control system. Important research questions rise from the need to model the highly dynamic environment so that it can be measured and controlled in an intelligent way.

The state of the system can be described by a set of state variables describing the properties of some physical entities in the environment. In order to understand how the state of the system develops through time, a model of the behavior is needed. Most industrial processes can be described in detail using the state variables, but the situation in a normal everyday environment is much more complex, and the number of state variables which could describe the state of the system is huge. Furthermore, the relations between the state variables are not known and they change in time.

The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style in English Language Reference provides two definitions for the word "proactive:"

Proactive (of a person, policy, etc.): creating or controlling a situation by 1) taking the initiative or 2) anticipating events; ready to take initiative, tending to make things happen.

Thus the first meaning can be interpreted technically as the ability of the system to act autonomously without the user taking part in the control loop. The reasons why the user should be left out from the control loop are manifold. The requirements may be too tight and the human controller is not able to control the system accurately enough; the evolution of the system may be so slow that the user cannot stay in control for such long time periods, and slow changes are difficult to perceive; the evolution of the system state is too fast for a human to react correctly; or the control task is so complicated that comprehending all interactions is too difficult for a human operator.

The second interpretation is somewhat meaningless in the case of closed control systems where the future of the system is predetermined, that is all future states of the system can be calculated given the initial state of the system. In a sense, time and prediction lose their common meanings; the ability of a control system to be proactive is a built-in feature. The situation changes if the values of the control variables are changed as an external input to the system. Then the system is not closed and its future behavior is known only until the next control action takes place. In an open system like the proactive everyday living environment, the second meaning could then be interpreted as the ability of the system to anticipate the user's goals on the basis of scarce and imprecise measured information.

Conclusions. How people will see the effect of the Moore's law in the future is not in the high-end supercomputers doing spectacular things, but rather in the very small communicating processors embedded into every imaginable object, forming a very fine-grained parallel multicomputer with a user interface spread across the whole environment. Personal-computer and internet and mobile communication have all been large-scale technological infrastructure developments that have produced large industrial branches, changing the way we live. The interesting question is whether ambient intelligence in some of its forms will do the same.

back to top  References

1. Morphome project:

2. Tennenhouse, David (2000) "Proactive Computing." Communications of the ACM 43:5 (May 2000), 43-50.

3. Negroponte Nicholas, Being Digital. Vintage, New York, 1995.

back to top  Authors

Jukka Vanhala
Tampere University of Technology

Frans Mäyrä
University of Tampere, Finland

Ilpo Koskinen
University of Art and Design Helsinki

About the Authors:

Jukka Vanhala is a professor at the Institute of Electronics at TUT and the director of the Kankaanpää research unit of wearable technology. He received his MSc at the software engineering laboratory in 1985, Licenciate of Technology at the microelectronics laboratory in 1990, and doctor of technology at the electronics laboratory in 1998. His career also includes six years of work in the industry both in Finland and in the U.S.

Frans Mäyrä has studied the relationship of culture and technology since the early `90s. He has specialized in the cultural analysis of technology, particularly on the ambiguous, conflicting and heterogeneous elements in this relationship, and has published on topics that range from information technologies, science fiction and fantasy to the demonic tradition, the concept of identity and role-playing games. He is currently teaching, researching and heading numerous research projects in the study and development of games, new media, and digital culture. He is also the current president of the Digital Games Research Association, DiGRA. Publications: Koneihminen (Man-Machine; ed., 1997), Demonic Texts and Textual Demons (1999), Johdatus digitaaliseen kulttuuriin (Introduction to Digital Culture; ed., 1999), CGDC Conference Proceedings (ed., 2002), Lapsuus mediamaailmassa (Childhood in the World of Media, ed. 2005), The Metamorphosis of Home (ed. 2005).

Ilpo Koskinen is a sociologist who works as a professor of industrial design in Helsinki. One of his research interests is the use and design of mobile technology and mobile multimedia. His book Mobile Image (Helsinki: IT Press, 2002), written with Esko Kurvinen and Turo-Kimmo Lehtonen, focused on taking and sending photographs with mobile phones. He has continued to work on pervasive image capture and sharing since then, typically focusing on design. His other interests consist of applying interpretive design methodology to proactive computing and meaningful material aspects in the home environment.

back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Very small communicating processors are embedded into every imaginable object, forming a very fine-grained parallel multicomputer with a user interface spread across the whole environment.

UF2Figure. The first mini-design, aimed primarily at studying wireless communication, power consumption, and durability in the hands of children, was a cushion implemented with RFID technology.

UF3Figure. The second design was an IKEA-style lamp: Its latest version reacts to changes in sound levels.

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