National Experts Explore Cutting-Edge Computing Models at UMaine Conference

Contact: Prof. Kate Beard (207) 581-2188; Joe Carr (207) 581-3571

ORONO, Me. — Some 30 national-level experts gathered in Portland Jan. 24-26 to discuss current thinking about ubiquitous computing, the idea that computers embedded in our environments can react to human preferences and adjust accordingly. One commonly used example is a system that knows when an individual has arrived at a location through sensors embedded in their clothing. When that person arrives home or at the office, locks open and lights, temperature, and music change to his or her preferences. The concept pre-dates the Internet, having been first suggested by XEROX’s Mark Weiser some 20 years ago. This capability is much closer to reality today as numerous technologies are now capable of being integrated to allow pervasive sensing as individuals travel throughout buildings, in cars, and throughout natural and urban environments.

The University of Maine’s National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA) hosted the January meeting, which included participants from academics, industry, and government who explored research directions and research challenges related to making ubiquitous computing fully real.

Weiser called ubiquitous computing “roughly the opposite of virtual reality,” and pointed out the challenges related to integrating “human factors, computer science, engineering and social sciences.”

“Ubiquitous computing is becoming possible, and the issues Weiser identified still loom large,” says Kate Beard, director of NCGIA and professor in UMaine’s Dept. of Spatial Information Science and Engineering. “Not surprisingly, space and time are major factors in the development of a ubiquitous computing environment. Our world is becoming more and more full of small but powerful computing devices and of sensing instruments in cars, warehouses, appliances, passports, subway turnstiles, credit cards and even clothing. These devices must be able to ‘know’ where they are located in space and time, where the people or phenomena they monitor are located in space and time, and whether objects are in motion or staying in one geographic location. Devices must also be able to

interact effectively with each other without human intervention.”

Prof. Harlan Onsrud, also with UMaine’s Dept of Spatial Information Science and Engineering, points out that “the ubiquitous computing environment these devices make possible must respect and serve the rights and principles we value, even as they make our lives easier and more convenient.”

Those attending the conference represented a wide range of academic disciplines, including computer science, law, geography, engineering and social sciences.

“We worked to outline a set of research priorities to help build a ubiquitous computing environment that serves human needs, rather than the other way around,” Onsrud says.

The researchers initially focused on spatial-temporal (space and time) issues in four areas key to building an integrated ubiquitous computing environment: modeling spatial and temporal elements of a ubiquitous computing environment; sensor networks and active information processing; the interaction of humans

with computing devices, including devices humans might not even be aware of; and how to respect and protect personal privacy in a world of ubiquitous computing.

Some key research areas that the conference participants identified as crucial for building an effective and efficient ubiquitous computing environment included: