Notes on “At Home with Ubiquitous Computing: Seven Challenges”

November 17, 2008

At Home with Ubiquitous Computing: Seven Challenges: W. Keith Edwards and Rebecca E. Grinter

The authors outline seven key design challenges for ubiquitous computing applications in the home.

  1. No group of technologies will be introduced wholesale. Ubicomp technologies will enter the home piece by piece, so we cannot take advantage of whole-system design.
  2. We must somehow solve a hardware version of the polymorphism paradox. That is, adding new types of devices or new device capabilities can require modification of all existing devices.
  3. Most homes do not have a technology expert on call.
  4. Technologies must integrate into home routines.
  5. New technologies may change housework in undesirable ways.
  6. Home technologies must be highly reliable.
  7. Many applications must solve the “wizard” problem, in which unintelligent and perfectly intelligent systems are desirable but anything in between just causes problems.

One, two and seven are broadly applicable to many problem domains. There is no generic solution to #1. A good solution to #2 is unlikely as it’s a fundamentally hard problem. #3 is an instantiation of a need for simplicity in home technologies. I don’t think system designers need to worry too much about #4. I would consider it likely that home routines will bend themselves to new technology. #5 is a fundamental problem with any innovation and also shouldn’t trouble a system designer. We shouldn’t stop inventing things just because they might have some undesirable side-effects. #6 is a major open problem in software engineering. #7 is a well-known problem in all software design. Its implications are well understood and for this reason it is easier than the others.

Just as algorithm designers need to understand complexity to know when they have stumbled on known hard problems, home application designers should be aware of these principles to recognize a hard problem. This paper has value in that it provides a framework for thinking about the challenges in a clear way.

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