[Ubicomp] What is ubicomp?

One reader asks about ubicomp and its relationship to supply chain management.

[We think ubicomp is] simply the philosophy of using computation to augment the ability of entities in a non-invasive way. If our definition is correct, then would it follow that technologies which can vastly improve transparency across a supply chain without requiring significant process changes be one valid application of ubiquitous computing? If so, then wouldn't any and all supporting technologies (data storage facility, barcodes, etc.) be part of ubiquitous computing technologies within that context?

My response:

Well, on the one hand, the term ubiquitous computing is sufficiently general that it could include lots of things, sort of like personal computing. On the other hand, if you look at the specific research that calls itself ubiquitous computing, you only see certain kinds of things. For example, mobile computing, sensor networks, large displays, etc. Lots of areas with previous work done (ex. databases, hardware architecture, AI) may be doing work that is highly relevant to ubiquitous computing, but often don't call themselves that, probably for cultural reasons.

From my perspective, what is and isn't ubiquitous computing is debatable, and ultimately not that useful.


Ubiquitous computing also suffers from the same problem as AI, which is that the bar keeps getting raised. Things that might have been considered ubicomp a few decades ago (ex. TVs and barcodes and LEDs) are no longer so.

Currently, the main characteristics of ubicomp technologies would one or more of the following:
- Natural interaction (speech, sketching, pointing, etc)
- Mobile, off the desktop
- Awareness of the physical world (location, identity, activity)
- Integration with the physical world (smart cars, smart tables)
- All wirelessly networked

The off the desktop part is important too, as that is part of integrating computation and communication into all aspects of our lives, rather than just a single place in a single machine. I would categorize things like barcodes and data storage as mostly fitting within the desktop environment.

On the other hand, there are emerging technologies for supply chains that I would also consider ubicomp:
- RFIDs for real-time tracking of inventory
- Wearable computers for coordinating employees
- Location-based services for tracking vehicle fleet

So I'd say it's a question of degrees here. While supply chain and ubicomp aren't mutually exclusive, there are some technologies that exhibit more of the characteristics described above than others.


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