"The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it." -Mark Weiser, Xerox computer scientist, in Scientific American
Say goodbye to your computer-it's about to disappear. That is, it will be so much a part of your life that you won't even know it's there.
September Scientific American is a keeper for anyone looking to learn about the brave new world of communications, computers and networks. It devotes 11 articles to the topic, mixing fact with impressionistic looks into emerging technologies and related issues, including privacy. Its most fascinating vision may be from Mark Weiser, a computer scientist for Xerox, who has built with colleagues inch-high machines-the electronic equivalent of Post-it notes. Dozens could be placed in a room to, for example, open doors to badge wearers, forward telephone calls, or instantly call up files on a computer terminal.
Less thrilling is the belief of Michael Dertouzos, head of the Laboratory for Computer Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that new technologies will widen the gap between rich and poor as the value of information increases dramatically.
"At the same time, what we've come to know as ``the computer'' itself is likely to disappear--physically and figuratively. Miniaturized components are cramming all the functions of today's PCs into ever-smaller packages: Apple Computer Inc.'s Newton and similar handheld gizmos are only a first step. Researchers at Xerox Corp. and Olivetti are driving toward a concept called ``ubiquitous computing,'' in which computing resources are embedded throughout the human environment--in appliances, digital whiteboards, and walls, or the surface of your desk, which might turn your scrawl into perfectly formatted, spellchecked text."
The term to describe this goal is ubiquitous computing.
It was coined by Mark Weiser, a researcher at Xerox PARC, an acronym for Palo Alto Research Center, the corporate think tank that invented the computer mouse and the modern graphical user interface typified by Macintosh and Microsoft Windows-based computers.
For years Xerox PARC researchers have predicted that computing will never become a casual part of human life, as so many industry seers dream, until the hardware is reduced to the easily transportable form enjoyed by print.
The 3-pound, 10-inch-square by 1-inch-thick plastic box called CruisePAD contains a radio transmitter/receiver and a backlit computer screen like the ones bolted onto laptop computers."
Ultimately, the market for top-end microprocessors might plateau--not because of the overwhelming powers of gigachips but because of something called ``ubiquitous computing.'' It is a concept envisioned by Mark Weiser, manager of the computer science lab at Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). With information networks everywhere and devices such as dirt-cheap telecomputer tablets, conventional forms of PCs will be largely passe, Weiser believes. With every networked computer in the world on call, you could just scribble what you want on a digital pad, and the request will zip into the network and search out a suitable computer. Most of the overhead would be in the network, so the digipads scattered around the office and home could use past-generation silicon, making them as cheap as pocket calculators.
Indeed, in the gigachip era, today's megachips, including Pentium, will be commodities. That will make ubiquitous computing practical. For example, PARC is experimenting with ``active badges,'' a plastic card with a built-in transmitter. At PARC, these constantly relay signals to sensors in the ceiling, so that Weiser's assistant can pinpoint his location on a floor plan in an emergency. In an on-line world, this concept could reach everywhere--including the home. AT&T Bell Laboratories already has a prototype of HumaNet, where a futuristic living room is studded with ceiling sensors and equipped with remote- controlled gadgets, including a TV wall. And everything responds to verbal commands.
That points up another major trend in gigachip computing: Making machines easy to use by endowing them with humanlike senses--fluid speech, a good ear, keen vision. IBM calls the concept ``natural computing'' and has set up a separate unit to tackle near-term applications, including speech recognition in the first models of its upcoming Power Personal Systems line of PCs."
Mark Weiser (email@example.com) / July 7, 1995