Touching hands
5.2The Online Market Place meets The Real World

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The basic principles of UC, CT and AR have been explained in chapter four. In this chapter we will have a look at how they can help people to connect to and work on the online market place in a personalised and effective way. Very roughly speaking, these three concepts will make the tools we need to get our work done ‘disappear’ into our environment; the online market place can thus become a utility, to which we pay just as much attention as to the telephone we use to make a telephone call.

"The Internet is already the biggest machine ever constructed by humans. As common as indoor plumbing, as cheap as running water, and as pervasive as TV - this conjures up the idea of Internet-as-utility. This is not a new idea. (Indeed, the bridge to the 21st century is actually a Cisco router!) What might be new is the adoption of the Internet-as-utility metaphor to replace the desktop metaphor we currently use.
If this metaphor works out, we have to make the Internet so pervasive that it becomes invisible, essential, and totally integrated into society.
from [LEWI97]

This idea of integrating the Internet and similar networks into our daily environment, has been the topic of numerous papers about ‘Intelligent Environments’, ‘Smart Houses’, and so on; some (like Marc Weiser) have taken this idea to the limit when they envision a world where your refrigerator will tell your shopping list that you are short of milk!
What can be learned from these papers is that these environments, where computation is seamlessly used to enhance ordinary activity, enable tasks which are historically outside the normal range of human-computer interaction by connecting computers to normal, everyday phenomena that have traditionally been outside the purview of contemporary user-interfaces. Applications of such environments are not spreadsheets or word processing programs, but intelligent rooms and personal assistants;

"Interaction with these environments should be in terms of forms that people are naturally comfortable with. Their user-interface primitives are not menus, mice and windows but gesture, speech, context, and affect. At least in theory, it should be possible for a person to forget she is using a computer while interacting with one.
Building Intelligent Environments requires a unique breadth of knowledge that extends beyond any of the traditional boundaries of AI research areas.
quote taken from the Software Agents Mailing List

As ‘intelligence’ is distributed over large numbers of objects and appliances, the problem of having one central intelligent entity to control them all - something AI has not been able to accomplish yet - becomes non sequiture. Every individual entity only needs enough ‘smartness’ (intelligence is probably a much too heavy term for this) to perform the task it is there for; "The real power of [this] concept comes not from any one of these devices; it emerges from the interaction of all of them. The hundreds of [devices] are not a 'user interface' like a mouse and windows, just a pleasant and effective ‘place’ to get things done." ([WEIS91])

The technology needed to embed ‘the computer’ into our environment and to give all kinds of devices ‘smartness’ is available today. Already there are commercial products available that can offer such functionality: there are a number of platforms and languages specifically tailored to embedded applications, and networking these devices also is not something that has to be waited for to arrive. What we - or rather: the makers of these applications and techniques - have not arrived at are general standards. Not having these standards does not make all of the previous mentioned things impossible, but it would make matters easier if we did have standards (no time would need to be wasted time on all kinds of connectivity and compatibility issues).
Regardless of the standards issue, there are a number of other challenges in this area which need to be addressed. For instance, the transparent linking of wired and wireless devices is not an easy problem to solve. And how about security and privacy?

"[There are a number of] social issues that embodied virtuality [engenders]. Perhaps key among them is privacy: hundreds of computers in every room, all capable of sensing people near them and linked by high-speed networks, have the potential to make totalitarianism up to now seem like sheerest anarchy. Just as a workstation on a local-area network can be programmed to intercept messages meant for others, a single rogue [device] in a room could potentially record everything that happened there."

Fortunately, also in this area a number of (commercial) products exist to tackle this problem, such as cryptographic techniques. Jim Morris of Carnegie-Mellon University has proposed an appealing general method for approaching these issues: build systems and applications to have the same (privacy) safeguards as the real world, but no more, so that ethical conventions will apply regardless of setting. In the physical world, for example, burglars can break through a locked door, but they leave evidence in doing so. Computers and applications built according to Morris's rule would not attempt to be utterly proof against cracker, but they would be impossible to enter without leaving the digital equivalent of fingerprints.

It is the author's belief that ubiquitous computing, calm technology, and similar techniques, will appeal to many. People have been ‘playing around’ in the online world for quite a while now, and now that this ‘play-time’ has lost its appeal, people will want to get back to the order of the day and get their work done. UC and the like can help to make the focus shift from the "how" to the "what". Note that their potential applications will not be exclusively in the area of using and accessing the online market place: there are many other areas where they can be of good use, but these lie outside the scope of this paper.

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Chapter 5 - Tomorrow's Internet: an Ubiquitous and Agent-serviced Online Market Place...? "Desperately Seeking: Helping Hands and Human Touch" -
by Björn Hermans