Ubiquitous Computing Getting Closer To A Distant Dream

Ubiquitous computing is a subject we revisit every year because we are as curious as you to see how the dream is shaping up! Today, we find that the building blocks are all there as also a few successful demonstrations, but a lot of disparate issues need to be resolved before the jig-saw falls into place -- Janani Gopalakrishnan Vikram

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Also, there is a need to develop the required standards to prevent any form of confusion or interoperability issues. “The scope of industry standardisation, especially in using IP as an open standard, has made significant headway. Yet, competing standards and proprietary protocols persist in many fields. Ubi-comp applications will mean new behaviour and traffic profiles, with architectures very different from those of regular Internet usage. For example, networks will need to cater to lower-energy and smaller nerve-ends, typically operating in more constrained environments. The very broad range of applications and industry sectors likely to benefit from the IoT will demand continued efforts to minimise standardisation issues across industries,” says Arora.

Enterprises are the early adopters
Of late, we are seeing sporadic demonstrations of ubiquitous computing. Although many of these are enterprise-scale, there are some country-wide efforts as well.

Arora shares an interesting example to start with: “Many of the existing deployments of ubi-comp have been on ad-hoc short-range wireless networks like NFC or low-power and lossy networks. It becomes important to take out the complexity from the spaghetti networks, and make them more intelligent and integrated; the objective being improvement in customer experience and interaction while keeping connectivity costs low. The data collected by smart objects or end-points in a ubiquitous communication system promises to be rich and multi-dimensional, incorporating context, time and location—thus helping to understand behaviour for better customer intimacy.

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“A classic example is Coca Cola, which has deployed smart dispensers or end-points, known as Coca Cola Freestyle, in the US to understand and dispense instantly to customer preferences and behaviour. These have a host of other functionalities that include flavour-blending, automatic refill ordering, content updates, service data collection and anti-vandalism protection measures. Without efficient networking of the end-points, achieving this would not have been possible.

“Platform for last-mile access—be it wired, mobile or fixed wireless—does not matter as long as it meets the requirements (throughput, latency) of the specific end-point.

Globally, we have seen early adoption of ubi-comp to be primarily enterprise-led. This is evident from existing large-scale deployments, such as smart grids for power metering and management, building automation, safety and security, and environmental monitoring. Consumer adoption of the IoT is expected to improve significantly when use-cases become more robust and permeate into mainstream use—possibly driven by business social networking and increased use of smartphones and tablet PCs in enabling location-based consumer intelligence or augmented reality services.

Arora mentions some specific drivers for the growth of ubi-comp in the near future: Improvement of existing applications like RFID, robotics, smart-phone and Web tablet (potentially a $68-billion market worldwide in 2014); new applications in utilities and building automation serving multiple industries, such as transformation of electricity grids into smart grids (a $76-billion market worldwide in 2014); and new segment solutions and applications like vehicle telematics and smart water management that are expected to grow in the next five years.

Governments doing their bit
Countries like Finland, Japan, China, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea are doing a lot of multi-disciplinary research towards a ubi-comp future and also spearheading a lot of practical implementations. Ubi-comp has also been included in the developmental roadmaps of these countries. Most countries are fiddling around with smart electricity grids for improved power management and conservation—one of the smartest examples of ubiquitous computing. India too has a wing of its Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) doing research on ubi-comp.

“In Japan, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication has taken the lead in introducing ubi-comp technology. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has shown strong interest in using the ubi-comp technology for sightseeing guidance, helping the aged and the physically-challenged to go around the town, and for maintaining public objects in parks and along highways, etc,” says Ishikawa.

Another example is the Indian Ocean Tsunami warning system, which was installed after the tsunami of 2004. It includes a network of deep ocean sensors and 25 seismographic information stations relaying information to 26 national tsunami information centres.

In China, there is a lot of government pressure on industries and local governments to implement various aspects of ubi-comp. “The city of WuXi is reportedly becoming the ‘centre for sensing China’ with various IoT pilot initiatives in progress. The country’s first intelligent transformer substation for state grid went live in the city, fully automated with sensors, in early 2011. At the Shanghai World Expo 2010, 70 million tickets with RFID chips were integrated with three million cellphones and ubi-comp applications demonstrated for vehicles, rubbish management and food safety. Chongqing, having a population of 32 million, is building the world’s largest ubi-comp video surveillance system with at least half a million cameras to facilitate public safety management integrated into the city’s municipal services, transportation, environmental monitoring and emergency response systems,” says Arora.

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