Like a walk in the woods? – 21st Century Computers

By | Markus Löchtefeld

In 1991 – over 30 years ago – Mark Weiser presented his vision for the future of computing and the concept of Ubiquitous Computing in his seminal article “The computer for the 21st Century”. Ubiquitous Computing is a concept where computing technologies are becoming small enough to be seamlessly integrated into our everyday life and “find their way invisibly into people’s lives” [1]. This idea also comes in a variety of other names such as: pervasive computing, ambient intelligence, or Internet of Things (IoT). Now, 30 years later, we live in the 21st century and a lot of Weiser’s original vision has already become reality. For example, the originally proposed main three device classes that would drive ubiquitous computing: Tabs (“inch-scale machines that approximate active post-It notes”), Pads (“foot-scale ones that behave something like a sheet of paper (or a book or a magazine)”), and Boards (“yard-scale displays that are the equivalent of a blackboard”) [1], are already here. Tabs or as we call them now Smartphones, are the most common computing devices on the planet and Pads (now Tablet computers) and Boards (now Smartboards) have reached our daily lives as well.

So why do I refer to this article if most of it already exists or at least we can see the vision becoming a reality? Weiser’s article contains many more ideas and hints at what a 21st century computer might be beyond the obvious “computers everywhere”. The article starts with the sentence “The most profound technologies are those that disappear” [1] and if we look at our world today, computers have done everything but disappear. We see around us reminders of the technology everywhere we look, whether they are on or off. Especially when they are off! We are greeted by blinking LEDs and black squares, which is not helping to make the vision a reality. One solution from my own research to get closer to Weiser’s original vision are displays based on electrochromic materials, that can be integrated with other materials [2] and completely blended into the environment [3] (even into wearables) as they do not emit any light, but rather they change the color of the reflected light that bounces off the surface. Given the negative impact of artificial light on human sleep patterns [4], this property can be beneficial if we expect to be surrounded by computers at every point. In general, we can observe a bigger push inside the ubiquitous computing community to include more material science into computing to make Weiser’s vision a reality [5]. However, creating highly integrated materials fused together to fit our daily environments might be problematic from a sustainability perspective, as they are potentially not recyclable. If these novel materials are not already developed with the goal of them being recyclable, or at least re-usable, without losing their quality over time (e.g., following the idea of technical nutrients of McDonough and Braungart cradle-to-cradle idea [6]), we might see ubiquitous computing becoming reality while creating large amounts of toxic waste. Creating sustainable computational materials is a wicked problem but with the currently ever-increasing amount of e-waste a necessity.

So, what other ideas can we find in Weiser’s article? The last paragraph of the article hints at another point of his vision and states the following:

“Most important, ubiquitous computers will help overcome the problem of information overload. There is more information available at our fingertips during a walk in the woods than in any computer system, yet people find a walk among trees relaxing and computers frustrating. Machines that fit the human environment, instead of forcing humans to enter theirs, will make using a computer as refreshing as taking a walk in the woods.” [1]

As of right now, computing is still mostly frustrating, and maybe resembles at best the feeling of a walk in the woods during thunderstorms with pouring rain and the fear of getting hit by lighting every moment. Thirty years in, and we too often struggle to connect a projector to a laptop - one should mention here though that a lot of things work rather seamlessly as we have nearly forgot about them, e.g., WiFi or GPS, compared to the early nineties where you could not even watch a US DVD in Europe or Japan. However, the bigger problem is the endless stream of notifications that beg for our attention. We still only have very poor means to deal with the information overload and digital detox is still a common new year’s resolution [7]. Weiser hints here at another concept that he would expand on four years later together with John Seely Brown: The idea of Calm Technology or Calm Computing [8]: “Calm technology engages both the center and the periphery of our attention, and in fact moves back and forth between the two.” [8]. Technologies that would only demand our attention when needed and when we have the mental capacities and time and that otherwise do their job without us noticing that they are around. Whether this is desirable or even possible has been discussed by others before [9]. Still, after all, wouldn’t it be nice if “using a computer would be as refreshing as taking a walk in the woods” [1] while at the same time the computer would have disappeared into our environment? And would that not mean that the computer has become the woods? Or how about the other way around, what if the woods become the computer?

To create a future in which computing is calm, ubiquitous, and at the same time sustainable, we will have to develop computing that incorporates more renewable and recycled materials and more biodegradable materials. We already see biodegradable materials such as wood pulp and mycelium becoming more prevalent not only for e.g., housing electronic components (compare also the video below) but mycelium can potentially even become an important player in the electronics themselves [10]. For a sustainable future we will need more of these alternative base materials that are grown instead of mined. Or why not even go one step further and directly incorporate living organisms into computing? While first steps have been done with e.g., in living media interfaces [11] and some startups claim to directly integrate biological neurons with silicon chips [12]. There are E. coli bacteria that can solve sudokus for more than 10 years now [13], but it will still require a lot more research to develop general processing bacteria or fungal based electronics at scale. There is an inherent need for interdisciplinary research that combines for example artificial biology, electronics, and computer science to create these refreshing wood computers.

So even after 30 years Weiser’s vision [1] for the 21st century computer still holds more ideas that are worthwhile pursuing and efforts such as the ABRA project can play a key role in enabling the development of a sustainable 21st Century Computer.

  1. Weiser, M. (1991). The computer for the 21st Century. Scientific American, 265(3), 75-84.
  2. Jensen, W., Colley, A., Häkkilä, J., Pinheiro, C., & Löchtefeld, M. (2019). TransPrint: A method for fabricating flexible transparent free-form displays. Advances in Human-Computer Interaction, 2019.
  3. Müller, H., Colley, A., Häkkilä, J., Jensen, W., & Löchtefeld, M. (2019, September). Using electrochromic displays to display ambient information and notifications. In Adjunct Proceedings of the 2019 ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing (pp. 1075-1078).  
  4. Czeisler, C. A. (2013). Perspective: casting light on sleep deficiency. Nature, 497(7450), S13-S13.
  5. Abowd, G. D. (2020). The Internet of Materials: A Vision for Computational Materials. IEEE Pervasive Computing, 19(2), 56-62.
  6. McDonough, W., & Braungart, M. (2010). Cradle to cradle: Remaking the way we make things. North point press.
  7. Löchtefeld, M., Böhmer, M., & Ganev, L. (2013, December). AppDetox: helping users with mobile app addiction. In Proceedings of the 12th international conference on mobile and ubiquitous multimedia (pp. 1-2).
  8. Weiser, M., & Brown, J. S. (1996). Designing calm technology. PowerGrid Journal, 1(1), 75-85.
  9. Aylett, M. P., & Quigley, A. J. (2015, April). The broken dream of pervasive sentient ambient calm invisible ubiquitous computing. In Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 425-435).
  10. Adamatzky, A., Ayres, P., Beasley, A.E., Chiolerio, A., Dehshibi, M.M., Gandia, A., Albergati, E., Mayne, R., Nikolaidou, A., Roberts, N. and Tegelaar, M., 2021. Fungal electronics. Biosystems, p.104588.
  11. Merritt, T., Hamidi, F., Alistar, M., & DeMenezes, M. (2020). Living media interfaces: a multi-perspective analysis of biological materials for interaction. Digital Creativity, 31(1), 1-21.
  12. https://www.cclabs.ai/
  13. https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn19733-problem-solving-bacteria-crack-sudoku/