Context-aware Computing

Most of us are familiar with context-sensitive menus.  Evoked with a right-click of the mouse button, the shortcut menu which appears will change depending on where the pointer is situated when the command is made.  So, for example, if one right-clicks on a misspelled word, the short-cut menu will provide spell-check suggestions and options.  If the right-click occurs over a table, the short-cut menu will provide options to format, insert or delete columns, rows, cells, and so forth. 

Now let’s take it a step further.   Context-aware computing refers to devices that anticipate what people need or want and guide them accordingly.  The context is gathered through a combination of “hard sensors”–cameras that detect movement and GPS-based location information–and “soft sensors”–such as calendar information or pieces of data input into a device.   In other words, your gadgets will learn about you, and not the other way around.

The most consumer-friendly example is something Intel Labs has been working on for a while called the Personal Vacation Assistant. It’s a mobile device (still in prototype phase) that looks a lot like an oversized GPS. It uses what Intel is calling “context” to help travelers make decisions about stuff to do while playing tourist. Your personal travel preferences (where you like to stay, things you like to do), combined with data about stuff you’ve already done, your location, and your calendar schedule will help the device make on-the-spot recommendations for sights to see, places to eat, and more. At the end of a trip, the device can auto-generate a travel blog too, including photos and videos.   You can read more about this in an article on CNET News.

What I’ve found over the years is that the continuing reduction in size and increase in power of computer chips has created a corresponding exponential increase in the complexity of  even the simplest of gadgets we employ.  We want the increased functionality, but let’s be honest, who wants to study a 40 page manual before being able to  use a new alarm clock?  Some may find the thought of a gadget learning about them and anticipating their needs to be creepy.  From my perspective, it will be a welcome relief. 

Think about it.  Once we’ve gotten real, workable context-aware computing, we’re just a hop and skip away from giving it wheels for mobility, articulating arms, and visual sensors.  Then it can anticipate when the laundry and house cleaning needs to be done, and just do it.  I’d like to volunteer to be the first beta when we get to that point 🙂


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