Pervasive Computing Isn't Everywhere ... Yet

By Pam Baker

(Back to article)

With their location based services (LBS), mCommerce (mobile commerce), GPS-coded pictures, and applications as-yet-unseen, these smartphones and tablets are in the vanguard of a revolution in computing. These tiny devices with their touch screens, motion sensors, cameras, Internet access and always-on presence have infiltrated our everyday lives. That, of course, is the very nature of pervasive computing; its ability to join our world rather than demand we visit its techno-universe.

"The premise of 'pervasive computing' is compelling: simplicity of use and transparency for the user," explained Pam Cory, VP of Marketing for NetMotion Wireless.

Eventually, pervasive computing will become so ubiquitous that the sheer invisibility of it will be both comforting and disconcerting. One can just imagine the sequel to the movie Office Space wherein a discontented worker flips off the boss from the safety of his cubicle only to find that the motion prompted the computer camera to take the shot and pass it automatically from device to device.

The scene would be a series of cuts showing the Bird launcher's picture bounce from device to device, even to the TV in the company cafeteria, as the worker walks by. The last shot would show the offending picture as it flits finally to the boss' own desktop. That's the nature of pervasive computing -- it does the work for us automatically even when we rather it did not.

Yes, the world of pervasive computing is likely to be fraught with comedy and errors but it will also be full of benign perks and advantages, as well. We are not quite there yet, but the precursors are in place: smartphones, the Xbox Kinect motion recognition technology, next-gen RFID tags, 3G/4G, etc. With the cloud, enterprises are already moving steadily towards ambient intelligence and an invisible blanket of computing.

What's next

Indeed, pervasive computing is already creeping into the cracks, filling in voids and tightening seams in unexpected places in businesses of all types. The result is often so smooth that people rarely realize the movement is underway.

For example, Jaspersoft, a business intelligence software maker, reports it sees a demand for pervasive computing every day. Indeed, CEO Brian Gentile says 70 percent to 80 percent of JasperSoft's business comes from embeddable business intelligence (BI) " ... a big percentage of our customers are software developers who need to embed analytics into existing applications."

Embeddable BI based on a flexible architecture represents the third generation of BI in which analytics are tightly integrated into applications to offer a continuous loop from information source to analytics output, with no latency. "The seeming deluge of data now available to enterprises of all sizes, from the use of smart assets, sensors, video feeds, click streams, and many other sources, provides great new opportunity for well architected business intelligence systems," he said.

Examples of this abound from city governments monitoring crime-ridden areas with cameras and sensors to intelligent tags that help track the movement of costly supplies through a healthcare system. In these cases, the data is gathered to aid humans in making informed decisions based on fact rather than anecdote. "In this sense, pervasive computing is both practical and financially justified," Gentile said.

While pervasive computing is far from a state of ubiquity, today it is definitely on its way. The question now is how and where will it show itself next?

Access control systems are the most likely entry point for motion computing, according to Adam John, formerly CIO at Villafranco Wealth Management and now president of Sterling Solutions, a consulting and website solutions group based in New York.

"Face recognition will be first. First on mobile devices in less than 12 months, if product development research continues at its current rate, but certainly within two years and then face recognition more generally in the enterprise in the next three to five years," he said. "It is already in use in the enterprise, but the explosion will be after mobile devices start using it instead of passwords and pass codes because it will drive the cost of the technology to a more reasonable level for enterprise deployment."

John expects motion controlled computer actions will be combined as a form of authentication for high security, very limited access areas in not more than two or three years. Motion controlled CAD design manipulation will happen in the next five years. "There are companies with this technology; it is simply a matter of price and scale for mass market delivery."

Further, John predicts news media and presentation applications for motion computing (in things such as navigation, Power Point style information and touchless image/object manipulation) will be the first successful mass market entry point, along with large multi-touch screens. He expects those to debut within the next three or four years.

While predictions run the gamut, there is consensus that pervasive computing will show first wherever it is needed most. "For users who work with 3D images, for example, it could enable a more comfortable interaction with those images," said Ben Schorr, CEO of Roland Schorr & Tower, an IT management and support consulting firm. "We're a long way from a total replacement of the mouse and keyboard, but motion controllers do provide an alternative for some users."

In the details

Pervasive computing is becoming more prevalent mostly because form factors are shrinking, computing power is increasing, tiny storage systems are improving and the entire kit and caboodle is getting cheaper. The reason it isn't truly pervasive yet is the lack of connectivity.But there are other obstacles for enterprises to overcome as well. "Although, the retail and the entertainment industries are embracing this technology, there are inherent challenges in adoption of pervasive computing in commercial enterprises," explained Sunil Bhatt, CTO at Allied Digital Services, a global IT solutions and technology services provider.

The issues are as follows:

Scalability : Future pervasive computing environments will likely face a proliferation of users, applications, networked devices, and their interactions on a scale never experienced before. As environmental "smartness" grows, so will the number of devices connected to the environment as will the intensity of human-machine interactions. However, traditional development requires recreating the application for each new device.

Even if an enterprise could generate new applications as fast as it adds new devices, writing application logic only once -- independent of devices -- would have tremendous value in solving the application scalability problems. Furthermore, applications typically are distributed and installed separately for each device class and processor family. As the number of devices grows, distributing and installing applications for each class and family will become unmanageable, especially across a wide geographic area.

Integration : Though pervasive computing components are already deployed in many environments, integrating them into a single platform is still a problem. As the number of devices and applications increase, integration becomes more complex. For example, servers must handle thousands of concurrent client connections, and the influx of pervasive devices would quickly approach the host's capacities. Integrating pervasive computing components has severe reliability, quality of service, invisibility, and security implications for pervasive networking.

Invisibility : A system that requires minimal human intervention offers a reasonable approximation of invisibility. To meet user expectations continuously, however, the environment and the objects in it must be able to tune themselves without distracting users at a conscious level.

A smart environment can implement tuning at different system levels. For example, network-level devices will require auto-configuration. Current manual techniques for configuring a device with addresses, subnet masks, default gateways, and so on are too cumbersome and time consuming for pervasive computing. Automated techniques to dynamically reconfigure the network when required are also crucial to realizing the pervasive computing vision.

Security: The remaining 800 lb. gorilla in the room is security. "The big shift is in secure apps and how to build and protect your apps in the pervasive computing environment," explained Dan Cornell, CTO of DenimGroup. However, enterprises are already grappling with this issue to some extent in efforts to secure both enterprise and consumer apps residing on the same devices. Once this issue is conquered, it will likely be extendable although not entirely extinguished.

Expect these obstacles to be overcome. Pervasive technologies of the sort seen in the sci-fi thriller Minority Report are not that far away.

A prolific and versatile writer, Pam Baker's published credits include numerous articles in leading publications including, but not limited to: Institutional Investor magazine, CIO.com, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers. She has also authored several analytical studies on technology and eight books. Baker also wrote and produced an award-winning documentary on paper-making. She is a member of the National Press Club (NPC), Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and the Internet Press Guild (IPG).