Ubiquitous computing environment of the future
Ubiquitous computing environment of the future

JUNE 2012: Those who have not heard of ubiquitous computing, or ubi-comp, often ask whether it is a new technology. Indeed, it is not merely a technology but a new paradigm of computing that Mark Weiser of Xerox PARC conceptualised about two-and-a-half decades ago. Prof. Ken Sakamura is also known to have proposed and demonstrated the concept in Japan through the TRON Smart House model in the 1980s.

Some rightly call ubiquitous computing the post-desktop paradigm of computing, while others call it the Internet of Things (IoT). In simple terms, ubi-comp represents a situation wherein technology is everywhere, but in an unobtrusive way.

In a ubi-com world, there will be innumerable computers embedded every-where, in everyday devices, from traffic signals and air-conditioners to coffee mugs and even clothes. There will be wearable centimetre-sized devices or tags, hand-held decimetre-sized devices and metre-sized interactive display devices. There will be micro-electro-mechanical systems from nanometre to millimetre scales and organic fabric-like devices. Dust-like devices will do some computing or communications without user interfaces. What is more, all these devices will have a unique ID or address and will connect through an intelligent network. The whole system will be so smart that an air-conditioner will be able to adjust the temperature based on the feedback from a sensor embedded in your dress.

This vision does not seem as incredible today as it seemed a decade ago, due to the technological developments that have happened in the recent past. For one, the number of connected devices in this world has grown a lot, and is likely to grow at a startling pace. Nanoscale devices are no longer a fantasy, we can now actually visualise or even see prototypes of ambient devices that are part of the décor. Connectivity has also improved a lot in the last few years, although how the traffic generated by a burgeoning ubi-comp environment will be borne by the backbone networks is still a question mark.

There has been major technological progress in many other aspects of ubi-comp as well: Unique ID schemes to identify the innumerable devices on the IoT, device- and system-level intelligence to make use of the information transacted by these devices, flexible displays, intuitive user interfaces and more. On the usage front too, there have been quite a few implementations of late, although these have been only at local or enterprise scales. Overall, we are moving steadily towards ubi-comp. But, as always, challenges remain.

A chip (or a code) in everything
Ubi-comp seems to require a chip in everything. Are current IC technologies capable of meeting this requirement in terms of functionality, volume and price-points?

“I think the current IC technologies suffice to meet the volume and price-points. Tags are getting cheaper,” says Chiaki Ishikawa, senior researcher and international liaison, YRP Ubiquitous Networking Laboratory, Tokyo, Japan. “Embedded computer chips have reasonable horsepower to do what they are asked to do most of the time. However, we may need to investigate more on the reduction of power consumption of these IC chips,” he adds.

The power needs of these ambient embedded devices are kind of special. These need to last almost forever without requiring replacement or losing power. Therefore in a ubi-comp future, it is likely that these embedded devices will mostly use renewable energy derived from ambient sources, such as light, heat or motion, with local energy storage capabilities to account for the intermittent nature of the energy source.


There are many aspects that need to be looked into as we transition from the comparatively simple networks of today to a more complex ubi-comp world, network capacity being just one of them

IC chips such as radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags are not the only means of implementing the IoT. There will also be many printed tags such as quick response (QR) codes. QR codes are basically square-shaped, black dots printed on a white background, wherein the printed pattern represents some information. We already see QR codes printed with advertisements these days—usually representing a URL. You can capture these codes on your mobile phone and directly go to the advertiser’s webpage. Ishikawa feels that the volume and usage of QR codes in ubi-comp will be much larger than IC-based ones.

Networking—technologies aplenty, challenges too!
Ubi-comp will require a networking architecture integrating technologies ranging from personal-area networking (PAN) right up to the wide-area communication networks. The PAN and LAN appear easier to manage, as we have a wide choice of interesting technologies at that level, including Wi-Fi, RFID, ZigBee, near-field communications (NFC) and Li-Fi.

The big worry, however, is the backbone network. Ishikawa notes that the increased traffic to the trunk network lines in the last one year due to increased use of smartphones itself is quite alarming—reiterating the need to strengthen the trunk networks to sustain the growth of the Internet.

Neeraj Arora, director-service provider vertical, Cisco IBSG, says, “Specifically from mobile network technology perspective, platforms today are often constrained. Challenges vary based on consumer- vs enterprise-specific service. While many consumer-specific mobile cloud apps require a high throughput, many enterprise M2M services (telematics, fixed telemetry, AMI, security, vending/POS) do not need high throughputs to function well. This is because they are only sending small amounts of data—often intermittently or even on an exception-only basis. However, they may have other requirements including optimised activation rates (ability of mobile packet gateways to scale out PDP context activations), stateful IP session failovers and IPv6 support, and higher QoS, which may pose challenges for mobile networks. To summarise, there is a need to optimise the mobile packet gateways for specific consumer or enterprise ubi-comp service requirement.”

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A deeper look into the mobile communication challenges
There are many aspects that need to be looked into as we transition from the comparatively simple networks of today to a more complex ubi-comp world, network capacity being just one of them. Some other issues that need attention are the interfaces and protocol definitions for communication between significant number of heterogeneous elements and a fundamentally new network architecture requiring universal broadband access at the edge nodes.

“The existing mobile Internet net-work will fall short of ubi-comp requirements in the areas of local multipoint connectivity, type of traffic supported, bandwidth needed, fault management and recovery actions, and the spectrum required,” asserts Dr Suresh Borkar, a trend-watcher, consultant and communications expert who teaches at the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department of the Illinois Institute of Technology.

With so many chips, how to manage the e-waste?

If there is going to be a chip in every object, what will happen to the e-waste generated during the manufacture of these chips, and when these objects (and the chips in them) reach end of their life?

“Of course, there have been concerns. But when you consider that many of the IC chips are essentially silicon chemicals, you will realise ordinary stones and sand have silicon composition too,” quips Ishikawa.

So the issue is more about the materials used for packaging the ICs. While ceramic-based packing is quite clean, it is the resin mould based packaging that is a bit suspicious in this regard and needs to be tracked.

“But, in the case of very tiny chips used for IoT applications without much packaging (they are often sealed into sheets or some type of planar structure), the issue may not be that serious,” Ishikawa says. He also points out that the tiny chips attached to the objects might actually be beneficial with regards to e-waste—as the chip will help trace the larger object in which it is embedded and organise its proper disposal!

Tushar Abraham, a former CDAC-ian, ubiquitous computing enthusiast and specialist in ZigBee wireless communication, says, “The number of devices in the mobile, personal computing and appliances space is anyway seeing an explosion. Ubi-comp will only integrate these devices in a more meaningful manner. Either way, India is not currently prepared to deal with the huge amount of e-waste that is generated. An effective e-waste policy will have to be put in place to deal with the current and future usage patterns of its 1.2 billion population. I believe the Pollution Control Board is working on such a policy. However, we still do not have companies that have the technology to retrieve valuable metals and other materials from this e-waste. Therefore it is imperative that stringent penalties are imposed on polluters. Tax incentives and FDI must be allowed to bring in cutting-edge technology into the country to meet the ever-growing demand.”

Borkar, explains each challenge in detail: Grid architectural concepts will entail processing distributed through the constellation of locally-embedded processors that work in parallel, and dealing with issues of synchronisation and communication. Significant attention will be needed on coordinated multiprocessing—not only between tightly-coupled processors but also multi-computing for loosely-coupled entities. Common languages will have to be developed for cooperative computing, data sharing, coherence and synchronisation.

The capacity requirements of a network are inherently dependent on the type of traffic carried through the various segments from access to backbone. Ubiquitous computing paradigm will be completely different from the current pattern of the traffic based on the use of PC or wireless smartphone like environment. The current model envisages primarily video traffic using packet transport. The estimated bandwidth for a user in the near future is 20 Mbps. The corresponding traffic for ubiquitous computing will be primarily machine-to-machine communications with a large number of small bursts, and it will be an order of magnitude higher. Also, in current networks, the present-day traffic paths are primarily point-to-point or point-to-multipoint. In ubiquitous computing, a fully connected node-to-node network will be needed with broadband traffic being carried simultaneously between different paths.

The access network of today is primarily based on a node communicating with a set of user devices in multi-access mode. Ubi-comp architecture will have the devices themselves acting as interconnected nodes with mesh networking. Mesh networking entails new domains and challenges in areas of self-configurability and self-healing, and needs to be highly resistant to disruption. Current networks do not generally possess such attributes. Capability to automatically discover and recognise each other is another key attribute required for ubiquitous computing. Also, the failure mode needs to follow a graceful degradation process and default to a safe mode. The network will require universal broadband wireless coverage with no gaps or dead zones.

The usable wireless spectrum will be a major limitation to meet the expected bandwidth requirements. In particular, proximity area connectivity will demand extremely high band-width. Some level of mitigation can be done by using cell splitting techniques to smaller and smaller geographical domains using even zepto or yocto cells instead of pico or femto cells. Additional proximity area capacity may require exploring optical frequencies using networks like Li-Fi.

Unique IDs for all objects in the IoT
If there are going to be billions of objects connected to the IoT, we also need some means to identify all of them uniquely. Considering the 128-bit naming facility provided by IPv6, it appears as if there will be no problem in doing so. However, Ishikawa points out that “IPv6 is only for IP networks.” Ubiquitous computing, on the other hand, is going to involve heterogeneous networks, so the unique ID issue still looms large.

“There will be IP-connected portions and non IP-connected portions, which mainly consist of very small chips with very low CPU power. And actually, the number of objects in such a non-IP connected domain may occupy the majority of the whole domain space,” explains Ishikawa.

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He adds, “For example, food trace-ability is considered a great use-case for ubi-comp, but we do not expect every single milk carton to carry an IPv6 address. IPv6 is useful when the object is a network node, but milk cartons themselves don’t communicate. The reader device for QR codes, say, on milk cartons will speak IPv6. But we certainly need to assign unique numbers to each milk carton for food traceability. At ITU-T, we are investigating what to do with such requirements, and have proposed a standard called H.Idscheme (which will be renamed to H.642.1 once it becomes official) to be used for such ubi-comp environments, and made sure such coding can coexist peacefully with legacy identifier systems. Already, a similar coding scheme is used by our team in Japan and partners in Finland.”

Calm and easy computing
Does the thought of so many computers and networks make you feel dizzy? Hopefully, ubi-comp would not be that way. A lot of research is underway across the world to ensure that.

According to the YRP-UNL, what is important in realising a network protocol for ubiquitous computing is that even general users, who do not have much knowledge of computers, should be able to easily ensure the security of their equipment, confidentiality of stored information and communication, etc. Even now, there are various types of secure protocols, but most of them require operations that need technical knowledge, such as management of authentication and encryption keys, and acquisition of certificates from the certificate authority.

So the researchers at YRP-UNL are working on communication protocols that are simpler and easier-to-use by using tamper-resistant hardware. These protocols will realise a general-purpose security infrastructure that is easy-to-use, packaged, strong and stable. It will enable general users to enjoy the benefits of secure communication infrastructure.

Another challenge in ubi-comp is to truly embed or blend the computers with the environment. Overall design should be aesthetic and calm. The power, noise and other forms of energy consumed and emitted by these devices are also critical as these should not make the users uneasy. Moreover, the computers should mingle, cooperate, support and adjust with the people populating a space, and aid them in their everyday activities. Achieving such characteristics in machines is no mean task, and involves an interdisciplinary approach including biomimetics, artificial intelligence, human-machine interfaces, physics, material sciences and more.

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.

“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.

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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.

At the industry level, there are several organisations like the Cisco co-founded Internet Protocol for Smart Object Communications (IPSO) Alliance, the ZigBee Alliance, IPv6 Forum, and standards bodies like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) that are contributing towards the development of ubi-comp.

Ease my fears, please
All said, for any technological revolution to be successful, the people at large need to be comfortable with it. As far as ubi-comp goes, there is a serious fear of privacy loss that continues to linger in the minds of people. As of now, we are nowhere close to settling these fears. Nations such as the European Union members are struggling to find a solution to these privacy concerns, tackling the problem head-on and inviting solutions from the public.

“What our team leader Prof. Ken Sakamura has been saying is that the society needs a new set of laws and regulations to deal with issues such as risks and privacy concerns brought about by the new technology. Take, for example, the privacy concerns. People in ordinary times don’t want their whereabouts and IDs to be known to third parties. However, during emergencies, such as immediately after a typhoon or a big earthquake, people may want to transmit their whereabouts or IDs to relief workers, especially medical staff, so that their loved ones can learn the status of each other. But where do you draw the line? Under what conditions is such capturing of whereabouts and IDs considered okay and when not?

“Cars kill people in traffic accidents. Insurance helps ease the situation to an extent. Telephones have been used by kidnappers. Wire-tapping helps find the kidnappers. So the society has found ways to cope with new risks brought about by the new technologies as long as the usage of the new technologies turned out to be a net profit for the society,” explains Ishikawa.

“Apart from public concern over infringement of personal privacy, the governments may also have certain concerns over national security. Unless understood and addressed, potential personal privacy invasion issues could lead to overprotective policies or outright prohibition in countries and across international boundaries. Using sensors to protect critical infrastructure may raise security concerns over the possibility of unauthorised or hostile monitoring, or even a seizure of control over vital national assets. End-to-end security and management capability are therefore critical to the IoT,” adds Arora.

Governments will also have to look into any related health concerns arising from, say, electromagnetic fields linked to sensors and wireless transmission or e-waste. Health and environmental concerns will gain greater prominence with increasing volume.

“None of these issues is insurmountable, but each must be taken into account from the start in the planning, design and strategy for any ubi-comp vision and deployment,” concludes Arora.

The author is a technically-qualified freelance writer, editor and hands-on mom based in Chennai


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