The Ambient Orb: Striving for a PC-Free Tomorrow

What do traffic, stock market trends, and the weather – all integral factors in the life of today’s human – have in common? They are all foreseeable – that is, simultaneously – through the globular lens of the Ambient Orb, one of several wireless gadgets from Ambient Devices.

Sound a bit eccentric? Maybe that’s the point. The color-fickle Ambient Orb, which comes across more as a high-tech office decoration for Wall Street executives than a serious candidate for pervasive computing, is one of the funkiest devices on the market today which comes close to symbolizing the futuristic vision of pervasive computing advocates around the world.

According to Ambient Devices’ Web site, the omniscient Orb fluctuates in color (green, yellow, and red) to indicate alterations in the weather and stock market, among other things, via its wireless connection. What’s the point? Well, you see, the Orb is kind of revolutionary, in a sense, because it allows you to retrieve information from the Web without the use of a computer or hand-held device. So, in theory, the Orb is a pervasive computing device (sort of).

The age-old concept behind pervasive computing (a.k.a. “ubiquitous computing”) is a simple one in theory. However, it’s somewhat of a pain in actual practice since it would require embedding – well, pretty much everything – with a wireless device, so that hard drive computers are no longer necessary.

What would a world awash in every day objects such as hair dryers, beds, doorknobs, desks, pens, etc., embedded with wireless technology be like?

Imagine you’re walking down the street on a sunny day in Pittsburgh. The year is 2020 and ubiquitous computing is now in full-blown effect. Looking up, you’re startled to discover a gothic-looking building that towers over the rest of the city. You use your cell phone’s Internet function to connect you to an embedded wireless device somewhere in the building. A few paragraphs appear on the cell phone screen describing the building, known commonly in Pittsburgh as the Cathedral of Learning – telling you not only the name of the building, but the year it was built, who built it, why it was built, and the different materials used in its construction.

Now imagine a different scenario. Walking down the same street in Pittsburgh, you begin to step off the curb to cross the road at a busy intersection, when a siren attached to a stop sign on the corner across the street begins to blare. You quickly jump back onto the curb just as a speeding black van – the one that was going to hit you – flies through a red light.

This “thinking stop sign,” which contains an embedded device, sensed your presence (your watch contains an embedded device, too) and the presence of the black van (also containing an embedded device) and, sensing the approaching momentum of the two converging objects, began to blare.

Of course we can conjure up a million other imaginary scenarios where ubiquitous computing might come in handy. But logically speaking, are coffee mugs and picture frames that “think” really necessary? Ever?

The Ambient Orb does help paint a rosy picture of the Tomorrow World of pervasive computing. But in a future planet Earth where intelligent thinking objects have sprouted all around us in a complex web of wireless networks, a colorful orb that predicts precipitation and cloud formations along with the day’s stock market trends (you’ll see it glow a delightful green when the market is high, a phantom-like red when it’s low, and a soft yellow when it’s just so-so) might not be such a big deal. Unless the Ambient Orb, which Ambient Devices claims can predict the weather via its AccuWeather system – which gleans multiple data from the National Weather Service and other weather services via its wireless connection, then uses a magical mathematical function to calculate this data to tell us what the weather will be in a fortnight – really does work. In that case, we can use it to predict the next Hurricane Katrina or tsunami disaster, or to find out if it’s going to rain on our vacation.

As far-fetched as it seems, the future still looks bright for the pervasive computing advocate. According to The Wall Street Journal (8/9/06), Wyse Technology, Inc. – a manufacturer of “Thin clients,” or teeny-tiny computers without hard drives which can be networked via a single host computer – plans to revolutionize wireless communications technology with an envisioned gadget they call “system on a chip.” This little hard drive-less gizmo will be smaller and more versatile than its Thin client predecessor, having the ability to be utilized in television sets, cable set-up boxes, and mobile devices, which can in turn be used to access mail and Internet-company-servers where information can be stored and retrieved online.

What does this mean for pervasive computing? Well, this PC-free technology, if and when it comes into effect, will allow you do your computing virtually anywhere you go without a hard drive computer, as long as there is a cable system or a wireless device around. In other words, hard drives will be replaced by the Internet itself, which will be used to store, share, and access information. This may not be pervasive computing per-se, since it wouldn’t involve embedding all things with a wireless device, but it would make accessing and storing information possible almost anywhere you go.

I still doubt I’ll ever see an intelligent doorknob or make my next big million on the stock market thanks to a thinking crystal ball that can do a little algebra, but maybe one day a world will exist where anyone can connect to a ubiquitous wireless network that allows people to store and retrieve information, or even share it, if they want to, with the rest of the world.

Of course this could be grim news for IBM and Gateway, but good news for you and me. Either way, it’s a step in the right direction.

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