Here comes the age of ambient everything

Trends in social, search, mobile, wearable and the Internet of things will alter our perception of reality. Change is in the air.

While shopping at the grocery store recently and wearing Google Glass, I got an incoming social media alert referring to a phrase used by the Pew Research Center: " ambient news."

Wait, what the heck is ambient news?

Pew uses that phrase to characterize the experience of getting news in social streams, especially on the social sites Reddit, Twitter and Facebook.

People are increasingly getting their news as part of their social networking activity. This replaces an older model of "news time," where someone would sit down to read the newspaper or watch the evening news.

"Ambient news" means that news information just appears, scrolls by and then vanishes, mostly in the cognitive background.

I had to laugh at the incoming alert, because (thanks to Google Glass), the news about ambient news was itself ambient -- floating in space over the frozen foods section.

The experience got me thinking about the future. It's clear that mobile notifications, wearable computing, preemptive search, the Internet of things and location-based commerce are all conspiring to make everything ambient. Not just news.

People talk a lot about "context" -- the idea that information available to us will constantly change based on where we are and what we're doing. But the term "context" looks at technology from the industry's point of view. It's how providers of location-based information think about how, when and where to serve up information.

But from the user's point of view, the core attribute of this contextual information will be "ambience." It will just be there with us all the time.

Location-based information doesn't "feel" like context. The person receiving that information doesn't think "Oh, OK. This makes sense given my context." It "feels" like certain types of information exist in physical places.

I'll dig into that idea more, but first let's explore the "ambient" concept.

What does ambient mean, really?

Something is ambient when it is or appears to be part of your environment or surroundings.

Ambient is used in a variety of contexts. For example, there's "ambient music," which is both a style of music and also a description for music's potential role in human attention.

When you're at a concert, everybody is paying attention to the music -- that's not ambient music. But if you're at, say, a cocktail party, the music is usually ambient: You might pay attention to it, you might not. It's there, but it's in the background.

In a digital information context, ambience will be brought about by the convergence of multiple trends, including the following:

1. Mobile notifications. Notifications are about to become far more prominent in our lives. If you look at the notifications as they appear in, say, Google's Android KitKat or Apple's iOS 7, you can see that they just keep getting better, more informative and more relevant. Apps will increasingly feed notifications, and these will become increasingly location-based. The combination of constancy and location-awareness will make notifications on smartphones feel ambient, as if they're being harvested out of the air.

2. Wearable computing. As I experienced with Google Glass in the grocery store, notifications and other incoming information will appear to float in the air. This ambient feeling is strengthened by Glass apps that provide contextual information. For example, I use a Google app called Field Trip, which sends me alerts related to my current location. For example, I walked across an overpass recently, and a short article popped up in Google Glass telling me that the bridge was originally built in 1906 and other bits of information. It felt like that information lives on the bridge, and that Glass is some kind of magic eyewear that can see what's floating in the air there. Magic wristwatches will have the same uncanny power to harvest knowledge out of the air.

3. Preemptive search. Google Now, Siri and other services that are cropping up will seek to answer our questions before we ask them. More importantly, the interface to these virtual assistants will be mostly voice -- we'll talk to them, they'll talk to us. Because they'll exist in all our spaces -- in our wristwatches, phones, laptops, PCs, cars and homes -- we'll have the luxury of not caring which device is delivering the assistant. We'll talk to the air and the air will talk back. It will feel especially ambient when the trigger for these preemptive search services is our location or context. For example, we'll get in the car, and Google Now will eagerly guess (based on the fact that we're in the car and the time of day) where we're going. We'll walk in the house, and that will trigger reminders we've asked to receive when we get home. As we drive by the dry cleaners, Siri will remind us to pick up our clothes. Virtual assistants will be everywhere and all around us.

4. The Internet of things. Our "things," such as our home appliances, will get microprocessors and Internet connections. Here's a very simple example: laundry. We put some clothes in the washer, and the washing machine will know who we are because it will detect identity from the phone. If we leave to run errands during the rinse cycle, the smart washer won't bother notifying us when it's finished because it will know that we're not home. As we walk up the path toward the door, the porch light will come on and the door will unlock -- Bluetooth will alert the house that we're home. The lights will come on. The song that was half-played in the car will finish playing in the house. Oh, and the washer will know that we've returned and will remind us to put the clothes in the dryer. Walking into the house will feel like we're walking into a room full of data and intelligence.

5. Location-based commerce. We hear a lot about location-based advertising and marketing, but this will often be conjoined with location-based purchasing. Combine these, and shopping becomes ambient. For example, today you might spot a pair of sunglasses in a store window and decide to go in and buy them. With location-based commerce, you'll be able to buy sunglasses that you see on someone else's face or in a movie or magazine. The old way to shop was to go to specific locations like malls and look for things to buy. Location-based commerce turns the whole world into a store and puts everything you see up for sale.

Contextual computing is coming. But it won't feel like context. It will feel like ambience.

Think about how touch tablets make you forget that you're using a computer. While swiping through your apps, you forget that this is an information machine with memory and storage and graphics processing. Kids growing up with post-PC devices don't know and don't care how it all works. It's just a magic window to a world of entertainment and information. The same thing will happen with the technologies behind mobile notifications, wearable computing, preemptive search, the Internet of things and location-based commerce. We will forget they exist.

Instead, our perceptions about reality itself will change. We'll experience contextual systems as ambient knowledge -- walking into a room will feel like we're being immersed in the knowledge that exists in that room.

I've seen the future through Google Glass. And it's a future of ambient everything.

Change is in the air.

This column, " Here Comes the Age of Ambient Everything," was originally published on Computerworld.com.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him on Google+. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

Read more about social media in Computerworld's Social Media Topic Center.

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