Ambient Computing: What is it?

The devices around us are getting smarter, and part of that perceived smartness is the fact that many of them are virtually self-contained. If you have a Google Pixel, for example, you’ll be familiar with features like Now Playing that run in the background without any input. It is essentially an invisible technology.

Where ambient computing gets particularly interesting is in the smart devices found in the home. Your smart speakers use ambient computing to hear your voice before asking a question. If your thermostat adjusts the temperature when your home gets too hot or too cold based on patterns it has learned, it also uses room calculus.


What is ambient computing and how is it different from the Internet of Things (IoT)?

Google Pixel 7 Pro in hand

Pixel 7 Pro in the snow

Internet of Things (IoT) and ambient computing are very similar concepts that are often implemented in tandem. Ambient computing typically relies on top the capabilities imparted by introducing more intelligently connected devices into your home. For example, a smart thermostat may be an IoT device, but if it regulates the temperature in your home by itself, it uses ambient computing. IoT devices are the devices that make up that intelligent network, and ambient computing is what happens because of those devices.

However, that doesn’t mean environmental processing needs use IoT devices; it’s just a fairly common implementation. As mentioned earlier, features like Now Playing on the Google Pixel series are ambient computing features that don’t require any IoT devices, it’s just that the concepts often overlap.

What devices use ambient computing?

There are many devices that use the computing environment, including:

  • Speakers like Echo or Google Home
  • Smart plugs
  • Central hubs like the Google Nest Hub or Echo Show
  • Smart light bulbs

To be considered ambient computing, there are only a handful of requirements. There has to be a device that can provide data of some sort, and this can be a temperature, a light reading, or even something as simple as a datum that tells if something is on or off. There must therefore be a way to process that data and make decisions based on it.

Basically, if you have devices that process data themselves, it’s very likely that they’re environmental computing devices.

Privacy issues and other downsides

Echo Dot with clock

There are a number of privacy concerns when it comes to ambient computing, the biggest of which is that with these devices interconnected in our homes, it’s possible they could succumb to attacks. IoT devices have been the target of hackers for a long, long time, as the embedded systems they use are typically poorly protected. In the past, they’ve mostly been used to power botnets, but that doesn’t mean they can’t (or haven’t been) used for nefarious purposes.

Not only that, but having these devices in the home also means that businesses, not just hackers, have access to the data in the home. Whether or not that matters is up to you, but I’d understand why people don’t like the idea of, say, having an Amazon-owned device in their homes that can technically listen in anytime it’s turned on.

An even bigger downside that’s immediately apparent is that should your network go down for any reason, you’ll no longer be able to control many aspects of your home that may be dependent on an Internet connection. You also depend on maintaining any cloud-based services you may use. What happens if a company goes bankrupt or decides to stop supporting an older device? An integral part of your smart home network may become defunct and require replacement.

The future of environmental computing

Ambient computing will only grow as more and more parts of our lives become automated. The natural progression of technology involves making things more convenient for the end user, and in this case, there is no greater convenience than literally doing things for users automatically with no intervention required. We are likely to see ambient computing concepts grow and expand into new categories and potentially even be used in public settings such as travel or community halls. While somewhat dystopian, basic features that can control air quality and increase air circulation if it falls below a certain level can be an application.

Until that happens, however, there’s plenty you can play around with in the environmental computing sphere to get a sense of what’s around the corner. The best smart speakers incorporate ambient computing principles to do much of what they do, and the Google Pixel series of smartphones are arguably the phones with the most ambient computing capabilities built-in.

#Ambient #Computing

Leave a Comment