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UFOs (Ubiquitous Findable Objects)

by Peter Morville, author of Ambient Findability
11/17/2005

The term ambient findability describes a world at the crossroads of ubiquitous computing and the internet, in which we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at any time. It's not necessarily a goal, and we'll never achieve perfect findability, but we're surely headed in the right direction.

A clear sign of progress is the emergence of ubiquitous findable objects (UFOs). GPS, RFID, UWB, and cellular triangulation enable us, for the first time in history, to tag and track products, possessions, pets, and people as they wander through space and time.

Of course, not everyone is happy about this brave new world of UFOs. While Bruce Sterling raves about spime, Katherine Albrecht rants about spychips. Which focuses our attention on the UFO subclass of "ubiquitous findable organisms" that includes wild animals, pets, friends, suspects, shoppers, patients, prisoners, employees, kids, and ourselves.

Ubiquitous Findable Organisms

The UFO application space invites a richer feature set than we may think. Major tasks include identifying, tracking, observing, communicating, and interacting. Consequently, the enabling toolset includes networked video cameras, acoustic sensors, satellite constellations, smartphones, radio-guided missiles, and other emerging technologies that afford a different kind of close encounter, and myriad new ways to reach out and touch someone.

But we rush ahead of ourselves. The future present of UFOs is best illustrated with real examples. Consider, for instance, the fourth-generation GPS GSM collar for ungulates, which lets us track (on a Treo 650) the physical location of lions, elephants, and toy poodles as they roam the wilds of Africa or the streets of Ann Arbor.

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Or the GPS Personal Locator Watch for Children, a water-resistant, cut-resistant, abduction-prevention device that locks onto a child's wrist and allows parents to track (and communicate with) their children 24 hours a day. Unfortunately, the battery only lasts four hours, the enhanced GPS is useless indoors, and the product has been discontinued in favor of the Wherifone.

But make no mistake. The UFOs are coming. Alien Technology, Digital Angel, WaveMarket, OnStar, Networkcar, KinderCam, and Legoland are just a few of the organizations that identify, track, and monitor "high-value assets." And while some activists worry these spychips will be used by corporations, governments, and terrorists to track our every move, the process of chipping products, possessions, passports, pets, and people is well underway.

For while subcutaneous implants are mostly just for pets, it's quite possible there's an RFID tag in your left shoe. Of course, with a read range of only a few feet, it's not very useful. But once shops, libraries, and schools have upgraded their anti-theft and security portals, and governments have embedded readers in roads, the tag in your shoe (or your loyalty card) will have real value. In concert with the GPS and triangulation capabilities afforded by your BlackBerry, location-based services will become a reality.

Anti-Social Software

Activists argue we won't willingly sacrifice privacy, but loyalty cards have been a huge success, and early adopters of opt-in surveillance, like my friend Ed Vielmetti, already manually share their coordinates via Plazes, Dodgeball, and Meetro. In fact, the number of startups in the mobile social software space is astonishing. Major corporations are placing big bets that we'll want to share our whereabouts (and our profiles) with family, friends, co-workers, friends of friends, and potential friends, so they can stop in and say hello.

Of course, as a convicted INTJ, I'm more interested in using services like Introvertster to prevent close encounters of the undesirable kind. Soon, I'll be able to rely on a mashup between Google Maps and my personal blacklist to avoid running into undesirables in restaurants. It's even possible the airlines will let me specify the types of people I'd prefer not to sit near. And I'm sure that solitude optimization algorithms will soon help me avoid traffic on the roads, crowds at the mall, and other types of UFO swarms.

On a voyeuristic note, we'll all be secretly interested in collision detection. Most likely, Google Alerts will notify us of brief or sustained meetups between two or more individuals from within our social networks. In fact, we'll all come to rely on anomaly detection to highlight meaningful deviations in individual habits or in the flocking behavior of crowds.

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