Introduction to Pervasive Computing


The concept of pervasive computing, or ubiquitous computing as it was originally coined, may be attributed to the researcher Mark Weiser and his UbiComp team at Xerox PARC. Weiser [13] was a zealous advocate for finding alternative solutions to the PC, which he deemed to be counter productive to getting more technology support integrated into people’s daily lives. Indeed, Weiser envisioned the proliferation of technology throughout the workplace to allow for tighter integration with the actual work tasks. Amongst the technology solutions Weiser and his colleges produced for supporting this vision, was the concept of “Tabs, Pads & Boards” devices, communicating with each other through a wireless network, and the ability to track the location of a user within his ubiquitous equipped laboratory and support work tasks in novel ways.

This technology vision has now become a commercial reality. PDA’s and cell phones, able to run applications and communicating using WiFi or mobile networks such as the Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) or Universal Mobile Telephone System (UMTS), are now available at a cost that may be considered negligible by most in the industrialized world.

Weiser’s main vision was that of “calm technology”. Letting the technology disappear from our attention, and instead let the technology help us, rather than allow it to be in our way. A design goal also discussed by Norman in his book on “the invisible computer” [15].

Much of the current research literature on pervasive and ubiquitous computing in general, and pervasive healthcare in particular (which we shall cover in the next section), considers the mobile phone to be the essence of Mark Weiser’s vision, solving all the pervasive tasks we might imagine, including healthcare related tasks. We tend to disagree with those people, however. To Mark Weiser, the notion of tabs (which has some resemblance with the mobile phone of today), pads and boards, was only the “ends to a mean”. As Norman stated, a device to “rule them all” – or a device that handles everything, being both a phone, a walkman, a calendar, a camera and a healthcare hub, is not a usable product – or at least not a product usable by all. And if we consider some of our target groups for this project, namely the elderly (and perhaps) cognitive impaired, one should be very careful to be considering the mobile phone as the perfect ubiquitous device for solving pervasive computing tasks. Most commercially available mobile phones are not in any way a “calm” experience for many elderly users, and in fact, applications for mobile phones does often not work as easy and painlessly as expected.

So, pervasive computing technology implies many other things than just being mobile and being able to access data anywhere, anytime. It is also about creating contextual awareness, and about being proactive, and perhaps more important, about being user friendly to the extreme. If we need to harness the power of technology out in the homes of potentially cognitive and physically impaired people, we must exploit the full potential of Weisers original ideas. Sensors must be aware where the user is, what the user is doing, and perhaps what the user should be doing. If he for instance is in the bathroom, and he has not taken his medicine as prescribed, the system should be aware of his position, and be able to provide him the info in the context he is in. It is no use that his phone is vibrating to remind him to take his medicine, if he is sitting in his bathtub.
Pervasive computing is about sensing and intelligent decision making. Contextual awareness and of course, access to data and the flow of data. If the elderly patient (from before) did not take his medicine, then someone should be informed of it. It might be his doctor – which he will see next month – or it might be a simple text SMS message sent to one of his relatives, friends or spouse.

Pervasive computing enabling technologies include sensors and actuators, regular PC’s, embedded computers and mobile devices. The use of wireless technologies is of major importance in pervasive computing. Technologies include WiFi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, RFID, NFC, TCP/IP, while sensors might be everything from accelerometers or visual movement trackers to measure movement, heat sensors, pressure sensors and more. Speech and voice recognition technology certainly also goes under the notion of pervasive enabling technology, allowing for a calmer and more natural user interface – as is the use of touch screens and other direct manipulation interfaces.

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