Ubiquitous computing with Android

Android with sensors

Have you heard about ubiquitous computing (also called pervasive computing)? This is the term for the emerging 3rd age of computing, following the age of the mainframe and the age of the personal computer. The idea behind UbiComp is that the computer is in the process of melting into the physical environment. Our computational devices are becoming context-aware and no longer require us to perform as many explicit acts of computation.

The evolution of the smartphone - especially the addition of many new sensors - has accelerated this trend and there are already many ways in which you can be a part of the UbiComp age using your Android phone. Here are a couple of ways in which I have made my own computing experience more pervasive using an Android phone.

Preventing your phone from ringing during class

The old way

Events in the Llama app

You have to remind yourself to mute your phone during class and turn the sound back on again after class. Often you simply forget and you end up disturbing the other people in class or missing important calls after class.

The pervasive way

Your university schedule is synchronised through a desktop email client like iCal over Google Calendar and onto your phone's calendar (e.g. Digical). The synchronisation is completely seamless and you don't think about it.

You have also installed the app Llama which knows when you're in school based on which cellular towers your phone is connected to. Llama can also access the calendar on your phone and will automatically lower the volume whenever you have a class and you're in school (it doesn't mute your phone when you're skipping class). When the class ends, Llama will turn up the volume again.

Taking it even further

Location profile apps such as Llama can make your life easier in many other ways. For example, it can turn on certain power saving features while you're sleeping and temporarily disable email synchronisation or make sure your phone turns off WiFi and Bluetooth reception whenever you leave your home.

Playing music through your speaker system

The old way

D200 bluetooth speaker

You probably connect your phone to your speakers with a cable. This turns your mobile device into a stationary brick whenever you want to listen to some music at home, chained to your speakers like the filthy slave it is.

Maybe you're tech savvy and have already invested in a Bluetooth speaker. This allows you carry your phone around in your home while you're also listening to music. You still need to go into the Bluetooth settings and manually connect and disconnect to the speaker every time you want to use it. That gets annoying fast.

The pervasive way

NFC tag stickers on bedside table

You have invested in a Bluetooth speaker (e.g. Creative D200), which solves the mobility problem. Realising that you basically only use your phone to connect to this speaker system, you download an app such as Bluetooth Auto Connect and set it to automatically connect to your speakers whenever you enable Bluetooth on your phone.

But you don't want to bother with your phone bluetooth settings at all, so you also invest in a cheap NFC sticker and put this in some logical place in your home. Then you download an app such as NFC Task Launcher (or maybe Llama if you already installed it) and create a task to toggle Bluetooth on/off and associate this task with your NFC sticker.

Now every time you want to listen to music on your speaker system you just hold out your phone over the NFC sticker and it will auto-connect. When you want to disconnect you do the exact same thing.

Taking it even further

NFC can be used to accomplish many different tasks. It is a simple technology, but one of the most promising ways to implement the original UbiComp vision. The point of NFC is to embed computational functions into dead physical devices such as tables, doors, or even clothes.

You can also put a sticker on your bedside table and program it to set an alarm to 8 or 9 hours in the future. Maybe you want an easy way to toggle the WiFi hotspot function of your phone in a certain physical space; NFC can do this too.

I also use it to access the OCR scanner in my Chinese dictionary app. I have placed a sticker on my desk and every time I need to get to the Chinese OCR scanner I can easily access it. This is a very specialised use of NFC, but that is in fact exactly why NFC is such a powerful technology in the hands of certain users.

I hope this short article has inspired you to make your computing experience more pervasive. Go back to home for more stuff.

Simon Gray, 2013-02-07