If you are like me, Google services take up a large part of your life. You might use Gmail as your mail service, use Google Search to navigate your way around the Web, and if you are not using an iPhone, you have an Android phone.
And these are just the common services. There are a host of other Google ecosystems that you might, or might not be using, like the Google Assistant or Google Nest: Google’s answer to the smarter and more connected home.
If you look closely, these services are very much separate, even though there might be some overlaps. In order to use these services, you have to go through the motions of activating the user interface, such as picking up your mobile phone and opening the Google Maps app, to find out where the nearest restaurant is.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to go through all this trouble? If you didn’t necessarily have to open an app on your phone, to access Google Maps. If Google Maps was “just available to you” wherever you were.
Imagine you were knocking off from work and would like to drive home. So, you summon your car from your office without having to pull out your phone to do so. When you get downstairs, the car is waiting for you.
While you are moving downstairs to your car, your Google Assistant is giving you information through your smart glasses. When you get into the car, the output for your information automatically switches from the smart glasses, to the windshield in the car.
The car’s windshield then provides an augmented display, showing you all the relevant information for the trip on your way home. What’s more, the system automatically switches over devices without you having to think about it.
Whilst on the road, the system gives you traffic reports, and provides entertainment, based on your preferences. To switch off the music player and switch to the news, all you have to do is give a voice command.
When you finally arrive at home, the house automatically unlocks the door for you, as you approach, and opens it for you. It activates the air conditioning in line with the season, and asks you whether you would like to continue watching the news, or switch to music.
Even though this is a make-belief scenario, it is a future we are headed for. We often see these types of interactions with technology in futuristic movies. As far-fetched as these type of interactions may seem, they are in fact not far off into the future.
In actual fact, some of these futuristic scenarios are already possible, just not yet well integrated into our daily lives. This is what ambient computing is all about.
When we think of computing, what comes to mind are devices such as desktops, laptops, handhelds, and wearables. Our experiences on these devices are fragmented. We have to think of them as existing on these devices.
In ambient computing thinking, the device is not the most important thing. What matters most is the experience, regardless of what device is used. The word “Ambient” has to do with the immediate surroundings of things, to such an extent that ambient computing can be around us, without us being aware of the underlying devices bringing about the experience.
In other words, ambient devices are there, without being there. Right now, you have to summon Google Assistant through your smart phone, and most of what you do is achieved through clicking or tapping on the user interface, or using crude voice commands.
In the near future, with the help of Internet of Things (IOT) sensors, ambient computing will be able to sense many aspects of the environment you are in, and adjust accordingly. They will be able to detect changes in emotional state, and provide experiences to make your life better.
Ambient computing has the following characteristics.
Invisible: The focus will be on the user experience, such that the technology will be invisible. An example of invisible technology is data centres which are at the centre of everything we do, and store user data in the cloud, but most users are unaware of their existence.
Embedded: The technology will be inserted in normal, daily usage applications, and blend with them. An example are smart watches, which, despite appearing like normal timepieces, are in fact so much more.
Practice Constraint: This relates to how technology is introduced to the public. In this case, instead of creating and promoting the most groundbreaking technology, introducing them conservatively can promote adoption.
Google is spearheading ambient computing in all aspects of its products and services, starting from actual hardware all the way to software. Google is of the view that, in order to be effective at providing ambient computing to its users, it has to also control the hardware that delivers these experiences.
According to Rick Osterloh, Google’s head of hardware, “Our vision for ambient computing is to create a single, consistent experience at home, at work or on the go, whenever you need it,”. On the software front, this drive is most being echoed in Flutter.
Flutter is an open-source UI software development kit created by Google. It is used to develop applications for Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, Linux, Google Fuchsia and the Web. The interesting thing is that Flutter aims to build apps for all these platforms from a single code base.
I stumbled upon Flutter at the beginning of the year, in 2019, when I was looking for a cross-platform mobile application development platform. The moment I started working with Flutter, I knew I had made the right choice, after choosing Flutter over Facebook’s react Native for mobile development.
Initially Flutter was focused on delivering apps on Android and iOS from a single code base, but as of December 2019, the focus has shifted to it being “Flutter: the first UI platform designed for ambient computing”.
This is a welcome development for me as a developer, and yes for the end user as well, because it means having consistent experiences across devices. Instead of asking “whether I am going to develop for Android or iOS”, the pertinent question would be, “What am I going to develop?”, and not spend too much time bogged down in platforms politics.
This statement from the Flutter blog post announcing the change in focus sums it up eloquently, by writing, “Flutter: a portable toolkit for building beautiful experiences wherever you might want to paint pixels on the screen”.
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