23:3 (2008:09) 23rd Conference (2008): Vision Session: Information Shadows

August 19, 2008 at 4:41 pm | Posted in Conference Reports, Vision Sessions | Leave a comment


Information Shadows: Ubiquitous Computing Serializes Everyday Things
Mike Kuniavsky, ThingM
Reported by Cynthia Porter

Mike Kuniavsky calls himself a “user experience researcher and designer.”  He thinks about how technologies and people affect each other from social, economic, historical and technological perspectives; and how the technological side of that relationship can be made better, or more interesting, for the human side of it.

Kuniavksy spent over ten years doing design and research for the web.  He was the interaction designer of one of the first big search engines, HotBot.  During the dotcom crash he wrote a book, Observing the User Experience:  a Practitioner’s Guide to User Research.  Four years ago he decided to “pause and think full time about how to apply what [he] had learned about people and the Internet to the other computers that were increasingly embedded in our lives.”  Mike considered things like mobile phones, iPods, TiVos, smart refrigerators, and talking greeting cards.

Two years ago Kuniavsky founded a company with Tod Kurt called ThingM to pursue ubiquitous computing commercially.  They are a ubiquitous computing consumer electronics company.  “Ubiqutious computing” was coined by the late Marc Weiser of Xerox PARC about twenty years ago.  He imagined a time when computers would be woven “into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”

Mike Kuniavsky

Mike Kuniavsky

Kuniavsky showed a graph that illustrated Moore’s Law, which states the number of transistors that can be inexpensively placed on an integrated circuit is increasing exponentially, doubling approximately every two years.  The graph illustrated the decrease in the cost of computing power.  It also represented the fact that technology is getting cheaper and smaller.  He explained that when something is expensive, you are going to have one of it and it is going to have to do a wide variety of different things.

Consider the electric motor.  In 1918 electric motors were expensive, so you bought one for the house and then you bought attachments for it. The motor was a general purpose tool that was adapted as needed.  KitchenAid mixers are still an example:  with one motor, a variety of attachments are available to perform a variety of functions.  Now that motors are inexpensive, you can put one in each kitchen tool.  You may end up with multiple blenders and mixers in one kitchen.   Portable computers are all around us in mobile phones, cars, and robotic toys, which cost only a little more than analog toys.

After discussing ubiquitous computing, Kuniavsky described his perspective of a journal. A journal is an agreement between a publisher and subscriber; namely, that one will provide information of a certain type to the other. He used the New England Journal of Medicine that his housemate receives as an example.  Kuniavsky then compared a timeshare condo to a journal.  In a journal, the form and update period are fixed, and the content is variable. Similarly, in a timeshare, the form and usage period are fixed, and the occupants are variable. In both cases, what you own is the possibility of an object, rather than a specific object. Also, unlike a rental, which is a time-limited agreement that implies no rights before or after; both a journal and a timeshare represent a kind of true ownership. You have some rights to that property forever, even if–in the case of the journal–it may only mean being able to keep the paper manifestation on your shelf forever.

Kuniavsky paraphrased Bruce Sterling, who asked, “Why does everyone on the block need to own their own wheelbarrow?”  The logistics of sharing everyday objects can be complex.  Ubiquitous computing gives us tools to track, trade and share objects much more efficiently than any previous technology.   City Carshare is an example.  The keychain includes a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag.  You can only open the car and start the engine when you are scheduled to use the car. Another example he used was Bag, Borrow, or Steal, which is a designer purse subscription site. It works like Netflix for expensive handbags.

Mike also used the phrase “information shadow,” which is a key piece of digital, machine-readable identification, like a barcode or RFID.  In some cases, the information is as important as the item. Take wine as an example:  information about wine is as important as the wine itself, for many people.  Kuniavsky made a connection between what technologists are doing and what librarians can do to help the rest of the world find what the technologists are building, but not describing.

Technologists typically leave out the information management issues when talking about technologies. He was hopeful that librarians would bridge the gap between the two.  Librarians are “at the forefront of integration of information shadows and representations of objects” because librarians wrangle information about entities.  Serial objects need people who understand how to corral, label, and organize information shadows. The world does not know that yet, but it will, and it will be a really big problem.  “The world needs shadow wranglers,” he said in conclusion, “and that’s you.”


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