Ubiquitous Developments in Ambient Computing and Intelligence: Human-Centered Applications
Book Citation Index

Ubiquitous Developments in Ambient Computing and Intelligence: Human-Centered Applications

Kevin Curran (University of Ulster, Ireland)
Release Date: May, 2011|Copyright: © 2011 |Pages: 402|DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-549-0
ISBN13: 9781609605490|ISBN10: 1609605497|EISBN13: 9781609605506


Ambient Intelligence (AmI) is an emerging paradigm for knowledge discovery, which originally emerged as a design language for invisible computing and smart environments. Since its introduction in the late 1990's, AmI has matured and evolved, having inspired fields including computer science, interaction design, mobile computing, and cognitive science.

Ubiquitous Developments in Ambient Computing and Intelligence: Human-Centered Applications provides a comprehensive collection of knowledge in cutting-edge research in fields as diverse as distributed computing, human computer interaction, ubiquitous computing, embedded systems, and other interdisciplinary areas which all contribute to AmI. Predicting the technologies that will shape our ever changing world is difficult however, in this book it is discussed that Ambient Intelligent technology will develop considerably in the future.

Topics Covered

The many academic areas covered in this publication include, but are not limited to:

  • Agent-based approaches to ambient intelligence
  • Ambient intelligence for smart home environments
  • Applications and experience with deployed systems
  • Communication systems and infrastructure for ambient intelligence
  • Context awareness, sensing, and inference for ambient intelligence
  • Human interaction with autonomous systems
  • Innovative applications of AI to ambient intelligence
  • Interacting with ambient intelligence
  • Mobile Computing
  • Objects, devices, and environments that embody ambient intelligence
  • Security, privacy, and trust in ambient computing
  • Self-adaptive systems

Reviews and Testimonials

This collection of twenty-six articles on ambient computing, showcases current scholarship in the field of ubiquitous, user-oriented computer interface design. [...] The contributors are academics from computer science and electrical engineering fields from universities in Europe, Canada, Mexico and Australia.

– Book News, Reference - Research Book News - August 2011

Table of Contents and List of Contributors

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Ambient Intelligence refers to the environment of computing which is aware and responsive to the presence of human interaction.  The aim is to use the space surrounding us in the form of movement, shape and sound recognition and create a system that will be able to recognize all the different scents that are in the environment.  Ambient Intelligence has been influenced by user centered design which is an approach to design which regards the user’s needs as the most important determinant of the content and structure of the design (Friedewald et al., 2005). Ambient Intelligence builds upon ubiquitous computing and user-centric design. Ubiquitous computing (calm technology) is the shift, where technology becomes virtually invisible in our everyday life or rather - embedded in our environment whereas it is made typically invisible (Weiser, 1999). There are of course many definitions of Ambient Intelligence (AmI) (de Man, 2003). To add another, we could say that Ambient Intelligence has the awareness of specific characteristics of human presence and personality dealing in turn with user needs, responding intelligently and all the while remaining invisible to the user (unless necessary) and striving to ensure that any interactions should be of minimal effort, easy to understand and ultimately enjoyable. Now, if you really think about that statement and the checklist of aspects which need to be satisfied – then you could be forgiven for thinking that it is a fantasy. Of course, the vision of Ambient Intelligence is difficult but here in this book is where we can expect to read about the vision becoming a reality.  

Ambient Intelligence also builds upon Moore’s Law which stated that the number of transistors on a chip will double approximately every two years. Electronics are now so small and powerful that they can be adapted to fit into almost every possible type of object no matter what the shape or size.   The key to delivering ambient intelligence to users is being able to provide what is wanted, when, where and how it is wanted so that users receive the exact information, at the right time and in the right manner (Basten et al., 2003).

The Past

The Roots of Ambient Intelligence Ambient intelligence originated at Philips where in 1998, the board of management of Philips commissioned a number of internal workshops to study different scenarios that would transform the high-volume consumer electronic industry. The vision was of people living easily in digital environments in which the electronics are sensitive to needs, personalized to requirements, anticipatory of behavior and responsive to a person’s presence (Aarts and Marzano, 2003). Philips then joined the Oxygen alliance, an international consortium of industrial partners within the context of the MIT Oxygen project, in 1999 where the focus was to develop technology for the computer of the 21st century. Therefore in 2000, plans were put into action when a feasible and usable facility dedicated to Ambient Intelligence was built (Riva 
et al., 2005). The Ambient Intelligence Space was introduced by ISTAG Information Society Technologies Advisory Group.  A few of the characteristics that will help in the social acceptance of an Ambient Intelligence system are that it should facilitate human contact, should be easily controllable by users, it should help build up techniques and skills as well as knowledge which in turn will ensure that the quality of work that is produced will be to a higher standard and people should be able to trust the system fully confident that it works correctly (Weber et al., 2005). Due to the complexity and importance of ambience intelligence, teams designing interfaces will need to create systems that are more responsive to people’s needs and actions, whereas the systems become true assets for expanding our minds. The convergence of computing with telecommunications and multimedia resources will ensure that the means of communicating will increase and help to bring form to the Ambient Intelligence scenarios.

In computing, ambient intelligence refers to electronic environments that are sensitive and responsive to the presence of people. Ambient intelligence is a vision on the future of consumer electronics, telecommunications and computing. It was originally developed in the late 1990s for the time frame 2010–2020 where we shall be surrounded by electronic environments which are sensitive and responsive to people. In an ambient intelligence world, devices work in concert to support people in carrying out their everyday life activities, tasks and rituals in easy, natural way using information and intelligence that is hidden in the network connecting these (Curran & Norrby, 2009). As these devices grow smaller, more connected and more integrated into our environment, the technology disappears into our surroundings until only the user interface remains perceivable by users. Ambient Intelligence technologies are expected to combine concepts of ubiquitous computing and intelligent systems putting humans in the centre of technological developments. It calls for the development of multi-sensorial interfaces which are supported by computing and networking technologies present everywhere and embedded in everyday objects. It also requires new tools and business models for service development and provision and for content creation and delivery

The field of Ambient Intelligence endeavours to provide an understanding of the complexities in interacting more naturally with computers. Fields from distributed computing, human computer interaction, ubiquitous computing, embedded systems and other interdisciplinary areas all contribute to this science. Ambient Intelligence researchers in the field often share a common interest in gaining greater insights into the convergence of pervasive computing, intelligent systems research and context awareness, independent of research methods. Watch this space!

The State of Play at Present

The Future for Ambient Intelligence to look to the future, I guess we can do worse than to look at the past and current uses of Ambient Intelligence. Therefore, some of the ways ambient intelligence has been applied has been through entertainment, advertising and home-automation.  Philips have created some wonderful experiences through colours that change whilst watching a movie to intensify the mood of the scene such as 
Ambilight. Another ambient technology known as AmBX took the concept of the Ambilight lighting and added more multi-sensory to the experience through adding a new type of surround sound, vibration, air movement and some other effects such as delivering an immersive experience for gaming through the integration of games and peripherals working in harmony together.

Ambient intelligence because of it interactivity with the user is an attractive medium to advertisers. One such Intelligent Advertising project is AdSwitch which is designed to change when someone approaches the advert as their gender and age will be determined to evaluate an advertisement suitable to the user.  For instance, as the elderly woman moves to the head of the queue, she is shown the advert for retirement homes and when the teenage boy heads the queue, some computer games adverts will play. This could be a large step forward for the advertising industry as not all adverts are able to reach their potential customers and now advertisers can target the correct market as the advert will adapt to the changing environment. The application of Ambient Intelligence in the Home Automation field is likely to continue as it can be simply allowed to disappear into the environment without home owners having to notice it carrying out the complex instructions that would make lives easier.  It is also likely that newer methods of interacting with the interfaces will be a hot area for some time to come as speech and touch have specific limitations. It can be argued that one of the main reasons that ambient intelligence has not been implemented widely today is due to the constraints that come with it.  For instance, to have every object made intelligent requires mass produced nano components yet nanotechnology is complex and hard to work with, the time it takes to develop devices with nano technology is much longer due to the fact that everything that is in the design must be built on a very small. There is also the aspect of security with Ambient Intelligence and if people are not willing to trust the ambient technology then it will fail (Wright et al., 2008). In Ambient Intelligent environments, information not only resides in one node but is distributed between many therefore every single node within the system needs to be protected (Espiner, 2008).

Ambient intelligence is beginning to have an influence on the market place today. Some of these products are at early stages and some are in niche markets. Take for instance, the award winning ‘Philips Wake-Up Light' (see Figure 1). This alarm clock with a 300 lux light bulb can be used by anyone to help them wake up more naturally (by dawn simulation - so replicating waking up as nature intended - by sunlight).  This means people feel more refreshed and ready to hit the day rather than being woken abruptly by a loud, sudden beeping. In fact you can set it to 3 natural sounds (morning birds, seashore, pond) or your favorite digital FM radio station. What is the relationship with Ambient Computing and an alarm clock? Well the clue may be in the manufacturers of this product ....Philips.

Figure 1: Philips Wake-up Light 

Figure 2: Mist Clock Radio

Earlier, I make it clear how indebted the field of ambient intelligence should be to the pioneers such as Emile Aarts of Philips. Remember, Philips had a clear focus in the early days of developing a fully networked, anytime-anywhere pervasive-computing technology. They had a clear visions of changing our everyday objects – from microwaves to heating consoles, even vacuum cleaners – into mini-computers that could 'talk' remotely to communication servers. Well, items such as the above award winning wake up light are a direct result of the initial AmI prototypes in their labs. Is this what they set out to do? Of course not but this is just possibly one of the nice revenue earners along with their other excellent ambient lights which show you that it does pay to conduct R&D. 

Similarly, the Mist Clock Radio is a product which attempts to eliminate complexity from a bedside and replace it with intuitive access to clock and alarm functions, along with a 2-day weather forecast from AccuWeather.com. It has an FM radio with RDS (Radio Data System), and an InTouch messaging service that allows the sending of up to 140 character messages directly to a compatible Ambient product. One scenario that the company offer is where a school cancel notification is sent directly to the product so you know when you can sleep in before you get out of bed... Or send a "Happy Birthday" message to someone special... Or set notifications for special events, such as "don't forget, flight at 6am". Of course there are gaps in such a product but you can see where the future may lead us in such a hybrid communications/household device

Another product on the market is the Ambient Umbrella (see Figure 3). The goal of this umbrella is to let one know when rain or snow is in the forecast by illuminating its handle. Light patterns intuitively indicate rain, drizzle, snow, or thunderstorms. If rain is forecast, the handle of this umbrella glows so you should not forget it. The Ambient Umbrella continuously displays forecast data for 150 locations. Embedded in the handle is a wireless data-radio chip which receives accuweather.com data and pulses when rain is forecast

Figure 3: Ambient Umbrella Handle (left) and Full View of Ambient Umbrella (right)

The Philips Ambilight TV is best described as a flat panel TV with built-in ambient lighting effects (see Figure 4). It differs from other similar products due to its Ambilight ‘surround colour experience’. It strives to immerse the viewer in the action by making the screen seem larger and simultaneously relaxing the viewer’s eyes. The idea of this came from the research Philips carried out where they discovered that when people watch TV, they naturally and subconsciously take in their surroundings without thought. Therefore by projecting a corresponding light onto the background where the TV is placed provides a more relaxing and engaging viewing experience.

Figure 4: Philips Ambilight (In Orange)

In fact the Ambilight TV fits into the market area where many people expect Ambient Intelligence to have a major impact – and that is Home Automation. Technology has been available for some time to create a fully automated home, but the cost benefit ratio was much too high to mass-produce these products and sell to Joe Public. Again, the reason for the excitement in this space is that the overall goal for ambient technology is to disappear into the environment surrounding us. This then allows it carry out complex (and tedious) instructions that would make our lives easier on a Friday or Saturday night.  Of course, this technology will only be presented to us in the home through intelligent user-friendly interfaces. These may be touch screen mobile control panels or the voice recognition systems which work through miniature microphones installed in the home that respond to instructions rather than users carrying the panel around.  People can then speak instructions to execute preset ‘Movie’ settings that have already been customized to close the curtains/blinds, dim the lights, apply climate control (heating, moisture) and increase volume. 

Another area of daily life where ambient intelligence research has led to innovative products is in flexible digital displays. There are numerous different flexible display technologies on the market, some made with plastic substrate and electronics. The days of newspaper being shipped across countries in the dead of night to peoples doorsteps may be a thing of the past for wireless digital flexible displays may be able to download in real-time breaking stories and sport updates whilst at the same time offering the reader a similar if nor improved reading experience as paper. Anecdotal evidence in fact suggests that flexible displays (or e-paper) are more comfortable to read than conventional displays. This is due to the stable image, which does not need to be refreshed constantly, the wider viewing angle, and the fact that it reflects ambient light rather than emitting its own light.

It has become more apparent that our lives will become more digitalised in the future with more embedded devices, network devices, location tracking and general increased public surveillance. This has led to a growing concern from segments of society (Wright et al., 2008).  One concern is that Ambient Intelligence driven systems may hold too much information about individuals leading to invasions of privacy. They highlight the potential exploitation of those with lesser education and mental stability. There are others who feel that society will become more isolated as a result of not communicating via more traditional face-to-face means - but rather through computer online. There are those who worry about terrorist seizing information on populations especially in the case of war. Less dramatic but nonetheless a concern is this information being used in fraud and identity theft. 

The Future

Levitt and Dubner in the best selling SuperFreakonomics (….sequel to the best-selling Freakonomics) outline a real-world scenario concerning incentives where insurance companies introduce Pay As You Drive (PAYD) schemes.  This is where insurance companies offer discounts based on restrained mileage usage. It generally works by having the drivers who sign up install a wireless device in their cars that transmits to the insurance company not just how many miles they drive but also when those miles are driven and, to some extent, how they are driven. The small wireless device measures the car’s speed every second, from which insurance companies can derive acceleration and braking behaviour so not only will the insurance company be able to charge drivers for the actual miles they consume but they will also be better able to assess the true risk of each driver.

One question people may ask is that "if Pay As You Drive is so great, then why has it taken so long to implement?" Well, there are a number of answers to that. Firstly, the tracking technology has only recently become affordable, secondly, insurers were anxious about drivers’ privacy concerns (believe it or not) and finally, there was a substantial risk for whichever company was first to offer PAYD on a large scale (Dubner and Levitt, 2008).

As with most incentive changes, there will be winners and losers and the biggest winners here may be those who can drive the same distance they previously drove but now pay less. However the bigger goal for society — and the wild card in this or any incentive shift — is to create real behaviour change. It may just happen that PAYD can induce some of its high-mileage customers to drive less and especially to drive more safely, resulting in smaller claims payouts for the insurance companies and fewer negative externalities for everyone leading to added benefit for all of society.

Why stop there however, what if we can deploy sensors to modify human behaviour in all spheres of life? Let us imagine the world in a very short time where activity monitors are common place, all products have inbuilt location sensing and modifiable displays? (Just remember that technology costs are spiralling downwards). Then imagine for instance, sensors in shoes which record walking activity and thus offer tax breaks or shopping vouchers. What about incentives for those who used public transport? What about incentives for those who picked up litter and actually placed it in rubbish bins? Here in the last scenarios, the government incentives are to reduce healthcare and local council costs therefore incentives can indeed be cost effective. The key here is that we should perhaps adopt a paradigm shift in our thinking regarding surveillance and intrusion and adopt a more radical view and see it as perhaps a key actor to enforcing motivation for 'good deeds in society'. In some ways, we are encouraging people to 'play games in daily life'. The difference here, from say a poster campaign to warn people of the dangers of not washing your hands after visiting the bathroom, is that we can use technology to detect if they actually do wash their hands, and then award points (as described earlier) in the knowledge that we correctly detected a good deed for humanity. Of course there will be cheaters and workarounds/backdoor scams to earn unwarranted points in the 'game of life' but what technological innovation does not have? and do the benefits for mankind outweigh the negatives? You bet they do!

One particular interesting (or scary) vision of the future is the inherent traceability of our lives. It may not be unusual for our descendants to 'Google' much of our current daily behaviour. OK, imagine the scenario where all CCTV, banking data, shop purchases by credit card, car park entries etc are logged and archived online for preservation purposes. Also imagine, that this information becomes publically available at a later date due to new laws. Then, someone would be able to sit down, use image recognition software to trawl through gigantic CCTV footage for regions, gather related credit card purchases, access Google search archives for IP addresses, access IPTV programmes watched, access home automation records etc (Curran & Hubrich, 2009). In effect, try to imagine that every action which leaves a digital audit trace being cross-referenced with many other audit trails to zoom in on daily activities of loved ones during a specific period. Let us not stop there, what is to stop our live web chat sessions being retrieved? Our emails which were archived by the good people in the IT department? surely no-one will find their privacy violated when these 'old' emails get thrown out into the public domain in the future. Of course, none of us should have to worry if we didn't include any incriminating evidence with these emails.....but who among us still feel that complacent that we would expose our emails to the world?

Of course, there are many positives. What about those who wish perhaps to see an image of a parent whom they never knew. They may have knowledge that on the 5th of June, they went to London to the Natural History Museum. Here perhaps public archive footage of visitors that day could lead to nice high resolution of their parent entering and walking around the museum. Perhaps new DNA evidence leads to the finger of suspicion pointing to an individual - well perhaps publically well preserved audit trails of payments, CCTV footage and mobile phone usage will help in the case. Again, we simply have to imagine the exponential increase in processing power leading to simply unbelievable data mining queries over gigantic data sets of multimodal data.

Of course, the goal is always to have the computing power blend seamlessly into the background. A research project in this area (Hegarty et al., 2008) that I am currently involved with focuses on moving the current 'session' with the user. So imagine the scenario where someone is in a meeting. They are working with their smartphone. So on the smartphone, they are viewing the BBC website, they also have a PDF document opened (and have last looked at page 10 of the document before switching to BBC website) whilst also starting to download a video. Once the meeting finishes, they return to their office. Now in the perfect world, their session should seamlessly move of the phone and onto their desktop. Therefore, the user should have the BBC pages loaded, video resumed and PDF document opened at exact page as previously on the phone. In essence, a shifting of the previous 'session' to the more suitable device. An impossible task? Perhaps......but welcome to the world of research - no one said it was easy.

Talking of mobile devices, it is now agreed that mobile devices offer convenient communication capabilities and have the potential to create intermediary support for ergonomically challenged users (Mushcab & Curran, 2009). With the global proliferation of increasing longevity, assisting the elderly and those living with impediments through human engineering and computing technology is pivotal to biotechnological attainment. To remain independently empowered, seamless integrations through efficient affable interfaces are required to provide sedulous location-independent and appliance-sensitive media viewing for the user (Traynor et al., 2010). There are Ambient Systems such as the Ambient Interface Design (AID) system aimed at improving our lives. AID for instance seeks to assist with finding personal preferences and provides a synchronisation framework, coordinating connectivity across various environmentally distributed devices via sensor data mapping (Hegarty et al., 2009). Cooperative interface communication coupled with context awareness are abstracted to a representation that facilitates optimisation and customisation to these displays. To overcome personal challenges in the efficient selection and acquisition of online information, AID mediates between the needs of the user and the constraints of the technology to provide a singular customised encapsulation of ‘ability preference and device’ for each authenticated member. A particular emphasis is the application of a human-centered design ethos (Hegarty et al., 2009).

Therefore is seems that technologically integrated spaces may change our perception of information and our behavioural interactions associated with its provision. Here a system delivers contextual user preferences without the need for direct user manipulation in overcoming age or disability related issues in providing for ergonomics. In recognising individual capabilities and needs an enhancement of satisfaction, speed and performance should be experienced. Ubiquity and seamless access through Internet services will assist in providing adaptive personal interfaces in mixed mode modality and media. Proactive collaboration between the possible devices aims to capture and simplify tasks for the elderly and those with disability in a sensitive, secure and intuitive environment endorsing efficient support in tailoring to the user requirements. This will help to ensure seamless continuity between components providing usability and maximum user convenience.  An Ambient Intelligent system like AID can act as a prerequisite for ‘Personalised Interfaces’ which aim to mediate between the needs of the user and the technology to help reduce personal challenges and provide a customised user experience for the efficient selection and acquisition of online information customised to preference, ability and chosen device (Dong et al., 2002).  In so doing a mobile persistent browsing experience will be filtered to the user as they roam untethered keeping data and communications ubiquitous. Citizens on the move are becoming networks on the move as individuals carrying devices are integrated into a framework of networks supporting a dynamic experience (Carbonell, 2006). These are the areas of society where Ambient Intelligence can lead to a brighter, more intuitive, more helpful future in our everyday lives. As a wise man once said "And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years.".


Ambient Intelligence (AmI) involves the convergence of several computing areas. The first is ubiquitous computing which focuses on the development of various ad hoc networking capabilities that exploit highly portable or else numerous, very-low-cost computing devices. The second key area is intelligent systems research, which provides learning algorithms and pattern matchers, speech recognition and language translators, and gesture classification and situation assessment. The final element is context awareness which attempts to track and position objects of all types and represent objects’ interactions with their environments. Finally, an appreciation of the social interactions of objects in environments is essential. 

Ambient Intelligence is an emerging paradigm for knowledge discovery, which originally emerged as a design language for invisible computing and smart environments. Since its introduction in the late 1990's, AmI has matured and evolved, having inspired the development of new concepts for information processing, as well as multi-disciplinary fields including computer science, interaction design, mobile computing, and cognitive science. This means that computers suited with intelligent and user friendly interfaces will be integrated into the world around us without being obtrusive such as a self-cleaning house or a vacuum cleaner which can sense where there's still dirt or where you haven't cleaned for a long time and point this out. It's understandable that people might worry that a situation could arise where the computer would be running their life and taking all decisions, but the goal of AmI is only to support people. 

In a broad sense, Ambient Intelligence is perceptual interaction, involving common sense, serendipity, analogy, insight, sensory fusion, anticipation, aesthetics and emotion all modalities that we take for granted in human interaction but have normally been considered out of reach in the computational world. We discover knowledge through the windows of our senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, which not only describe the nature of physical reality but also connect us to it. Our knowledge is shaped by the fusion of multidimensional information sources: shape, colour, time, distance, direction, balance, speed, force, similarity, likelihood, intent and truth. Ambient Intelligence is not only interaction but also perception. We do not simply acquire knowledge but rather construct it with hypotheses and feedback. Many difficult discovery problems become solvable through interaction with perceptual interfaces that enhance human strengths and compensate for human weaknesses to extend discovery capabilities. For example, people are much better than machines at detecting patterns in a visual scene, while machines are better at detecting errors in streams of numbers. 

Ambient Intelligence aims to make technology much smarter so that they will be able to interact and change to suit immediate requirements through intelligent user-friendly interfaces. Predicting the technologies that will shape the future ambient intelligence world is difficult however, it is expected that Ambient Intelligent technology will develop considerably. We have a certain amount of confidence in this as technology trends certainly have momentum and due to this have paved a way for Ambient Intelligence through such elements as computing, communication, software, sensors and displays.  In accordance to Moore’s law, data density on integrated circuits is continuing to double every eighteen months and related disciplines such as storage and CPU speeds also show substantial rates of change. The concept of Ambient Intelligence requires severe technological advances in sensor technology, communications, micro actuator technology, ultra-low power radio and in smart materials to create the adaptiveness and responsiveness to the environment. All of the elements have to be integrated into the architectural framework of an Ambient Intelligent System and these will then form a library of building blocks for general Ambient Intelligent System architectures.  


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Author(s)/Editor(s) Biography

Kevin Curran BSc (Hons), PhD, SMIEEE, MBCS CITP, MACM, MIEE, FHEA has made significant contributions to advancing the knowledge and understanding of computer networking, evidenced by over 350 publications. He is a regular contributor to BBC radio & TV news in Northern Ireland and is listed in the Dictionary of International Biography, Marquis Who’s Who in Science and Engineering and by Who’s Who in the World. He has chaired sessions and participated in the organising committees for many highly-respected international conferences and workshops. He is on the editorial boards of a number of journals and he is Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Ambient Computing and Intelligence. Dr Curran has also served as an advisor to the British Computer Society in regard to computer industry standards.