What next, Ubicomp?

Gregory Abowd was my Ph.D. advisor at Georgia Tech. Those of your who know him will not be surprised that he is sharing his opinions loudly and looking to start a debate with others in the community. His vision paper this year has provided an interesting look back (and forward) at the Ubicomp conference and he asks us “What next, Ubicomp?”

You can read the whole paper and join in the Facebook discussion, but here are the main points of his paper, for the lazy:

  • Ubicomp (the paradigm) is so accepted as part of all computing that it is no longer a meaningful way to categorize computing research
  • Ubicomp (the conference) has many successes to celebrate, including: popularizing “living labs” style investigations, the “your noise is my signal” intellectual nugget, and bringing together researchers from diverse disciplines
  • Ubicomp (the conference) values both “application agnostic” novel technologies and “application driven” investigations of established technologies. And that’s good!
  • Ubicomp (the paradigm) embodies the “3rd generation” of computing. The next generation may bring a blurring of the lines between the human and the computer through cloud, crowd, nano, and wearable technologies.

During the presentation, he was also a bit incendiary to generate discussion, saying that the bad news is that: (1) defining Ubicomp at the 3rd generation means the generation might be over and we have to move on, (2) a lot of people don’t think of submitting their relevant work there, but rather put it in other places, (3) Ubicomp as a research area is dead because ubiquitous computing is now, in fact, ubiquitous. The paper generated quite a bit of discussion at the conference. I want to add my two cents and (hopefully) put this idea out to a wider audience.

The main point that I want to make is that there is a distinction between Ubicomp the conference and Ubicomp the paradigm. I make these distinctions explicitly in the summary above, but the two points were a bit muddled in the paper and in the discussion. Yes, Ubicomp the paradigm is becoming so common-place that it may no longer be an interesting way to categorize one’s work, but Ubicomp the conference seems to mostly have papers that focus on a very specific brand of that paradigm. My long name for Ubicomp would be “enabling cool sensors and application of cool sensors in the wild” (with inversely varying degrees of “cool” and “wild”). Pretty much all of the papers in this year’s proceedings fall into this category. From an informal survey of my colleagues, this also seems to be the general perception of the kind of paper you might think about submitting to Ubicomp and may help understand why work that Gregory views as relevant to the paradigm doesn’t get submitted to the conference. Would trying to change the perception of Ubicomp the conference to include more of the stuff that is touched upon in Ubicomp the paradigm revitalize the conference? I argue that it wouldn’t (because the paradigm is becoming less relevant to research) and that Ubicomp the conference should take an alternate approach:

  1. Embrace the perception that has developed of it in the community and strive to do (or rather, continue doing) good work in enabling and understanding use of sensors even after the low-hanging fruit are picked. Essentially, Ubicomp’s new name should be SensorComp (I’m not arguing for a formal change, but you get the idea).
  2. By any definition, the 4th generation of computing will build upon the 3rd and SensorComp can contribute to that by building ties with other communities who will find SensorComp’s work relevant, including communities focusing on applications (e.g., health), technologies (e.g., wearables), and paradigms (e.g., social computing). I especially like the idea of collocating with relevant conferences once in a while.

So, rather than arguing that the conference should change or that it should attract different kind of work (good luck, cat herder!), I say that the conference should embrace what it does well, become THE place to publish that sorts of work, and be really in-your-face about it to other communities who would find that sort of work useful. Gregory says that Ubicomp is dead. I say long live SensorComp!

Now, please tear my ideas to bits, esteemed colleagues.