Computers Without Boundaries: A Deep Dive Into Ambient Computing

Image above courtesy of quotecatalog.com.

Ambient computing is set to be one of the biggest buzzwords of 2020. Unlike a lot of other trends, though, ambient computing promises to deliver real-world changes in the ways that brands market themselves and companies engage with their customers.

“Ambient computing” is actually a catch-all term for several new technologies. These include Internet of Things (IoT) devices, AI-driven devices, and cloud storage solutions that allow previously impossible amounts of data to be stored and processed.

Street Fight recently touched on what some of these technologies will mean for local marketing. Our series on the connected consumer highlighted the ways that these technologies will impact the way that brands interact with audiences, especially through screen-free customer service solutions and the ways marketers can leverage voice interfaces.

The advantage of looking at these technologies under one term, though, is that it allows us to see the future of marketing more holistically. And that’s what we’ll look at in this article. 

What is Ambient Computing?

The most basic definition of ambient computing is that it is “invisible” and performs its functions in the background. However, this basic definition hides the complex technologies on which most ambient computing systems rely. In order to remain invisible but still useful, these systems have to have an “intelligent” understanding of their environment, and this in turn means that they rely on artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cognitive processing.

These tools are already in extensive use, of course. Many companies offering online photo storage use AI to help users organize their data, and the Amazon recommendations engine has used AI “in the background” for many years to deliver “useful” recommendations on what customers might like to buy. Both of these systems could be regarded as “ambient” albeit at a fairly basic level, and both point to where computing is going.

The Features of Ambient Computing

Beyond the basic requirement of being invisible, ambient computing systems share some common features. Here they are:

  • All ambient systems need huge amounts of data to function correctly. Data collection has already caused huge levels of virtual disruption in marketing by allowing brands to target their content to a higher level of specificity than ever before, but this is just the beginning. In the future, ambient systems could be used to automatically monitor the way in which employees work, and seamlessly deliver them the information they need before they have even asked for it.
  • Secondly, most ambient systems are embedded into online or real-world environments. Online, many banks are now using AI systems to help users navigate online banking platforms. In the real world, smart speakers such as the Amazon Echo are making ambient computing mainstream.
  • Third, in order to be successful, ambient systems need to be familiar. This realization has been the biggest driving force behind the development of voice-operated computing devices in the past few years but will soon extend to other forms of interaction as well: gestures, touch, and perhaps even eye movement.
  • Finally, ambient systems are also integrated with other tools that are used alongside them. The promise of ambient computing is that it will be able to monitor your actions when using one system, develop useful insights, and then apply these in the other systems that you use. In order to do this, ambient computers will need to act as computing and data hubs for the otherwise discrete systems with which they interact.

Ambient computing systems are likely to have a huge effect on many aspects of the way in which the average user interacts with computers in the coming years. But for most of our readers, the most critical question is this: How will it affect local marketing?

Ambient Computing For Everyday Life 

It’s easy to see how the utility of ambient computing as it relates to people in everyday life will continue to grow, but it remains to be seen how exactly it will impact us as such. On the one hand, it is possible to imagine a future in which billboards display different, personalized ads to everyone that walks past. At the other end of the spectrum, it might be that fears about spyware in the IoT and privacy intrusion in general never allows this to happen.

The huge opportunities that ambient computing provides to marketers in particular means that they should, as an industry, encourage advertiser access to these systems. This, in turn, will rely on proving to consumers that giving marketers access to ambient systems will be genuinely useful.  

Many local marketers are also starting to realize that they can use voice assistants to give customers access to local information on products available in their area. It’s also possible that – with consent – store-based ambient computer systems could recognize returning customers, and instantly present them with items that they would be interested in.

It’s also very likely that we will see ambient computing continue to evolve with sensor and edge-processing technology to further ingrain connected intelligence into our physical environments (including our homes and workplaces) that will create many privacy-related questions.

A prime example would be technology continuing to advance with everyday smart devices (or electronic devices connected to other devices via wireless protocols), from TVs to kitchen appliances to security cameras. Most security cameras in particular can and should come with advanced features such as smart home integration and the ability to control them via an app, but what happens when such systems end up recognizing people who continuously come into view of the cameras (as in you and your family)? 

In the end, you probably can’t help but wonder if your security cameras are actually protecting you or rather are spying on you. This is just one example of how, in general, it is clear that concerns about data privacy, security, and consent in general will need to be addressed for ambient computing to become a major success accepted by the majority of the population.

A Final Word

For now, the challenge for local marketers will be to scan the horizon for new opportunities in ambient computing, and take advantage of them as they arise. Being an early adopter of new forms of advertising will represent a huge advantage in the coming world of ambient computing.

Gary Stevens is a front-end developer and copywriter who specializes in writing about cybersecurity, blockchain, and tech trends.

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