Custom vs. Commodity Hardware in Ubicomp

Mark Abel, a colleague and principal investigator at the Intel Science and Technology Center for Pervasive Computing, sent out an email with a link to an article about add-ons and accessories for smartphones. The author of the article makes one point that I think is particularly relevant:

There’s no need to duplicate what a smartphone already does in a new CE device under development. In some cases, there’s no need to develop hardware at all. A smartphone already exists as a hardware platform, on which you can design — in software — whatever functions you want it to perform.

I have been thinking about this point in the context of ubiquitous computing research for some time. Many believe, rightly so, that we are in the middle of a hardware renaissance of sorts. Over the last decade, a number of factors have greatly reduced the time and cost that goes into designing and prototyping a custom hardware device. At the same time, we see certain devices, particularly smartphones, that are becoming universal hardware platforms. Why build a new item from scratch if you can simply build an add-on to the smartphone people already own and (hopefully) love?

The answer, of course, depends on the exact type of research that one is pursuing. Today, there is a large group of researchers actively developing and experimenting with custom hardware (e.g. the UIST community). At the same time, I do see an upward trend towards leveraging existing platforms. For example, highly respected researchers in the community such as Tanzeem Choudhury, Andrew Campbell, and Deborah Estrin, have recently centered their work much more around existing mobile platforms and apps than custom implementations and sensor networks. Computer vision researchers like Dieter Fox have been actively exploring the XBox Kinect depth camera in a variety of ways. It is worth noting that there is an obvious level of opportunism at play here – if the hardware is available and interesting, why not use it? – but I believe my point stands.

There is tremendous value in the “imagine and realize” mentality of custom hardware. Innovation is what one usually associates with this process, as in “build new things”. But there is another angle on custom devices that I find particularly promising – it has to do with access. When the overall cost of building hardware goes down, it is possible to build not only a better device over time, but also take an existing device that costs $100, such as the Fitbit activity tracker, and reinvent it for $10. Why? To turn it into an almost “disposable” device that you can make available to lots of people. This results in the ability to scale studies and experiments.

On the other hand, there is an enormous amount of low-hanging fruit around existing and upcoming platforms – we are just scratching the surface of what can be done, even with mobile phones. Hello wearables. It would be unwise to ignore the benefits that these platforms provide, not to mention the aspect of studying how people use and appropriate existing devices and infrastructure.

No matter how you look at it, whether you break new ground with new hardware implementations, or gather data from commodity hardware provided to hundreds of people, one thing is for sure: this is a great time to be a ubicomp researcher.



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