ERCIM News No.47, October 2001 [contents]
Ambient Intelligence in the Context of Universal Access
by Constantine Stephanidis
This article discusses Ambient Intelligence under a Universal Access perspective, as well as the Unified User Interface Development framework as a design and engineering methodology addressing, through a proactive and generic approach, the dimensions of diversity arising in the context of Ambient Intelligence.
The on-going paradigm shift towards a knowledge-intensive Information Society has brought about radical changes in the way people work and interact with each other and with information. Computer-mediated human activities undergo fundamental changes, and new ones appear continuously, as novel, intelligent, distributed, and highly interactive technological environments emerge, making available concurrent access to heterogeneous information sources and interpersonal communication. This dynamic evolution is characterized by several dimensions of diversity that become evident when considering the broad range of user characteristics, the changing nature of human activities, the variety of contexts of use, the increasing availability and diversification of information, knowledge sources and services, the proliferation of diverse technological platforms, etc.
In this context, the typical computer user can no longer be identified: information artifacts are used by diverse user groups, including people with different cultural, educational, training and employment background, novice and experienced computer users, the very young and the elderly, and people with different types of disabilities. Existing computer-mediated human activities undergo fundamental changes, and a wide variety of new ones appear, such as access to on-line information, e-communication, digital libraries, e-business, on-line health services, e-learning, on-line communities, on-line public and administrative services, e-democracy, tele-work and tele-presence, on-line entertainment, etc. Similarly, the context of use is changing. The traditional use of computers (ie, scientific use by the specialist, business use for productivity enhancement) is increasingly being complemented by residential and nomadic use, thus penetrating a wider range of human activities in a broader variety of environments, such as the school, the home, the market place, and other civil and social contexts. Finally, technological proliferation contributes with an increased range of systems or devices to facilitate access to the community-wide pool of information resources. These devices include computers, standard telephones, cellular telephones with built-in displays, television sets, information kiosks, information appliances, and various other network-attachable devices.
The notion of Universal Access has become critically important for ensuring social acceptability of the emerging Information Society. Universal access implies the accessibility and usability of Information Society Technologies (IST) by anyone, anywhere, anytime. Its aim is to enable equitable access and active participation of potentially all citizens in existing and emerging computer-mediated human activities. Therefore, it is important to develop universally accessible and usable technological landscapes, capable of accommodating all users in all potential contexts of use, independently of location, users primary task, target machine, run-time environment, or the current physical conditions of the external environment.
Universal Access is directly related to the emerging concept of Ambient Intelligence, that calls for the development of multi-sensorial interfaces supported by computing and networking technologies present everywhere and embedded in everyday objects. In this context, the technological environment is seen as an all-encompassing computing platform, composed of multiple distributed processing and interactive units, and exhibiting various levels of intelligence. Ambient Intelligence incorporates properties of distributed interactivity (eg, multiple interactive devices, remote interaction capabilities), ubiquitous computing (the invisible computer concept, ie, user - environment direct interaction), and nomadic or mobile computing (eg, location awareness, interface migration). Ambient Intelligence has the potential to provide the user with a virtual space enabling flexible and natural communication with the computing environment or with other users, providing input and perceiving feedback by utilising proportionally all the available senses and communication channels, while optimising human and system resources.
In the context of Universal Access, ambient intelligence is addressed through a proactive and generic approach, which accounts for all dimensions of variation (ie, the abilities, skills, requirements and preferences of users, the characteristics of technological platforms, the relevant aspects of the context of use), and supports intelligent interface run-time adaptation, ie, the capability of automatically adapting to individual users characteristics and contexts of use through the realization of alternative patterns of interactive behaviour.
The Unified User Interface development framework (see [Stephanidis, C. (Ed.). (2001). User Interfaces for All - Concepts, Methods, and Tools. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (ISBN 0-8058-2967-9, 760 pages)]) provides a design and engineering methodology supporting the development of self-adapting interfaces exhibiting both user awareness (ie, the interface is capable of user-adapted behaviour by automatically selecting an interaction patterns appropriate to the particular end-user), and usage context awareness (ie, the interface is capable of usage-context adapted behaviour by automatically selecting interaction patterns appropriate to the particular physical and technological environment). A Unified User Interface comprises a single (unified) interface specification defined by the following key properties:
Recent and ongoing applications of the Unified User Interface development framework include: