Technology: not just for geeks

Want to shape the future? The University of Essex is offering us the chance to do just that. Steven Russell found out how technology will be our protecting angel, if the experts have their way

The following week you fly to Pittsburgh for a work conference. Luckily, thanks to the way technology can take distance in its stride, our hotel room knows how humid we like it and that we prefer the shower lukewarm. We can even turn on our computer and enjoy good old British TV shows we recorded at home – and press a couple of buttons that, back in East Anglia, will put out some food for the cats. Oh, and your fridge also knows when it’s running out of milk, and orders more, ready for your return.

A scenario like this was the kind of thing the BBC science programme Tomorrow’s World was predicting when I was a child – without much evidence since of tomorrow ever arriving. But, it seems, the great day is just around the corner. Relatively speaking.

Across the world, scientists and engineers, commercial companies and academic institutions are beavering away on something called ambient technology. It basically means finding a way of getting all our gadgets communicating with each other: from our PC to the central heating boiler and the curtain track to the whirlpool bath. And all without it being hopelessly geeky and complicated for us mere mortals, who just want to get on with our lives without needing a degree in software engineering. At the moment, much of our technology gets on with its job in a glorious state of independence. (A bit like England’s footballers . . .) Just think what it could do if it played as a team.

One of the places building this brave new world is the University of Essex. Its iSpace laboratory – set up as a mock but realistic apartment, complete with bedroom, kitchen-lounge and bathroom – has long been a test-bed for technology. Products from firms such as BT and Kodak are among those that have been evaluated in the past.

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Researchers are currently working on a major EU-funded project called Adaptive and Trusted Ambient Ecologies – Atraco – which is developing the technological framework that will allow our devices to talk to each other and also be flexible: such as coping when a room is occupied by a number of different people with different needs, likes and dislikes. (Preferred temperature, for instance.)

The Essex findings will form several pieces of a massive jigsaw, with more provided by academics and companies working on the Atraco initiative in Germany, France and Greece. In a nutshell, all this effort should nurture advances that make our lives better.

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It’s not just superficial stuff, either. Companies such as Sony might well be working hard at ways of linking products like the PlayStation with other household appliances, but governments are also looking to harness the power to help people with more basic needs.

“One of the pressures to make this kind of technology work for us is society’s demographics, with more older people and fewer younger ones,” says senior research officer Dr Christian Wagner. “Technology can support older people so they can live in their own homes, and also take some pressure off the state in supporting those people. But you cannot have complicated technology. You need technology that adapts to them, and not them having to adapt to technology.”

Ah, that’s important. Many of us have a love/hate relationship with gadgets. We enjoy the possibilities they offer, but are too often driven nuts because making them work is too hard. Too many manufacturers pumping this technology at us have failed to grasp that products need to be easy to operate.

The team at Essex recognises this and is determined that humans and their real-life needs are the top priorities; not simply providing shiny new toys for dyed-in-the-wool technophiles. Hallelujah.

“We are now flooded with technology and are trying to see what we are going to do with it all, and manage it,” confirms Prof Hani Hagras, professor of computer science.

“I’ll give you a small example of how technology has failed: digital photography. If you don’t know about computers, there is no way you can open the camera, set it up or put an image in your computer. So digital photography, I think, is something we need to learn a lesson from. You should not isolate a lot of people simply because they are not excellent computer users.”

Getting the science right is, of course, vital; but it’s working out what people need, and seeing how they want to relate to the technology, that’s crucial in usefully applying these advances to the real world.

Which is where senior social scientist Dr Joy van Helvert comes in. She’s interested in seeing how humans and machines live together. “A new relationship is coming between people and technology, and this is really laying the groundwork for that,” she says of Atraco.

Earlier this year they had nine people spend time in iSpace as guinea-pigs, basically – evaluating prototype technologies. This group experienced about five different scenarios, such as arriving “home”, being recognised, and being asked if they’d like to listen to music or watch TV.

The nine were later interviewed about how they found it. There was a follow-up focus group and talk about what the project ought to be trying to achieve if it is to bring lasting benefits.

“One of the key things that came out was control,” says Joy. “It’s a very subtle issue. It’s great to have voice interaction but, for some people, to be asked an unsolicited question when they came into a room was overpowering and made them feel as if there was another presence. Some people did think it was comforting, but for the most part people found it unnerving.

“It seems people are much more comfortable if they feel a system is an extension of themselves, in the way we think of our phones or computers, rather than it feeling like a separate presence in the home.”

There was also concern about mood and atmosphere. Sometimes people didn’t mind interacting with an ethereal voice; at other times, they could see themselves wanting to be quieter and more “private”.

“It’s interesting,” says Christian. “Do you want a ‘presence’? Would you want an avatar on a screen? Do you want a Scotty [the engineer on Star Trek, whose face would pop up on a communication screen] who you can tell ‘Turn the lights on, please!’ People are different.

“The environment should also learn from what the user does, such as knowing the light setting people like and giving them that light the next time they sit down to relax. But they should also easily be able to choose a different setting – or use normal switches if they want to. It’s important the system doesn’t override someone’s wishes.”

One aspect people did like, very much, was being able to walk between rooms and have their music follow them around, as the technology noted their movements and seamlessly piped the tunes through the relevant speakers.

The iSpace team is now embarking on the next stage. The “apartment” will be fitted with the next batch of technology – the gubbins is largely hidden within the walls, bar the odd sensor in the corner of the room – and new volunteers will be invited in.

The university is looking for about five over-18s to spend three or four sessions in iSpace. Each visit would be about two or three hours long, spread over several weeks between the end of August and December. A range of folk would be ideal, including people who are not particularly au fait with technology.

Sessions will be “unscripted”, explains Joy. “Just ‘play’ and then we’ll talk about it afterwards. It should be relaxing and fun; not gruelling at all.” The key thing from the researchers’ point of view is that volunteers are happy to talk about what it is like “living” in this invisible technological bubble or cradle. The team will be looking for patterns and emerging themes, so technology can be shaped and bent to give us what we need in our homes and workplaces.

“You said you didn’t like the idea of wearing a tag,” says Christian. “That’s exactly the feedback we need, from real people.”

He gives an example of how views can see an approach adapted. A system in an old people’s home in America used cameras to monitor movement, rather than sensors. Many of the residents were uncomfortable about their pictures being recorded. Discussion led to their outlines being shown in silhouette, rather than detail. “It was a good compromise between having a working system and respecting their privacy.”

PhD student James Dooley agrees input from humans is of prime consideration.

“We’re just technologists,” he smiles. “We work with the network and the software and all these kinds of bits; we’re not always the greatest people to talk about how you can put these things into the home! The perfect example was when you first came in and said ‘Gosh, it’s like Big Brother.’ [I meant it only from the point of view that it was an artificial apartment, a bit like a film set – not that it’s packed with visible cables and cameras, because it isn’t.]

“We walk in here every day, we know what’s here and we kind of don’t think about what everything does. That’s why we need people to come here and tell us what they feel about it.”

Hani says we could think of ambient technology as a kind of invisible sphere or bubble that follows us around and offers possibilities, while also adapting to events, and our changing likes and needs, as it goes. “It’s like a protecting angel, trying to sort things out the way you like them but without making you feel threatened.”

Joy adds it’s simply about making our everyday appliances (computer, fridge, TV, washing-machine et al) work together. Joining up the dots, if you like, between everything with a micro-processor. “It’s not that you have to buy a massive, new, expensive system that includes all the devices. You should be able to bring a TV home from Tesco’s and say ‘OK, I’m going to add this to my group of devices’, and it becomes part of this very personal home system.”

The big question, of course – one that to my mind was never convincingly answered on Tomorrow’s World – is “when will we see this wonderful dream become reality?”

“How long has a mobile phone been in our lives?” muses Hani. “I think from the 1990s, really. When I was young, I could not dream of a phone I could carry with me and on which I could check the internet and send text messages. All this has happened in 20 years. When it was invented, no-one could have foreseen what mobiles phones could do.

“This is exactly the same situation. The difficult thing is sorting the different scientific aspects of it; but the first versions of it at least could be here in the next five years – maybe more.”

Anyone interested in becoming an iSpace volunteer should contact Joy van Helvert on

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