The Real World Web – envisioning a future of ubiquitous information

After a week of flim-flam over a real non-story (Pluto will not change shape or size, no matter what it gets labelled as), it’s a real relief to find something in the RSS feeds that really gets your motor running. MIT’s eLens project is just such a thing. So what the hell is the eLens project? A snippet from the ScienceDaily writeup:

“eLens is exploring the next wave of communications technology – building interactions that depend on where you are and what you want to know or say. In the eLens team’s vision, you could aim your mobile phone at your child’s school and start a voice thread to discuss cuts in after-school programs. Or you could let passersby know that the local folk music club serves great vegetarian meals.

The project began with a metaphor, that of an electronic lens that can be aimed at civic institutions and a “viewfinder” that makes these institutions more transparent. Pointing eLens at a train station, for example, might let you retrieve the day’s schedule for different tracks. Pointing it at a museum might list current exhibits and upcoming lectures.”

Basically, it’s a mobile contextual web-browser for the street – which, as we well know, ‘finds its own use for things’.

This is one of those wonderful pieces that confirms that we are edging closer and closer to a world almost indistinguishable from the world depicted in science fiction stories. The obvious touchstone for me with this project (though there are surely previous examples) is Vernor Vinge’s ‘Rainbows End, which repeatedly describes such overlaid interfaces with the real world, accessible thotough wearable computing devices. Reality plus. A world a bit like Firefox – you can go with the entry-level-functionality vanilla flavour, or you can access an almost infinite number of extensions to the basic package. A fully layered informational reality. Cities with cascading levels and layers of informational depth.

Imagine, just for a moment, the outcomes of a system like the one described – and think beyond the sales-pitch techno-speak of the inventors. Don’t contemplate how it might happen – imagine it already has. Imagine living in a city with this system already installed and fully exploited…

…you get a robocab into the town from the train station – a cab you ordered twenty minutes before arriving from the comfort of your seat, where you have spent the last hour observing the countryside outside the windows, replete with data on farming cycles, the ecological structure of the region, its history and its current demographic composition.

In the cab, you can peer through the windows, and the ownership, purpose and history of every major building will be available to you, along with an endless depth of local commentary and opinion on the services offered by the business located in it. The taxi will be unable to cheat you, even if it had a human driver; the city’s map will already have shown you the optimum route to your destination.

The high street will be a barrage of adverts and promotional material, time sensitive and contextually reactive. Your purchase history (as reported via your RFID tags) will be correlated against the databases of products that the major outlets stock, and a slew of close matches would be presented to you, with a reduced price should you choose to enter the shop in question within a few minutes of receiving the advert.

The student-ish bohemian part of town will be a barrage of crude promotional e-flyers, pitching live music shows, street theatre and guerilla art galleries. In between these crude yet commercially-orientated messages will be the untamed rogue javas of script-taggers, who have seeded the area with viral code-memes for nothing more than the thrill of plugging their obscure street/net handles to unsuspecting and unfirewalled passers-by.

You pass a food-kart, and its menu of central European snacks will be available to browse, backed by ethnic music and the iconography of the culture it hails from. Subculture kids will pass you by, and your sensorium will be bombarded with their personal headspace – their favourite music, video and blogsites offering themselves for instant access with the push of a button or the nod of a head. Pickpockets and petty criminals will project an innocent yet beguiling or distracting aura, in the hope of drawing your attention away from the back pocket where your digital wallet is stashed.

You reach the house where the overnight room you have booked is located, and have the opportunity to browse the comments and compliments left by the travellers who have stayed there before you, backed up by their reputation scores and reliablity quotients. The homeowner will be waiting to greet you, to carry your bag into the house and direct you to a dining room where your favourite food awaits you on the table – or maybe there is no food at all, your preference for dining out having already been registered.

You head out on foot to the obscure little club/bar where the band you came to see are playing, never putting a foot wrong or getting lost, yet also detouring enough to catch sights that you have decided might be worth seeing in transit. The music venue has a double-layered security firewall – no major hacks are possible, but graffiti from local regulars, international notables and musicians and performers who have played there is waiting for your attention – accreted layers of cultural history laid down by everyone and anyone who has an interest in how the place is perceived. Entering the building, the drinks selection is available for your convenience, and your choice is brought to your pre-booked table while you read the scattered e-flyers between paragraphs of the main act’s biography…

I could go on, but I’m guessing you can see where I’m going with this riff. This is the future of wearables, of everyware and ubicomp. It is the future that is so close it can almost be touched, be smelled, be tasted.

I can’t wait!

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