Abstract

As we go about our work and our daily lives, we leave a trail of bits behind. Every electronic device we interact with can keep a record of our actions. Even the devices themselves can keep track of their location and radio interactions, even without user involvement. The challenge of invisible computing is to make this wealth of data useful. This paper present example of what has come to be known as ‘invisible computing’, namely, devices recording, distilling and rendering these many bits of data without unduly taxing human users.  The example looks at more ad hoc interactions. RFID Ecosystem is a collection of radio-frequency identification (RFID) readers and databases that collect the sightings of passive RFID tags, attached to people and objects, as they move throughout a large building. It provides services such as people and object finding as well as diary keeping.

1. Introduction

The term ‘ubiquitous computing’ was coined by Mark Weiser in 1991 as he embarked on a project at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center to realize a future where computing devices would be all around us and be so common and seamlessly integrated as to fade into the background (Weiser1991). This vision has inspired many directions of research based on different interpretations of the phrase ‘the most profound technologies are those that disappear’ (Norman 1998). Computing has gained myriad adjectives to describe the many aspects of this vision that different research groups have emphasized, including such terms as: invisible; mobile; pervasive; tangible; immersive; palpable; embodied; embedded; ambient, etc. Each of these has already served to define the topic of research conferences and academic journals. Although there is substantial overlap among these terms, there are also some important differences. We can discern several important themes that focus on three aspects of invisible computing: connectivity; user interfaces (UIs); and automatic inference.

Connectivity. Data communication is one of the most commonly referred to aspects of ubiquitous and pervasive computing, namely, that devices are everywhere and communicate with each other to provide users with the information they need when and where they need it. Devices that we carry such as personal digital assistants, laptops and phones are moving among other users’ devices and devices in the infrastructure such as displays, servers and desktop machines. An example utility in this space is mesh networking that permits devices with shorter-range radios to extend their range over an area populated with similar devices that can serve as relay stations for a more distant user’s communication. The goal for those focused on this aspect of invisible computing is that the connections between these devices should be managed as automatically as possible so as not to burden the user with the details of authentication, security and privacy protection. Choosing the appropriate medium for communication among the many available is also an important research problem in this space. There are many communication technologies available ranging from long-range systems such as cellular data networks and SMS to short-range media such as Bluetooth radio and infrared, with Wi-Fi somewhere in between. The choice among them is motivated not only by bandwidth requirements and power consumption but also by the security and privacy implications of widespread communication. As devices emit signals that contain authenticating or identifying information, they reveal the presence of their owners and permit monitoring and tracking of that user. As they collect data, they may download malicious viruses.

User interfaces. The great majority of the processors around us do not have traditional UIs characterized by windows, icons, menus and pointing devices. Instead, they often have highly specialized UIs that provide an appropriate affordance to the job at hand. For example, an automobile’s anti-lock braking system uses a simple brake pedal for user input as well as the data from the drive train and wheels to prevent skidding as braking occurs. An automatic heart defibrillator has two sensor paddles and a single button that starts the device’s processing to determine the best time to issue a life-saving electric shock. Sensors often provide the input to these highly specialized interfaces and try to connect the physical world to our computing devices. Pedometers offer an interesting example of an accelerometer being used to count a user’s steps during a run to help them keep track of how well they are meeting their fitness goals. Game controllers such as the Nintendo Wii now enable physical gestures to control the movements in a video game rather than the pressing of buttons, thereby providing the player with a physical and more immersive experience. This is the objective of the UI focus on invisible computing, namely, to provide more appropriate affordances in our computing and control devices that are a better match to the task at hand, thereby lessening the cognitive burden on the user to map their actions to the desired results.

Automatic inference. Sensors on the physical world can generate a huge volume of data. Coupled with the data communications occurring between nearby devices, we have a plethora of information about what is happening. A simple example is the collection of global positioning system data from vehicles to infer traffic conditions from their average velocity rather than installing expensive road infrastructure—these sensors scale more effectively as well by providing more data where there are more vehicles—after all, if the road is devoid of vehicles, traffic data are not that important. Inference can be much more difficult when the same low-level events may be common to several higher-level activities. Home monitoring applications attempt to make sense of this kind of information to infer the many possible activities that could be occurring in a home. For example, an elder moving into a room and lying down could be someone just taking a nap or falling and not being able to get up on his/her own. Most approaches in this area use statistical machine learning to train classifiers on a set of data for which ground truth is known. Classifiers decide into which category to place new data based on this past experience. Of course, researchers struggle with the collection of well-annotated data and the interactions and segmentation of activities. Inference of higher-level activities is further complicated as long-lived activities are likely to be interrupted and interleaved with others. An example of this would be when an elder sits down to a meal, then answers the telephone or the door, and comes back to the meal some time later.

The commonality between these foci of activity is trying to get our computing devices to do more and more automatically. Invisible computing is extending the era of interactive computing where we, as users of computers, directed each step and awaited a response so that we could decide what to do next. Today, we have too many devices to manage. They are starting to dominate our time. This is the reason many people react negatively to the vision of a future of ubiquitous computing—if all those devices need to be tended to, then how will we ever have time to do the things that really matter to us? We need to make systems automatic—and as invisible as possible—if we are going to be able to scale human abilities and, most importantly, human time to deal with the millions of computing devices that will be all around us.

RFID ecosystem

RFID tags are an interesting technology for ubiquitous computing (Want 2004). They can be attached to an object or carried by a person and provide a unique identifier that an invisible computing system can use to unambiguously identify that person or object. There are active and passive RFID tags. Active tags have their own power source and can communicate autonomously as well as collect their own sensor readings—they are a type of small wireless computing device. Passive tags do not have a power source; they harvest the energy they need from the antenna of a reader—a computing device used to interrogate the tag. Passive tags are particularly interesting in ubiquitous computing as they can be attached and forgotten—they require no maintenance throughout their lifetime (figure 5).

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Passive RFID consists of a small chip of electronics (not visible in the picture—at the centre of the crossed swords and only 1×1 mm) and an antenna for receiving power and communicating with the reader (the crossed swords).

In the last few years, RFID technology has gained increasing attention as a flexible and relatively fast solution for tagging and wireless identification (Stanford 2003). Early successes in the asset tracking and supply chain domains coupled with the falling cost of tags have led researchers to consider pervasive, public RFID deployments that support more user-oriented services. A number of investigations into personnel tracking and task automation using RFID (Borriello et al. 2004) have shown the technology’s potential to facilitate everyday life by seamlessly integrating the virtual and physical worlds. Unfortunately, the majority of such studies have been limited to technology and user evaluations over a short time in restricted scenarios (often in a laboratory). Furthermore, the publicity surrounding this work has revealed an intense public concern with RFID privacy and policy issues that have gone largely unaddressed.

I believe that a more holistic approach is required to effectively design and evaluate RFID-based pervasive computing systems. To this end, we are deploying a long-term, building-wide RFID-based test-bed in our department’s building that involves hundreds of RFID readers and antennas and thousands of tags. We deploy our readers throughout our seven-storey building and mount the antennas on the ceilings of our hallways where they are spaced 5–7 m apart and are the required 25 cm away from any humans walking by (a requirement of the US’s Federal Communication Commission to limit long-term exposure; figure 6)

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Figure 6

A reader antenna mounted under one of the overhead trays in our hallways. At approximately 3 m above the ground, this offers a reasonable aesthetic appearance while also maintaining a recommended distance for health considerations.

Our intent with this ‘RFID Ecosystem’ is to explore the benefits of pervasive RFID infrastructures while identifying and addressing their challenges before such systems are adopted widely in other public settings, where problems may have more serious implications. The density of readers allows us to extract fine-grain location information for any tagged object or person. Tag-read events (TREs) are tuples that contain the antenna that reads the tag, the tag’s ID and the time of day at which the sighting occurred.

Several properties distinguish RFID infrastructures for pervasive computing from those for supply chain applications. First, pervasive RFID applications are likely to evolve and grow over time. We already see RFID in elder care and object-finding applications, each of which requires a flexible infrastructure that facilitates provisioning. Supply chain applications are typically less dynamic and apply the technology in a narrower capacity (mostly for inventory tracking). Second, because a pervasive application will typically track people and belongings rather than items in inventory, privacy issues must be considered much more carefully. Finally, people are less predictable than goods moving through established distribution patterns in a supply chain. As such, we must develop fundamentally new ways to deal with the variable-rate, partial and noisy data likely to be generated by human activity. RFID tags are notoriously unreliable when near people or metal objects, as the RF energy from the antennas is readily absorbed by water and reflected by metal. Tags carried by people have a high incidence of missed reads depending on where they are carried. Therefore, our inference must be probabilistic at its core and infer reads that should have happened but for some reason did not. For example, when a tag is read at two antennas at opposite ends of a long hallway in a short period of time, it should have also been read at the antennas in between. If these tag reads are missing, our inference methods have to be able to re-insert them .

The deployment of a pervasive RFID-based infrastructure in an everyday environment allows us to experiment with a wide variety of applications. These can be broken up into the following three rough classes: personal; social; and enterprise. Personal applications include a diary that automatically populates a Google calendar with persons encountered and meetings attended so that one can search on their everyday work activities (figure 7). Our goal is to connect this to activities on individuals’ laptops and phones so that a more complete record of communications and file creation/edit can be integrated. The idea is to extend the concept of desktop search to include additional context such as location and the presence of others. Another example of a personal application is an object finder that simply helps find where or with whom an object owned and tagged by the user may have been misplaced (figure 8). Social applications include the obvious friend-finder augmented with information about that friend’s current context, for example in a meeting, in a casual hallway conversation, or on their way to lunch. In addition, we are also imagining applications that help research groups study the communication habits of group members and work to instil appropriate working practices. Finally, enterprise applications are those closest to what is being done for the supply chain. These include inventory management—where different pieces of equipment are and who installed them or moved them to their current location—and building security. Enterprise applications serve an important purpose as they serve the technical support staff who are likely to be charged with maintaining the infrastructure of readers, antennas and TRE databases, and thereby help ensure their longevity. For all of these applications, there is leverage in exploiting the history of tag reads and the statistical distribution of tag sightings. This is fundamental in dealing with the inherently noisy nature of our sensors. The metaphor of search extends in this direction as well because search results can be ranked in terms of their probabilities.

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Figure 7

A Google calendar automatically filled in by the RFID Ecosystem to represent how a user spent their day, including activities and encounters with others.

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Figure 8

A map of the fourth floor of our building showing the last known location for a tagged object. We can also add the last direction of travel from the last two sightings.

Enabling these classes of applications, however, presents a significant challenge to the system design. Not only must the reader/antenna infrastructure offer enough accuracy and granularity to enable these applications, but it must also support many individuals, groups and the enterprise as a whole, simultaneously. To enable the monitoring of large spaces with a possibly large number of tags, the system must scale to handle high-volume streams of tag reads. The architecture of our system has been designed to separate different concerns at different levels. For example, our reader infrastructure reports tags seen at each antenna with 1 s granularity (readers could generate thousands of TREs per second because they continuously read the tags in the environment, including the same tags over and over again). Applications are serviced by a layer of servers that can be provisioned as needed by the volume of users. Thus, we bound the possible amount of data generated and transmitted to the (possibly replicated) database while permitting additional application servers to come online at any time and begin accessing those data.

Finally, because such a system will manage large amounts of (potentially sensitive) personal data from multiple users, it must be secure and support an appropriate privacy model. An active area of research is developing privacy models that are easily understood by users. For example, our RFID Ecosystem only allows visibility to data that correspond to what a user probably saw by being physically present. We call this the physical access control (PAC) model (Kriplean et al. 2007). The basic idea is to make people’s memory closer to perfect but not give them the power to see through walls or into spaces they are nowhere near. PAC works by computing the visibility users would have had given where their tag was seen by our readers. Those users’ applications then only have access to tag reads at the same antenna or others within sight of where the users were standing. Thus, a query of how many people were near a particular room would be answered with a number corresponding to those who were within sight of the person asking the question and not the actual number. The exchange would be ‘how many people were in the south section of the fourth floor?’ with the answer ‘you saw four people in that area’.

Other privacy mechanisms we are investigating include giving each person a way of knowing who is asking about him/her and how he/she is showing up in others’ calendars and other applications. We do this to exploit the social pressures that prevent someone from asking about another’s whereabouts many times for fear of being perceived as prying or nosy. Potential embarrassment can be a powerful force in limiting anti-social behaviour. In addition, we are assigning costs to various pieces of information so as to force trade-offs between cost and usefulness. For example, asking whether someone has been seen in the building is of very low cost as this is not very specific information. On the other hand, asking a person’s precise present position is significantly more costly. The idea is to limit access to the more detailed information for when it really matters rather than just for idle curiosity.

5. Lessons learned from the RFID Ecosystem

Scalability at all levels. Issues of scale have to be considered from the ground up when building such a large infrastructure. Although this is not surprising, it has substantial implications for how we distributed the functionality of our system. For example, to minimize the number of TREs and limit privacy concerns, we do not keep any TREs for tags that are not issued by us. However, this requires the readers to have access to the tag database. We accomplish this by caching tag registrations daily at the reader in hashed form so that, even if a reader is compromised, the tag database is not.

Direct representation of uncertainty. We must represent uncertainty in our application as a first-class concept. We use particle filters to represent a tag’s likely geographical position as a probability distribution. This is propagated throughout our inference process all the way up to the applications. It was challenging to recast the output of most of our applications as ranked search results.

Varied applications to provide value to many users. There are many types of people in any large organization with different roles and responsibilities. We purposely created a set of applications within which each group would find something of value to its work or social life.

Privacy considerations are highly nuanced. Even the smallest amount of information can have privacy implications. We were conscious of not putting readers near the building’s restrooms to alleviate any fear that personal habits would be tracked. However, it was fairly obvious just from people leaving and re-entering their offices when they might have gone on a bathroom or coffee break. When we made it possible to see when someone asked about another person’s location, we were surprised that the absence of someone asking could also raise concerns.

Opting out may be difficult. Although we have a vetted process for recruiting participants, it is clear that with such a large-scale deployment even people who choose to opt out may have some information gathered about them. For example, a faculty member pointed out that, even if he did not carry a tag, his students’ presence near his office would allow inference as to his whereabouts at least part of the day. This is a complex challenge we are still pondering as to how to best handle.

Aesthetics matter. The large amount of equipment we wanted to install in the hallways raised concerns and objections regarding the inaesthetic appearance of RFID readers and antennas. We found, however, that no one noticed antennas attached to the ceiling as long as the cables were hidden. Similarly, readers near the building’s entrances were placed in cabinets that matched the décor. Other useful camouflage included non-metal ceiling tiles, glass windows and non-metallic paint.

6. Conclusion

Invisible computing is an emerging field based on the concepts of context awareness and the mining of data coming from myriad sensors and devices.  The RFID Ecosystem follows in the same direction as Sentient Computing  and ParcTab  in creating a large-scale monitoring environment in which people work and find utility from a system that can automatically gather information for them and make it easier to retrieve data when needed. The distinguishing feature of these systems is the use of context to organize information for presentation to many and varied stakeholders. Long-lived, context-aware, proactive and mostly invisible applications will be the salient features of our advance from the era of interactive to ubiquitous computing.

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