Ready or not, the era of ambient computing is coming

Ambient computing is defined as “the transformation of the environment all around us with intelligence and capabilities that don’t seem to be there at all” 
Ambient OS has the ability to understand the physical layout of a home, as well as people and devices inside the home
Microsoft is working on a new device, which will harness the power of ambient computing to address the common frustrations of using a smartphone
Ambient computing could help physicians save a lot of time by converting their speech into clinical documentation

Advances in computing are making computers smaller and smaller, and there’s a great chance that they could one day completely disappear. This is what ambient computing is all about. This buzzword is now circulating among future-focused companies, and though the term ambient computing has been around for more than two decades, it started gaining more hype in the last couple of years. The American technology journalist Walt Mossberg described ambient computing as “the transformation of the environment all around us with intelligence and capabilities that don’t seem to be there at all”. In other words, ambient computing refers to any technology that will allow us to use computers and smart devices without actively using them. Think of it as a combination of artificial intelligence (AI), the IoT, speech recognition, cloud computing, augmented reality (AR), and haptics. 

If ambient computing predictions come to life, people will no longer need to pick up a device to use it. Since ambient computing devices will be all around us, they’ll be able to listen and respond to our needs, while operating invisibly in the background. Although the concept of ambient computing may seem sci-fi, several companies have already made progress in this field. And we shouldn’t neglect “the precursors of ambient computing”, such as wearables and voice assistants. 


Ambient OS understands users’ daily routine and offers suggestions 

The tech company Essential Products announced that it’s developing an open source operating system called Ambient OS to power its Essential Home smart home device. Ambient OS is imagined as “half OS, half smart home platform”. The system would allow users to use their voice to play music, set timers, and control other smart home devices, which are actions that can already be performed by existing smart home speakers. But Ambient OS would be different because it would have the ability to understand the physical layout of a home, as well as the people and devices inside the home. It would understand users’ daily routines, detect when things aren’t working as they should, and offer suggestions, while its AI and machine learning tech would make sure users’ home is perfectly tailored to their needs. 

Besides their voice, users would activate Ambient OS with a simple glance. Essential Products didn’t reveal much about this feature, so it’s unknown whether the device would be equipped with cameras or sensors to perform this activity. Despite its innovative tech, Essential Products decided to pause the further development and launch of Essential Home to focus on creating an AI-based smartphone instead. It’s not known whether Essential Home will be launched any time soon, but this concept is what we can expect to see more of in the future.


Is Microsoft working on an ambient computing device?

Microsoft is also reportedly interested in ambient computing technology. Microsoft’s watcher Brad Sams reveals some of the company’s plans in his book, called Beneath a Surface. In the book, consisting of 26 chapters, Sams explains Microsoft’s roadmap for 2019. He notes that the tech giant is working on a new device that will be able to detect users’ presence and respond accordingly. The device will harness the power of ambient computing to address the common frustrations of using a smartphone.  

There’s no information on when the device will be developed, but there are rumours that Microsoft is working on a smart speaker that some have referred to as an ambient computing device. Such a Cortana-powered solution, as Computerworld states, could, for instance, replace existing meeting room conference call systems. 


Ambient computing in healthcare 

Ambient computing could undoubtedly bring a massive change to various industries, particularly to the healthcare sector. Google, for instance, revealed its vision for ambient computing tech for healthcare at the global conference HIMSS18. The company introduced the idea of a digital assistant, called Dr. Liz, capable of creating documents, navigating electronic health records, and presenting them to clinicians. Google is already investing a lot of resources in natural language processing to allow its future tech to more accurately understand human speech. 

The computer software company Nuance Communications has similar goals. At HIMSS19, this company presented its Ambient Clinical Intelligence (ACI) solution. Nuance’s tailor-made device is equipped with several microphones that capture human speech from up to eight individuals, while its deep learning model converts the speech into clinical documentation. Peter Durlach, the senior vice president for healthcare strategy at Nuance Communications, says, “The system can convert layperson terms into their clinical equivalents, so that providers can have [a] natural conversation with patients and still capture what they need to support coding and clinical history.” This device would enable physicians to talk to their patients without having to type all of the information later, helping them save a lot of time and provide more personalised medicine.

Although the concept of ambient computing may seem futuristic to some, the truth is that early forms of this tech are already in use. Wearables, smartphones, and a wide range of smart home devices are all creating a type of ambient computing experience, and this is just the beginning.


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