Contextual Computing for the Win

by Brian Katz on August 28, 2013 · 1 comment

We spend our lives doing things. It doesn’t matter whether we are at work or home; we are trying to accomplish something, even if all that work is just trying to be lazy. We have quickly moved to mobile to help make our lives ostensibly easier and more productive. Not that we are really accomplishing that. We have just changed the use case. You used to listen to the radio when you were driving and if you got bored would put on a tape or CD. Now you make a phone call and conduct business or maybe it’s just a chance to keep in touch with Mom. You used to sit down and do your homework and maybe have some music on, now you still have your music, while Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook continuously interrupt in the background. What started out as a productivity tool very quickly becomes a device of distraction.

Lots of people have found their own way of dealing with these distractions. They turn their alerts off, they may use full screen apps or not start the clients on their tablets or laptops, and yet, when the alert comes in, undoubtedly there is a chime somewhere in the house letting them know anyway. It’s the curse of multiple devices and being always connected.

The solution to all this disruption is contextual computing. While easy to describe, it is quite hard to implement. The major players are all working on it in their OS, Blackberry being the first over a dozen years ago with the ability to turn off alerts at preset times. Apple has taken up the mantle with their do not disturb function within iOS and you have seen Motorola move forward with Smart Actions, that make changes to your alerts depending upon a number of factors including location and time of day.

Contextual computing is best described as giving you the information you need, when and where you need it so you can do what you have to do. It goes much further than just providing or silencing alerts. It fundamentally changes the way you do everything. Many mention it today in the same breath as artificial intelligence as they feel that is what is needed in order to do it correctly. The arms race has already started on the app side with Google uses its big data and search capabilities to sift through your email and calendaring for it’s Google Now product while other companies are mining similar information with different contextual engines producing apps like Tempo, Donna, and Alfred.

These apps look at your calendar appointments and suggest when you should leave to make to them on time. They work great when you are driving somewhere but can’t handle localized campus traffic. You have a meeting in 1 building from 10 to 11 and the next meeting is 2 buildings over from 11 to 12. They can’t figure that out yet. Make no mistake; that will eventually be coming.

The promise of contextual computing is so much more than getting you to your appointments on time It is the holy grail of your girl Friday, who anticipates every need and whim you will have before you even have it. You wake up in the morning and as you get up today’s weather is displayed next to your schedule so you can figure out what to wear. You’re running a little early but the car has less than a half a tank of gas so your navigation system directs you to a gas station with the best price but on your way into work. You sit down at work and have to start a proposal, when the phone comes in range of your desk, the word doc that you started yesterday opens up and is displayed ready for you to go. You step into a meeting and your minor alerts are automatically silenced and yet when your wife calls with an emergency it rings straight through. In the middle of the meeting, you get a lunch request from one of your mates and since you are free at the same time it automatically sets the calendar appointment for when you are both free.

Contextual computing isn’t just limited to your phone or tablet; it extends to all the other items you are using in your daily life. It works with the health bracelet you have been wearing to remind you to get up when you have been sitting to long, or to grab some water from the cooler as you are starting to get dehydrated. As you have your daughter’s footie game on your calendar it checks the batteries in the camera to make sure it’s charged and that there is enough space on the memory card so you don’t run out. It learnt from the first two games of the season that you took around 200 photos so it checks for that space, and moves older pictures to your online storage to make sure that you don’t run into an issue.

Contextual computing isn’t new, it just hasn’t been all connected before. Anyone who has used a Tivo knows about it’s suggestion engine, it records shows that you forgot to set based upon what you have already watched. Netflix makes recommendations based upon your choices as well. Target sifts through its data to find the things you need before you know you do and then sends you coupons for them.

Contextual computing is what having the right information, at the right time, in the right location to get done what you need to do in the best possible way. It isn’t a work or personal life thing, but rather the piece that will span both and make it easier to keep them balanced.

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