The Emerging Technology Environment

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By definition, a key commonality that members of specific proximate communities

have is a shared relationship to a physical location — the area or region

or place that makes the community “proximate.” Building information systems

that utilize that commonality to support interactions between proximate community

members has been difficult. This has been, in part, due to the technological

limitations of available consumer technology. However, a number of

changes in the technological environment are slowly changing this situation by

providing large numbers of people with one or more devices that enable mobile,

location aware, hi-speed, and multimedia communication.

There is a general movement to provide Wi-Fi (80.2.11 standard highfrequency

wireless local area network) coverage by universities, public network

activists, cities, rural communities, and businesses (Schmidt & Townsend,

2003). A number of telecommunication companies offer user access to a range

of wireless sites in the United States (e.g., T-Mobile) and internationally. An

example of how coverage is expanding and will probably change the way we

work, is the systematic roll out of Wi-Fi coverage at U.K. train stations and

plans to provide coverage on the trains themselves (http://news.zdnet.co.uk/

story/0,,t269-s2135177,00.html). Many new top end laptops and personal

digital assistants (PDAs) now have Wi-Fi built in. Wi-Fi is fast enough to

enable high-speed delivery of rich multimedia. In parallel, many operators are

offering mobile phones capable of playing, recording, and delivering multimedia.

Further, PDA phones are coming to market with both broadband

capabilities and Wi-Fi connectivity (Vaughan-Nichols, 2003).

U.S. Federal Communications Commission rulings (initially Docket 94-102)

require that cellular operators, personal communications services and specialized

mobile radio carriers provide precise location information to 911 call

centers (Zagami et al., 1998). The European Union is preparing similar

legislation referred to as e112. These legal imperatives apply not just to the

abilities of the cellular network, but also to a significant proportion of new

communication devices coming to market, which must be enabled by the global

positioning system. At the same time, cellular operators are aware of the

economic and competitive advantages inherent in being able to offer customers

location-specific services such as recommendations about nearby shops and

restaurants, or directions to the nearest gas/fuel station. The result is that in the

near future mobile phone network operators should be able to detect a

subscriber’s exact whereabouts for the provision of location-based services,

and a large proportion of subscribers will be able to utilize their location data

independent of network operators. There is also technology coming to market

that enables the locating of devices on Wi-Fi networks (e.g., www.ekahau.com).

In addition to wireless personal communication infrastructure and devices

becoming more sophisticated, “things” are getting smarter with the advent of

technologies such as radio frequency identification (RFID). Such technologies

make every significant object in the environment potentially identifiable through

ubiquitous digital labeling. The extent to which this appears to be becoming a

reality is reflected by the world’s biggest retailer, Wal-Mart, deciding in 2003

to demand that its 100 largest suppliers use RFID tags to track inventory

(something like 8 billion tags a year). RFID potentially enables communication

to be placed within a very rich geographic-digital context. The trend appears

to be to towards numerous real world environments in which everything is

digitally labeled, everything is connected, and everyone can communicate from

anywhere. At the same time, no single technology for computing location and

proximity and digitally describing the world appears to be gaining universal

dominance.

There are still numerous problems in supporting proximate communities with

location aware devices and networks. For example, as evidenced by field

study experiences of the ActiveCampus group (Griswold et al., 2003) that

found that the short battery life of current devices (four hours or so), and the

ease with which personal user data can be lost (often as a result of the short

battery life), resulted in an extremely high user drop out rate. Despite the

current difficulties, it is clear that the emerging technological environment will

allow for the creation of new types of information systems that have the

potential to ground users’ interactions in geographic place.

Categorizing Features of Systems that