Leanne Goott
Leanne Goott

Ambient computing: redressing device intrusiveness

by Leanne Goott. The current big buzz in frontier tech is Ambient Computing, and many predict that it will become all-pervasive in our lives within the next decade. 

by Leanne Goott. With Microsoft, Apple, Google and Amazon investing heavily in its development, the current big buzz in frontier tech is Ambient Computing, and many predict that it will become all-pervasive in our lives within the next decade.

Imagine a world where we are no longer so dependent on user interfaces, one in which desktops, laptops and smartphones seem to have vanished because their function has seamlessly integrated with our environment. Imagine a world where our devices and interconnected networks operate quietly under the surface while requiring little to no attention.

In other words, instead of being constantly engaged and interacting with our devices, now we interact with our surroundings, while the devices discreetly still fulfil their function and respond to our needs. Essentially, ambient computing (or ambient intelligence) is not technology as such; but a synthesis of AI, big data, user experience, machine learning, and cognitive processing that empowers digital environments that are invisible and not as demanding of our awareness or manual interaction.

Over the years, it’s also been referred to as calm computing, pervasive computing and ubiquitous computing. The latter term was popularised in the late 80s by Mark Weiser, a computer scientist and chief technology officer at Xerox PARC. According to Weiser, the most profound technologies are non-invasive and disappear because they’ve become part of the fabric of everyday life to the extent that they’re indistinguishable from it.

He further stated that for computing to reach its full potential, we should not need to be so consciously dependent on devices, screens and keyboards. What’s required is a psychological liberation in which we can focus our time and mental energy on other priorities and tasks. The only interaction we would have with devices is either by voice or sight.

Smart ambience

Whether in one’s home, workplace, or shopping mall, and employing different IoT sensors, data is gathered, processed and interpreted to understand one’s proximity, behaviour and state of mind. Once this happens and prior experiences and behavioural patterns are consolidated into the moment’s analysis, the ambient system decides which actions to take or how to respond. Therefore, the technologies that drive such an intelligent system will be:

  • Embedded within environments and interconnected and interoperable so that they can speak with each other.
  • Aware of all settings, situations and possible variations that may occur.
  • Tailored to individual user preferences, needs and commands – making them highly personalised and adaptive to changes.
  • Able to anticipate behaviour and make the necessary adjustments.

With such an environment that’s emotionally and intelligently in sync with the user, and where technology is constantly aware of us and makes decisions for us, all devices then operate seemingly in absentia, performing as proper extensions of ourselves, as opposed to being intrusive, manual hindrances. Embedding AI in the natural environment around a user requires the rapid development of frontier technologies. At this stage, we’re already well into that developmental phase, particularly when considering the advances in robotic process automation, smart home automation, brain-computer interface systems (BCIs), and other metaverse technologies.

On the smart home front alone, we already sit with an abundance of smart devices, with new ones regularly popping up. There are smart lamps, smart locks for our doors and windows, smart lighting and appliance controls, smart thermostat and ventilation controls; the list goes on. We are experiencing only a taste of how tech can and will run and alter our lives. Ambient computing will transform how we interact with these devices. For one, it will make us less aware of them because they will seamlessly be incorporated into a larger ecosystem that’s operated by voice or gaze tracking. Such an intelligent system has the potential to replace all these individual gadgets and free us from the manual labour and tech-savvy efforts required to operate them.

At its heart, ambient computing drives the notion that devices should communicate without being intrusive and without being a diversion. Technology should play a supportive and not a subversive role – having a calming effect by giving users what they need and nothing more.

A couple of decades ago, we were all just doing fine without being so dependent on devices that have become essential extensions of ourselves. And now, we still want the tech, but we want it to work quietly on our behalf and not be such a burden and fixation. It’s all so paradoxical, because what lies beneath has become part of the fabric of how we live and do business – and it can be equally consuming and indispensable.


Main image credit: Supplied.



Leanne Goott is marketing manager of Mobile in Africa (MIA). Her more than 12 years of experience includes digital marketing strategy and execution, integrated marketing, team and relationship management, and event management. She believes the role of marketing in an age of greater connectivity and intensifying customer expectations, has never been more important.


– Receive the Retailing Africa newsletter weekly • Subscribe here.