SOCMark Weiser’s influential Scientific American article The Computer for the 21st Century celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2011.  In the article, Weiser envisioned a transformation of information technology to “ubiquitous computing”, in which computing becomes “an integral, invisible part of people’s lives” and where “the computers themselves … vanish into the background”. Computers are indeed an integral part of people’s lives now.  For instance, in the fourth quarter of 2010, global shipments of mobile smartphones surpassed those of PCs for the first time in history.

Yet far from disappearing into the background, computers now dominate, and in many cases invade, every facet of our daily existence.  In our computer-centered lives, we are bombarded perpetually by beeps and bleats alerting us to each new arrival of an email, SMS, tweet or application update.  It is impossible to walk down a busy sidewalk without bumping into somebody shuffling slowly along, absorbed in some handheld device.  And we constantly deal with unintuitive application functionality and interfaces and with unexpected system crashes and server outages. Thus, in many ways the technology of computing has let people down profoundly.  We are captives of devices, applications and infrastructures that embody severe limitations and weaknesses in innovation, functionality, interface and robustness.  Consequently, it leaves one wistful to read Weiser’s prediction that “what we call ubiquitous computing will gradually emerge as the dominant mode of computer access over the next 20 years”.

At the National University of Singapore, we have established the Felicitous Computing Institute, a multi-disciplinary research institute devoted to realizing the original ideals of ubiquitous computing in a way that makes computing truly felicitous, in the above dictionary sense of the word. In particular, felicitous computing systems should support interaction in a way that is optimally and naturally suited to the circumstances and needs of their users. Examples of the Institute’s research include:

  1. Activity Recognition: Creating systems that accurately understand the activity of the user through sensor data and machine learning models.
  2. Ambient Computing: Developing next-generation frameworks and algorithms for the emerging Internet of Things and Web of Things.
  3. Emotion Recognition: Using multi-modal sensor data plus user self-reports to predict a person’s mood (i.e., their long-term emotional trajectory, as opposed to their instantaneous emotional state).
  4. Sound and Music Computing: Collaborative music-making via smartphones gestures and virtual musicians.
  5. Multi-modal User Interfaces:  Systems that support the most natural form of interaction for its users, which may not necessarily be text-based.
  6. Intelligent, Unobtrusive, Context-aware Processing:  Systems that continuously make inferences tailored to users both individually and globally, based on current user context, past user history and continuous user feedback, all in a minimally disruptive way.
  7. Robustness:  Systems that both withstand and recover from failures due either to internal system faults or external anomalies (such as network failures).

Furthermore, a key concern for felicitous computing is the need to minimize undesirable effects for users.  Thus, while the research of the institute will be subjected appropriate traditional forms of analytical and empirical evaluation, we plan to explore novel methods of evaluation that enable a deeper understanding of the effects and impacts of design choices. To a large extent this notion of felicitous computing was an intrinsic part of the vision laid out by Weiser, but it clearly has failed to materialize in the technology that is readily accessible to today’s computer users.  It is thus now an opportune time for felicitous computing to become the guiding philosophy underlying the design and development of next-generation ubiquitous systems. The Institute commenced operations in January 2012, with seed funding from the School of Computing and the Office of the Deputy President (Research & Technology) at NUS. The Institute is in the process of hiring research staff and establishing research projects and collaborations. More information will appear on this Web site once it becomes available.