A quick and dirty guide to ambient computing (and who is winning so far)

Apple, Amazon and Google want to be the backdrop to your entire life

A quick and dirty guide to ambient computing
The Ambient is reader-powered. If you click through using links on the site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

"How did I get here?" You may find yourself asking this question at various points in your life. When reading Donald Trump tweet about the size of the nuclear button he could push. When cleaning up vomit that your offspring has produced. When cleaning up vomit you have produced.

How did you get here, though? A much pleasanter place than the previous paragraph. A guide to ambient computing on a site named The Ambient. Sixty seconds ago you didn't know "the ambient", whatever that is, existed. Is it the name of Brian Eno's wanky pub? No. Is it a type of really, very stinky French cheese (l'ambient)? Also no.

What is ambient computing?

Similar ideas have been referred to as always on technology, invisible or natural interfaces and persistent computing (which is also something very different) over the past few years. But we like this 'ambient computing' phrase seen in a few places including investment bank UBS' reports on the future of Apple, Andy Rubin's Essential's upcoming Ambient OS and the name of Samsung's smart home operating system - Project Ambience. It nicely describes what we're seeing from Apple, Amazon, Google and their many in 2018 so let's stick with it.

"The ambient paradigm consists of many devices providing different input/output methods that can be flexibly utilised depending on the situation (sitting, walking, running, driving)." That's UBS analysts and it's a start.

A quick and dirty guide to ambient computing (and who is winning so far)

"Collectively these devices offer the capability of earlier products and more delivered as a seamless user experience. Devices become extensions of one another rather than discreet, computing platforms. It is an expression of what Tim Cook has described as, 'iOS everywhere'."

In other words, we're talking about a joined up personal and smart home system of different devices that know you and your habits, become more and more invisible and - crucially - are always on and all around you. A network of connected gadgets that doesn't always rely on your phone. If we stick with the Apple example, this would mean your iPhone, iMac, Apple Watch, AirPod earbuds, HomePod speaker and other accessories all talking to each other.

Examples of how we'd use such a system include sending and receiving messages and calls, getting directions, searching the web, monitoring your health and fitness, controlling gadgets and appliances at home. Generally just getting shit done in a smart, efficient way.

The end goal is to change how we interact with computers. Instead of seeking out information, it's presented to us. Instead of opening apps and scrolling through homescreens, these assistants know what we want.

So ambient computing isn't just the virtual, often voice controlled assistant, though it is very much that in 2018, it also relies on the cloud and smart home standards and security. And it's true that smart home controls automation is where the action is really heating up this year - the idea that our homes, appliances, cars and gadgets talk to each other and respond to what we need without us even being aware.

This kind of natural, haptic, conversational, human interaction might be the key, the "glue" that holds the whole thing together and brings us into the equation. When we're ready to talk to and touch and look our gadgets in the eyes, that is.

A quick and dirty guide to ambient computing (and who is winning so far)

Why now?

Ambient computing, or the ambient paradigm, is having a moment. The ground work for this smart home heat was achieved almost singlehandedly by Amazon which proved that enough people are comfortable buying and using an always on, always listening device in their homes so long as it makes their lives easier. The Amazon Echo speaker also encouraged more purchases of other smart home kit, a very good sign. Now the conversation is less about individual gadgets and more about which smart home platform to choose and build up over time.

Apple's HomePod smart speaker is overdue. It's billing this as an Amazon Echo crossed with a Sonos speaker - spoiler, the Sonos One got their first. The idea is that you mainly interact with the device via Siri voice controls and it will be able to do everything an Echo or Google Home can do plus some extra Apple Music features when it lands this year.

Meanwhile, Amazon is building on the success of the ever improving Alexa voice service, with the Echo 2, Echo Show - the one with a screen - the Echo Look and the Echo Plus. Google is stacking its smart, voice controlled speaker Home with similar features while Microsoft is hoping its not too late with Cortana-powered speakers, which offer Skype calls and Microsoft Office integration, like the Harman Kardon Invoke.

The interaction isn't tied to one central hub remember, or it won't be in the future. Let's not forget virtual assistants already live on our phones, our desktops and wearables - Siri on the Apple Watch, Google Assistant pretty much everywhere you'd like it and Alexa popping up on the Bragi Dash hearable.

A quick and dirty guide to ambient computing (and who is winning so far)

Amazon vs Google vs Apple

Because, who else? As we've mentioned, companies like Sony and Microsoft have their own ambient assistance software in the form of Agent and Cortana but we're yet to see a breakout device on bodies or in homes. For now, the main players are Apple, Google and Amazon. Or Siri, Assistant and Alexa. And what's interesting is that each one is currently ahead in a different area.

Apple is winning on wearable tech. It has just leapfrogged over Fitbit in sales and the Apple Watch Series 3 should find its way onto many more wrists than the original. As for AirPods, the early signs are that they're doing extremely well in terms of sales and they are very well placed for extra functionalities.

Despite its tardiness, the promise of HomePod coming this year, its Apple Home app (which hooks up to the iPhone, iPad, Watch and Apple TV) and Works with HomeKit program should be enough to push iPhone users to give the ambient Apple Home a go.

A quick and dirty guide to ambient computing (and who is winning so far)

Google was, and still is, the one to beat in terms of its voice recognition, natural language processing, artificial intelligence and knowledge graph technologies. It's Google, it has its software on Android phones, Android Wear watches, baked into Google search on desktop, it handles more languages than anyone else (and language is important here), the list goes on.

Sure, Google has Nest devices - and Works with Nest - but so far, Google has struggled to find that one killer product to get people hooked on what is now Google Assistant. Google Home has a shot but so far it has failed to reach as many homes as Alexa.

Onto Amazon. It already has a voice product in people's homes - the Echo - and plenty of interest in what it's doing next. It has the Dash buttons too and also its Fire TV stick, an Apple TV and Chromecast competitor, too, as well as Alexa devices from many more companies now including GE, LG, Triby, August and Lenovo. What it doesn't have is the mobile or wearable element. The indie CoWatch smartwatch runs Alexa, as does the Bragi Dash hearable but these are not behaviour shifting products in the same vein as the Echo.

In the next twelve months, even the next six months, it will be incredibly interesting to see how Apple, Amazon and Google chase down the gaps in their ambient computing systems. Releasing more features to enhance existing products. Wooing new users with their assistants' superpowers. And convincing partners, investors and ultimately us that we can entrust our entire digital and physical lives to one company. And don't even get us started on the indie smart home upstarts.

TAGGED    inspiration    smart home

Related stories

smart home Adurosmart ERIA smart home devices review: Smart lights, sensors and more
amazon alexa Samsung's 6th-gen Family Hub Fridge wants Alexa to chill out
amazon alexa The best Alexa compatible devices to work with your smart home
smart home Aqara smart home kit hits UK and European Apple Stores
smart home What is Matter and how will it affect your smart home?
smart home Thread smart home explained: Everything you need to know about the wireless protocol