Team aces

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Section: Scientific Foundations

Programming Models

The goal of ambient computing is to seamlessly merge virtual and real environments. A real environment is composed of objects from the physical world, e.g., people, places, machines. A virtual environment is any information system, e.g., the Web. The integration of these environments must permit people and their information systems to implicitly interact with their surrounding environment.

Ambient computing applications are able to evaluate the state of the real world through sensing technologies. This information can include the position of a person (caught with a localization system like GPS), the weather (captured using specialized sensors), etc. Sensing technologies enable applications to automatically update digital information about events or entities in the physical world. Further, interfaces can be used to act on the physical world based on information processed in the digital environment. For example, the windows of a car can be automatically closed when it is raining.

This real-world and virtual-world integration must permit people to implicitly interact with their surrounding environment. This means that manual device manipulation must be minimal since this constrains person mobility. In any case, the relative small size of personal devices can make them awkward to manipulate. In the near future, interaction must be possible without people being aware of the presence of neighbouring processors.

Programming Context

Information systems require tools to capture data in its physical environment, and then to interpret , or process, this data. A context denotes all information that is pertinent to a person-centric application. There are three classes of context information:

All three forms of context are fundamental to person-centric computing. Consider for instance a virtual museum guide service that is offered via a PDA. Each visitor has his own PDA that permits him to receive and visualise information about surrounding artworks. In this application, the pertinent context of the person is made up of the artworks situated near the person, the artworks that interest him as well as the degree of specialisation of the information, i.e., if the person is an art expert, he will desire more detail than the occasional museum visitor.

There are two approaches to organising data in a real to virtual world mapping: a so-called logical approach and a physical approach. The logical approach is the traditional way, and involves storing all data relevant to the physical world on a service platform such as a centralised database. Context information is sent to a person in response to a request containing the person's location co-ordinates and preferences. In the example of the virtual museum guide, a person's device transmits its location to the server, which replies with descriptions of neighbouring artworks.

The main drawbacks of this approach are scalability and complexity. Scalability is a problem since we are evolving towards a world with billions of embedded devices; complexity is a problem since the majority of physical objects are unrelated, and no management body can cater for the integration of their data into a service platform. Further, the model of the physical world must be up to date, so the more dynamic a system is, the more updates are needed. The services platform quickly becomes a potential bottleneck if it must deliver services to all people.

The physical approach does not rely on a digital model of the physical world. The service is computed wherever the person is located. This is done by spreading data onto the devices in the physical environment; there are a sufficient number of embedded systems with wireless transceivers around to support this approach. Each device manages and stores the data of its associated object. In this way, data are physically linked to objects, and there is no need to update a positional database when physical objects move since the data physically moves with them.

With the physical approach, computations are done on the personal and available embedded devices. Devices interact when they are within communication range. The interactions constitute delivery of service to the person. Returning to the museum example, data is directly embedded in a painting's frame. When the visitor's guide meets (connects) to a painting's devices, it receives the information about the painting and displays it.

Spatial Information Systems

One of the major research efforts in Aces over the last few years has been the definition of the Spread programming model to cater for spacial context. The model is derived from the Linda  [18] tuple-space model. Each information item is a tuple , which is a sequence of typed data items. For example, <10, 'Peter', -3.14> is a tuple where the first element is the integer 10, the second is the string `"Peter" and the third is the real value -3.14. Information is addressed using patterns that match one or a set of tuples present in the tuple-space. An example pattern that matches the previous tuple is <int, 'Peter', float> . The tuple-space model has the advantage of allowing devices that meet for the first time to exchange data since there is no notion of names or addresses.

Data items are not only addressed by their type, but also by the physical space in which they reside. The size of the space is determined by the strength of the radio signal of the device. The important difference between Spread and other tuple-space systems (e.g., Sun's JavaSpaces  [17] , IBM's T-Space  [25] ) is that when a program issues a matching request, only the tuples filling the physical space of the requesting program are tested for matching. Thus, though SIS (Spatial Information Systems) applications are highly distributed by nature, they only rely on localised communications; they do not require access to a global communication infrastructure. Figure 2 shows an example of a physical tuple space, made of tuples arranged in the space and occupying different spaces.

Figure 2. Physical Tuple Space

As an example of the power of this model, consider two of the applications that we have developed using it.

Coupled objects

Integrity checking is an important concern in many activities, both in the real world and in the information society. The basic purpose is to verify that a set of objects, parts, components, people remains the same along some activity or process, or remains consistent against a given property (such as a part count).

In the real world, it is a common step in logistic: objects to be transported are usually checked by the sender (for their conformance to the recipient expectation), and at arrival by the recipient. When a school get a group of children to a museum, people responsible for the children will regularly check that no one is missing. Yet another common example is to check for our personal belongings when leaving a place, to avoid lost. While important, these verification are tedious, vulnerable to human errors, and often forgotten.

Because of these vulnerabilities, problems arise: E-commerce clients sometimes receive incomplete packages, valuable and important objects (notebook computers, passports etc.) get lost in airports, planes, trains, hotels, etc. with sometimes dramatic consequences.

While there are very few automatic solutions to improve the situation in the real world, integrity checking in the computing world is a basic and widely used mechanism: magnetic and optical storage devices, network communications are all using checksums and error checking code to detect information corruption, to name a few.

The emergence of Ubiquitous computing and the rapid penetration of RFID devices enables similar integrity checking solutions to work for physical objects. We introduced the concept of coupled object , which offers simple yet powerful mechanisms to check and ensure integrity properties for set of physical objects.

Essentially, coupled ojects are a set of physical objects which defines a logical group. An important feature is that the group information is self contained on the objects which allow to verify group properties, such as completeness, only with the objects. Said it another way, the physical objects can be seen as fragments of a composite object. A trivial example could be a group made of a person, his jacket, his mobile phone, his passport and his cardholder.

The important feature of the concept are its distributed, autonmous and anonymous nature: it allows the design and implementation of pervasive security applications without any database tracking or centralized information system support. This is a significant advantage of this approach given the strong privacy issues that affect pervasive computing.


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