Digital plumbing: the mundane work of deploying UbiComp in the home


Deploying UbiComp in real homes is central to realizing Weiser’s grand vision of ‘invisible’ computing. It is essential to moving design out of the lab and making it into an unremarkable feature of everyday life. Deployment can be problematic, however, and in ways that a number of researchers have already pointed to. In this paper, we wish to complement the community’s growing understanding of challenges to deployment. We focus on ‘digital plumbing’—i.e., the mundane work involved in installing ubiquitous computing in real homes. Digital plumbing characterizes the act of deployment. It draws attention to the work of installation: to the collaborative effort of co-situating prototypical technologies in real homes, to the competences involved, the practical troubles encountered, and the demands that real world settings place on the enterprise. We provide an ethnographic study of the work. It makes visible the unavoidable need for UbiComp researchers to develop new technologies with respect to existing technological arrangements in the home and to develop methods and tools that support the digital plumber in planning and preparing for change, in managing the contingencies that inevitably occur in realizing change, and in coordinating digital plumbing and maintaining awareness of change.

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    The interLiving project ( provides a rare exception.

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    The vignettes provided here are edited and illustrative in nature. They are intended to give a flavour of the work rather than evidence it in exhaustive detail, space unfortunately precludes that.

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    David and Michael never got the e-mail display working with the tablet PC. The ECT component that ‘talked’ to YPOPs broke down and would not even work in the lab again. Furthermore, the installation was abandoned because of what David called household “conflict over work surface usage” and the “machine overheating, etc.”


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The research on which this article is based was funded by the Equator Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) GR/N15986/01),

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Correspondence to Peter Tolmie.

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Tolmie, P., Crabtree, A., Egglestone, S. et al. Digital plumbing: the mundane work of deploying UbiComp in the home. Pers Ubiquit Comput 14, 181–196 (2010).

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  • Ethnography
  • Ubiquitous computing
  • Domestic environment
  • Digital plumbing