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Ambient Technologies
Jamais Cascio, 1 Mar 04

KineticWorld links to a company called Ambient Devices, spun off from work done at MIT's Media Lab. Ambient Devices makes products able to respond in subtle, non-intrusive ways to particular kinds of information changes. The site shows pinwheels that spin faster the more email you have, pens that change color when certain voicemails arrive, the inevitable "watch my stock prices" glowing ball, etc. (Note to up-and-coming technology companies -- promoting your new system as providing easy access to stock prices and sports scores is shorthand for not really knowing what your technology can do. Fair warning.)

But if you set aside the glowing-stock-ticker and sports-dashboard toys, the underlying philosophy of ambient systems is quite compelling. Rather than information being something that you have to hunt down, or something that demands your attention RIGHT NOW, ambient design allows information to become part of the environment around us, easily accessible and clear but not overwhelming. It reminds me of something that WorldChanging ally Stefan Jones proposed years ago on Bruce Sterling's Viridian list: a art/utility display for home electricity use, giving you an immediate visual reference for how much power you're using, possible brownouts, even how much power you're feeding back into the grid if you have home solar.

Ambient technologies are a good way to "make the invisible visible." Let's start making it happen.

(Thanks, CTP)

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I do have lust in mah heart for an ambient orb. The trick would be knowing how to color the damn thing.

Email status? World news? Is a single colored sphere enough to convey anything interesting?

There are obviously places where objects not-alien to this are useful: think the "defcon status" panels from Wargames, or the homeland security alert level (which, it seems, was miscaliberated for our times as it hops between only two of it's five values)...

But in regular life?

Posted by: Vinay on 2 Mar 04

In general, this sort of technology is particularly suited for information display where the critical issue isn't necessarily the precise value, but the intensity of change and/or proximity to a given target level. A design goal is typically to allow you some warning about a possible problem in the near future. For example, something useful in daily life that springs to mind is a light on one's mobile phone that changes color the closer one gets to the monthly free minutes limit, so that at a single glance one can tell roughly if it's time to be terse. A more WC-oriented example (off the top of my head) would be a plate on the faucet which changes color in response to chemicals in the water supply, so you can tell how bad the water is today.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 2 Mar 04



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