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Ambient Findability by Peter Morville

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We will experience a growing trade deficit with cyberspace as we deposit far more data than we can ever withdraw, but that's not to say that exports won't be equally fascinating as we design new interfaces to networked information. After all, the future of interface is not just about huge flat panel monitors and tiny PDA screens. It's about listening to your car navigation system. It's about reading the New York Times on e-paper. And if David Rose has his way, it's about feeling your email. Let me explain.

I first met David Rose in 2002 at the AIGA Experience Design Summit held at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. David is founder and chief creative officer of an MIT startup called Ambient Devices . At the conference, he captured our attention with a brilliant show-and-tell featuring a colorful array of products and prototypes. First up was a beautiful frosted glass orb that slowly transitions between thousands of colors to show changes in the weather, traffic, or the health of your stock portfolio, shown in Figure 4-16. Simply plug the orb into a power outlet, and it's instantly up and running on a nationwide wireless network. Then, visit Ambient's web portal to customize your orb. You can even track news, pollen forecasts, and the presence of colleagues on Instant Messenger. Designed to leverage the cognitive psychology phenomenon of pre-attentive processing, this crystal ball delivers glanceable, back-channel information. This is calm computing at its best.

But David didn't stop with the orb. He had a whole table full of groovy gadgets, including an inbox-connectable pinwheel that spins faster and faster as your messages pile up (until the hurricane force compels you to check email) and a web-configurable health watch to remind people when to take their

The Ambient Orb

Figure 4-16. The Ambient Orb

prescription medicines. It didn't take long for us to appreciate the full potential:

Ambient's vision is to embed information representation in everyday objects: lights, pens, watches, walls, and wearables. With Ambient, the physical environment becomes an interface to digital information rendered as subtle changes in form, movement, sound, color or light.[*]

And if these ideas intrigue you, it's definitely worth taking a short trip upstream to the MIT Media Laboratory and the Tangible Media Group of Hiroshi Ishii.

Tangible Bits, our vision of Human Computer Interaction (HCI), seeks to realize seamless interfaces between humans, digital information, and the physical environment by giving physical form to digital information and computation, making bits directly manipulable and perceptible. The goal is to blur the boundary between our bodies and cyberspace and to turn the architectural space into an interface.[*]

Hiroshi's group has created a whole slew of exhibits and prototypes to illustrate the possibilities of tangible user interfaces. They include:


Graspable user interfaces that allow direct control of virtual objects through physical handles called "bricks."


A pair of interactive, Internet-enabled picture frames for emotional communication. When a user touches their frame, the other's frame lights up.


Three corked bottles that serve as containers and controls for the sounds of the violin, the cello, and the piano, shown in Figure 4-17.

MusicBottles from the MIT Media Lab

Figure 4-17. MusicBottles from the MIT Media Lab

Unfortunately, it's hard to convey the rich, dynamic, interactive nature of tangible bits through print media. Direct experience is ideal, but the project videos available at http://tangible.media.mit.edu/ are the next best substitute.

Meanwhile, not so far away physically or philosophically, Jeffrey Huang at Harvard's Graduate School of Design has been exploring the intersection of the Internet and architecture. As a proof of concept in "convergent architecture," Huang worked with the architect Muriel Waldvogel to build the Swisshouse, a new type of consulate that connects a geographically dispersed scientific community. Persistent audio-video linkages and "web on the wall" are among the innovations used to build a bridge between academic institutions in the greater Boston area and a network of universities in Switzerland. The physical building serves as a large interface for knowledge exchange and as a testbed for studying telepresence, remote brainstorming, and distance learning.

In Digital Ground, University of Michigan professor Malcolm McCullough explores the emerging relationships between physical and digital architectures:

The built environment organizes flows of people, resources, and ideas. Social infrastructure has long involved architecture, but has also more recently included network computing. The latter tends to augment rather than replace the former; architecture has acquired a digital layer.[*]

At this point of intersection, McCullough believes the study of how people deal with technology and how people deal with each other through technology will be central to success, noting "as a consequence of pervasive computing, interaction design is poised to become one of the main liberal arts of the twenty-first century."

[*] Ambient Devices, http://www.ambientdevices.com/.

[*] Tangible Media Group at MIT, http://tangible.media.mit.edu/.

[*] Digital Ground by Malcolm McCullough. MIT Press (2004), p. 47.

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