May 3, 2006 Ambient Devices is a company which specialises in producing glanceable information displays which allow any customer to have a constant awareness of their important information, without the anxiety of information overload. Ambient's vision is to embed information representation into everyday objects such as lamps, pens, watches, walls, and wearables so the physical environment becomes an interface to digital information rendered in subtle changes in form, movement sound, colour or light.
A technology journalist at a press luncheon recently excused some potentially offensive behaviour in advance when he announced that he was intending to leave his mobile phone on because his wife was expecting their first child that day and he was on-call. It was a perfect example of the difficulties and limitations we face in monitoring the most basic important information in our lives, even when we are as tech-savvy as the individual concerned.
As the networked world continues to advance rapidly, and sensors and computers can signal the progress of events and information, there is a growing industry set to deliver better ways of keeping us informed. There's not a whole lot of difference between having not-enough information and too-much information if you cannot absorb and respond appropriately to that information.
As the amount of information in our lives grows exponentially, one of our greatest challenges will be to effectively visualize the information we have available in the most appropriate form.
Appropriate Information Some information requires constant awareness and for each of us, that information is different. Logically, it's critical information which comes to mind first, such as the status of a stock portfolio or the relationship of currencies, but for others, it might be the health of their loved ones, the whereabouts of children, whether their friends are online, the prevailing weather forecast for the immediate future, the score of a sporting event, if the fish are biting, or when peak hour is subsiding.
These are examples of information that is probably not worthy of interrupting one's day with intrusive "push" information, nor worthy of investing time (pull) to go and get the information, though this again varies with the individual. This type of information should be glanceable, like a clock or barometer or the speedo on a car.
Present day computer technology, including PDA's and cellphones, utilise only a fraction of our sensory and cognitive capabilities. The idea behind ambient devices is to elegantly embed digital information into the objects and environments that surround us. These displays are in the form of sound, air pressure, motion, light, smell, and other media that complement the full range of our human sensory modalities. They exist in the periphery of our senses, where they provide continuous information without being distracting.
Ambient displays take advantage of a cognitive psychology phenomenon called pre-attentive processing. How often have you been in an airport or crowded party and heard your name called out of the acoustic clutter?
Clearly we are able to acquire and process spoken language without any foreground consciousness. Somewhere in our brain, sound is being converted into language and monitored for relevant information content. We are not paying attention to the myriad of conversations in the crowd, yet when information pertains to us, we immediately become alert.
Our brains have evolved to monitor several streams of background information without any foreground cognitive loading. Furthermore, our brains bring this information to our foreground consciousness when we discern it to be relevant within a given context - multitasking without conscious effort.
High tech is not necessarily better
When automotive manufacturers first began fitting digital dashboards to cars, they quickly found that a digital numerical display was not as good at conveying speed to the driver as the analogue dial, with its sweeping needle, particularly when all the driver had time for was a quick glance ... and that's just the most fundamental of information display problems.
There is no greater indication of the potential of a marketplace than to know Microsoft is invested heavily in it. Microsoft is developing "smart objects" to help us more appropriately incorporate the sea of information into our lives, and there are a host of other companies working in the area and one which is producing some remarkably useful smart objects is Ambient Devices.
Ambient Devices (the company)
Ambient Devices regards itself as the foremost exponent of this new science of glanceable information displays. Ambient's vision is to embed information representation into everyday objects such as lamps, pens, watches, walls, and wearables so the physical environment becomes an interface to digital information rendered in subtle changes in form, movement sound, colour or light.
Ambient already has two devices on the market and previewed a third at CES.
Both the US$149 Stock Orb and the US$179 Weather Forecast beacon work almost identically, and can actually monitor a range of information other than their name implies.
The Ambient Orb slowly transitions between thousands of colors to show changes in the weather, the health of your stock portfolio, or if your boss or kid is on instant messenger. The Orb is delivered to the US consumer pre-set to track the Dow Jones Industrial Average, glowing more green or red to indicate market movement up or down, or yellow when the market is calm.
To make it work is just a matter of plugging the orb into any standard power outlet as it immediately begins monitoring a (US) nationwide wireless network with no internet connection required. If the purchaser has other information they wish to monitor, the Orb can be customised to a set of free channels, such as market indices or weather in major cities or they can upgrade to access premium channels, such as a particular set of stocks (your customized portfolio) or to track opinion polls and elections.
Ambient Devices announced its third product, a line of "personal dashboards", at the International Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month. The personal dashboards show up-to-the-minute customized information from the Internet on meter-like displays with a needle that fluctuates as information changes and are designed to be as easy to read as an analog clock.
The Ambient Dashboard uses swappable analog display faces to show digital information being broadcast from Ambient's nationwide wireless network and is designed to reduce the daily barrage of emails, SMS messages and proactive internet searching we do to monitor the information we need in our lives, without having to do anything more than glance. It will also aid considerably in reducing clutter from the advertising so often associated with this critical information.
Three initial models of dashboard will offer customers the opportunity to track the information they care about most:
The "Executive Dashboard" tracks traffic congestion on your route home, stock indexes, trading volume and weather forecasts.
The "Sport Dashboard" enables the tracking of team standings, game scores, league stats and betting odds.
The "Outside Dashboard" offers up-to-the-minute information on the skiing forecast, golfing index, tides and sailing wind speed.
By inserting the SmartSwappable display faces of the meter, customers can change the channel of information they receive via Ambient's nationwide wireless network. Anyone can customize the Dashboard via a simple Web site or a toll-free number.
"People generally either have to seek out information from the Internet, or are barraged by emails, ads and text messages when they want to know something simple," said David Rose, president, Ambient Devices.
"The new dashboards are a non-intrusive way to get the information you care about without having to work hard or even pay much attention." Ambient Dashboards cost US$129 with no subscription fee for the information broadcast service.
Ambient's network covers over ninety percent of the U.S. population - they won't work elsewhere (yet)).