The Enchanter of Objects

Power Player / by Evan Lerner /

David Rose on how his new company will get people to take their medicine and what Frodo Baggins’s sword can teach us about ubiquitous computing.

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Seed: Many of the designs at Ambient Devices also combine a sort of behavioral economics with data visualization through physical objects. What’s the philosophy behind this?
DR: When you have a physical device that is representing a single piece of data, you get to do away with the user interface. The key word for Ambient Devices is “glance-able.” If you think about cockpit design, for example, there’s far more than one screen there. Why don’t they just make it like an iPhone? That seems simpler, but when you’re flying at 500 miles per hour, you don’t want to deal with picking the right app for each piece of information. You want a dedicated screen for fuel, another for altitude, and another for airspeed.

Our perceptual systems are very good at scanning—you have a lot of peripheral vision at your disposal for noticing that everything is normal or that something has changed. And you do that all on the order of milliseconds. It’s what cognitive psychologists call preattentive processing; you’re not even aware you are taking in that information.
So the big idea for Ambient, and in some ways for Vitality, is to crunch relevant information into a kind of background task. We do this by choosing a mode of representation—whether it’s color, texture, a pattern, or something else—so you can get that information in a preattentive way. People experience ambient displays as calming, rather than as information overload.

Seed: Is it fair to say those ideas can be traced back to your time at the MIT Media Lab?
Absolutely. Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the Media Lab, was our first investor at Ambient, and it was through his social network that I was able to raise the seed funding for the company. I’ve been teaching at the Media Lab for the last two years as part of the Tangible Media Group, which is run by Hiroshi Ishii, a true visionary when it comes to new interfaces for information. 

The best metaphor that’s really driven me over the last 10 years or so is the idea of the “enchanted object.” This is the next logical step from Ishii’s “Things That Think” concept of ubiquitous computing: the functionality of computation and the representation of information and of communication will be embedded in many everyday objects. They will seem to be a little bit magical—delightfully easy to use and adding value to our lives a little bit at a time.

The Ambient Umbrella is a good example of this. It represents data from weather services on the tip of the handle, glowing blue if you need to bring it that day. We were inspired by Frodo’s sword in The Lord of the Rings, which glows blue when orcs are nearby. Those kinds of magical objects are most interesting to me.

Seed: So what’s the next enchanted object you’re working on?
DR: At Vitality, we’re interested in other feedback loops, including ones that will help people be more reflexive about their physical activity and perhaps even motivate them to change their daily patterns so they’re more active.

What we found at Ambient was that if people hooked their Orb to their pedometer, they were much more likely to walk. If they hooked it up to their glucose meter, they were much more likely to better manage their diabetes. When you encounter information in your periphery 20 times per day, you’re more likely—and better able—to take action on your own behalf. That’s what we’re about.

Originally published July 14, 2009

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