July 2004 Archives

This is a basic branding exercise, but I've been surprised as to how often bad names are given to perfectly good technologies, as if it doesn't matter what it's called. I think it matters a lot. Technologies are products, but they have many o the same competitive hurdles. So I decided to brainstorm a list of comparable technologies with good and bad names and see which one had faster adoption (as a technology).

Good Name Bad Name
Firewire USB 2.0
Extreme Programming Scrum
Zigbee Z-Wave
Ambient Intelligence Ubiquitous Computing
Blog Wiki
WiFi 802.11a
Linux BSD

The ones with the catchier names (which means: easily pronounceable, easily memorable, evocative) seem more popular. There may be some entanglement there, maybe better technologies come from more clued people, who are likely to understand the value of naming. In those cases the technologies may win both in terms of the tech and the name, but that doesn't happen often enough that I'm not sure it's a rule. There may be all kinds of other factors. 802.11a probably failed because 802.11b was selling to the markets that 802.11a was targeted toward, and as WiFi (the name and the technology) took off, the network effect (so to speak) was so huge as to dwarf any other factors, but there was crucial moment (sometime in 2001 or 2002) where the name probably had an effect.

I'm interested in other examples, especially ones where the technologies may have had comparable marketing support. And I'm trying to avoid comparing identical technologies (Firewire is IEEE1394 and iLINK, so comparing those is just comparing branding). Suggestions welcome.

The Smart Furniture Side Show, Part 3

[The concluding part of a talk I gave to the 2ad conference in April. Part 1, Part 2]

The Car

Let's look at a smart room you likely already own, your car. Not burdened with "complex" questions like "how do we automate the home?" or "how do we use technology to support collaboration in the office?" car designers just went ahead and introduced technology. Over the last 20 years, the amount of technology--tightly integrated technology--in cars has steadily increased. Many, many mistakes were made. Anyone remember the Nissan 300ZX that annoyingly told you--in a nice female voice--that your door was open, every goddamn time it was open? Sometimes it would say it in Spanish, if the wrong chip was installed at the dealership. That was 1986. But the engineers kept at it, and they keep at it. Their stuff rarely needs upgrading, it rarely crashes and it works closer and closer together all the time.

The Big Picture

The examples I've discussed are ideas, not things. I'm up here waving my arms and talking specifics, but I don't think that these things are the be all and end all of smart furniture. They may be bad examples. No, my point is that once we start thinking about furniture as a personal technology platform, we can start asking a whole new class of questions, that we must--as technologists and designers--ask these questions.

My second point is that information acts like a material, it is a material, when in objects. Like rebar in concrete, it changes the fundamental properties of the things its embedded in. As monolithic computers break apart into 'devices', shards--tiny computers, networks and interfaces--embed in the objects that are already around us. And what's always around us? It's furniture.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, let this be a lesson to you. When you sit your car on the way home, or when you're at your desk, or falling asleep tonight in your bed, don't think of the freaks of the Smart Furniture Side Show. Don't think of them! Don't think of what they're going to look like, what they'll do, how many of them there will be. No, ladies and gentlemen, just think of one thing, think of how lucky you are that they're your future.

The Smart Furniture Side Show, Part 2

[The middle part of a talk I gave to the 2ad conference in April. Part 1, Part 3]

The Bed of Knowledge

Now let's move on to a more intimate piece of furniture, the bed. Beds are tantalizing objects for introducing information technology into: they're very large, so you can put a lot of "kit" into them, they're hear electrical outlets, there's a limited number of things that we do in beds, and we spend 8 hours a day in 'em. So how do we introduce technology into them?

Let's attach a simple pressure sensor to the bed. It can be under the mattress, under the legs, attached to some springs in the box spring. Somewhere. Calibrating the sensor for when the bed is empty versus when someone's in it can give us a basic understanding of when someone's in the bed.

Say that we said that an hour after someone has gotten into the bed, they're asleep. This isn't going to be right 100% of the time for 100% of the people, but maybe it'll be right 80% of the time for 90% of the people. Now we can ask questions about this information.

The first thing we can do with the information is basic home automation, in the House of Tomorrow vein. For example: If I'm asleep and it's 4AM and I get out of bed, the running lights in the hallway that lead to the bathroom should probably light up. If I get up at 7AM, the coffee maker should go on.

That's the trivial condition. We can also ask more interesting questions: "what are my sleep patterns like?" "How much sleep AM I getting?" "When am I sleeping? When is my partner sleeping?" If you have sleep problems, you can track your sleep patterns, bring them to your doctor and ask "Is this normal?" With Bluetooth-enabled phones, we can also have it act on this information, not letting calls ring through unless it's my parents' number or that important client in Japan. Since I'm not going to be actively using my DSL at night, maybe my computer can start downloading the latest alternative rock CDs from my favorite BitTorrent tracker.

[I originally talked about smart beds last November, and this largely a rehash]

The Memory Cubicle

Let's go to the office. Most phones have Bluetooth built, so when you carry your phone, you're effectively broadcasting your identity, even if you aren't sharing any information. Imagine a Bluetooth-enabled cubicle (and cubicle walls already have a lot of wiring and are relatively expensive, so adding some extra tech may be only a marginal extension to what's already being made).

Let's again look at the trivial version: hoteling cubicles. With more employee movement, more outsourcing, more travel, cubicles are becoming more temporary and hoteling cubicles are becoming more popular. Imagine walking into a hoteling cubicle that recognizes who you are and forwards your office extension to the local number, brings your personal desktop on the computer and changes the smart picture frame to show your picture frames.

Now let's move to something interesting: Imagine walking into your cubicle and having your personal "shared files" directory appear in the special "shared files" directory on the machine in the cube. Say you walk to a coworker's cube. Your shared directory can be now available on their machine, but only for as long as you're in the cube. If you're all in a meeting, then all of your shared files can be available on the conference room computer.

Now let's go further. Other products, laptops also have Bluetooth. You can use the relationship between the laptop, the phone and the cube to identify activity. Are the laptop and mobile phone both in the cubicle? Then the person's probably working. Is the laptop there, but not the phone? They're probably at lunch. Are both the laptop and the cellphone gone? They're either at home or in a meeting. (and, yes, I'm ignoring the privacy considerations here)

[I elaborated my thoughts on Bluetooth phones and identity and this cubicle idea in June]

Here's an edited version of the text I gave during my "Smart Furniture Side Show" talk at 2ad . I wrote a bit about it a couple of months, but it's taken me a while to post what I had talked about, especially since all I had there was an outline and ended up adlibbing the talk a little differently each of the 20 or so times I gave it. There's bunch of it, so I'm going to post it in several pieces, including the awesome posters that Terry Colon and Sonia Harris did for me. If you want awesome illustration and design (for conferences posters or otherwise), hire them.

[Part 2, Part 3]

The Smart Furniture Side Show!

Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! Step right up! Come gaze at this emporium of technological mutation. A chair that walks! Walls that talk! A bed that knows when you're awake...and when you're asleep. Come see the Smart Furniture Side Show, and don't be afraid of what you will see inside�well maybe just a little...

OK, enough of that.

In the last 10 years there has been a lot of discussion about ubiquitous computing, pervasive computing and ambient intelligence. Most of this discussion has focused on creating new objects and appliances that require learning unfamiliar modes and failure states that make them useless when they're not doing the new thing they're supposed to be doing. For the most part, they're wholly separate devices that we're supposed to incorporate into our daily existence--and that's hard.

My thesis is that there are few things that are more ambient, ubiquitous and pervasive than furniture. Furniture is already all around us. It defines our spaces, supports our work and play, and gives us tools with which to express our values. This makes furniture a great platform for augmenting people's existing use modes with information processing without adding to what they need to know. Smart furniture is an evolutionary step that softens the edge of technology adoption for the consumers and allows technology producers to understand which directions are most fruitful for taking ambient/pervasive/ubiquitous computing.

In other words, why create new objects when there is a world of existing things that can be made better, things that people already know how to use?
Let me give you some examples:

The Literary Bookshelf

Let's start with a bookshelf and books. Imagine that the bookshelf has RFID readers embedded into the shelf and the books have each been stickered with RFID tags (it would be trivial for Amazon to ship all of their books with RFID tags in them, I suspect). Imagine that there's also a way to identify a book or books, either through some kind of lighting with LEDs or maybe something more bookshelf-like, with little pieces of wood that are stained different colors and which can flip, like one of those railroad signs in Europe. What can you do with this extension of the bookshelf and books? Well, first of all you never have to loose a book again. That's the obvious utility: "Hey, where my copy of Stephanie Winston's Best Organizing Tips?

Fine. But there's a more interesting thing. Imagine linking this bookshelf to Amazon.com's database (or some database built on top of Amazon.com's database, or the Library of Congress database�something that has the appropriate metadata). You can ask a bunch of new questions of your bookshelf:

  • "What books do I own on this topic? Please light them with brightness proportional relevancy."
  • "What books do I own that address these two topics? Use different colors to show me which books have which topic."
  • "There's some book that has some variation of this quotation in it, which one is it?" (using the "Search in this book" functionality)
  • "Which of my books reference this book?"

    And still more interesting are questions like

  • "Which of my friends has books like this (that they're willing to tell the database about)? "

You can then expand this idea to a system of objects, using the book RFID tag in new ways: a smart book jacket with a small keyboard and display that, based on the RFID tag, downloads the full text when placed around the book, allowing you to search inside the book, etc. Or using the RFID bookshelf in new ways: misfiling books in a library would immediately become more difficult, etc.

[to be continued tomorrow]

I experienced a black box failure today. The IC Igniter on my 1985 Kawaski GPz 750 is going flaky, and there's nothing my mechanic can do about it. My motorcycle has been misbehaving for a while, generating enough buildup on the #1 sparkplug (it's a 4 cylinder engine) that a new plug gets as much carbon buildup in 5 minutes as it would in 5000 miles on a normally-working cylinder. This causes it to backfire and, eventually, makes the plug--and the cylinder--go dead, so I ride around on a bike that's weak, shakes and sounds like a truck.

At first my mechanic thought it was a problem with the plugs, so he had me put in new plugs. Then he thought maybe it was dirt in the #1 carb (the bike also has four of these, one per cylinder), so I first flushed it out with a solvent. Then we thought it was a short, but there seemed to be more than enough current going to the plug.

It turns out that it's the only piece of computer equipment on the bike. My bike is from the very first generation of engines that had any kind of computer equipment in them. In the early 80s, car and motorcycle companies realized that they could get much better control over spark timing by using electronics, rather than the old mechanical distributor. So the distributor went away and was replaced by the unsexily-named "ignition module," a cluster of relatively simple electronics that monitors some sensors in the engine and processes that information to adjust the spark timing. The distributor was soon followed into extinction by the carburetor (whose job it is to mix air and fuel), which was replaced by electronic fuel injection.

The benefits of this way of doing things made cars in the last 20 years much more efficient, reliable, predictable and durable. All great stuff, except when something goes wrong. Now, when there's a problem, there's no way fudge, tweak or adjust around it. Digital technology is binary: it works, or it doesn't (this isn't quite true: you can hack any digital technology if you know what you're doing, but you have to know a whole host of new information to hack the electronics embedded in solid blocks of epoxy, which is how ignition modules are made).

One of the complaints that people have when they criticize the inclusion of information processing into everyday technology is this opacity of operation. Well, I experienced this first hand today, and, as someone who evangelizes for the introduction of information processing into everyday objects, I had to deal with an everyday object whose information processing was faulty. I tried to evaluate the effects the opacity had on my life: would it have been better if the bike, otherwise completely mechanical, did not have this electronic part to fail? My opinion: the module is worth it. My bike ran for almost 20 years with no ignition problems. Having all 4 carburetors adjusted cost me $400 earlier this year, and that's something that has to be done every 5 years. A new ignition module will cost me under $100 and the installation process will consist of popping my bike seat off, unplugging the old black box and plugging in the new one. I say it's a win for the black box.

Last year, I posted a rambling analysis of why McDonald's WiFi plan didn't seem to make any sense (and, really, neither did my analysis, but my heart was in the right place ;-). Then I posted a follow-up where I mentioned the competitive landscape of San Francisco's WiFi cafe scene.

It seems that WiFi is becoming an infrastructural service, in that it's expected to be free, or not be available at all, like bathrooms. Jupiter just put out a report saying as much. I don't have access to the report, but here is their teaser for it, which is pretty much all I need to know:

In 2003, six percent of online consumers used public hotspots, and only one percent paid to use them. Not surprising, high-profile players in this space dropped out of the game in early 2004.

Key Questions

    To what extent has adoption of public hotspots increased since 2003?
    To what extent are consumers willing to pay for public wireless high-speed Internet access?
    What should service providers do to drive paid adoption?

This may be the fastest move that a technology has ever made from being cutting-edge to being a utility (well, OK, it's overstating that it's a utility, but it's quickly approaching that). The one place it seems to work is Starbuck's/T-Mobile, and then only for busy travelers or people who can get it paid for by their company (often the same group): I wonder if that model could work for...bathrooms? Private bathrooms all over the world, accessible to anyone with a monthly subscription. ;-)

In this USA Today story furniture makers are said to be scrambling to adapt their technology furniture to modern computer technology. They just figured out how to make decent computer desks, and look what happens: everyone moves to laptops and flatscreens.

I predict that this is only going to increase as the monolithic computers that we're using right now fragment into task-specific computer-based tools for living. It's not surprising that "writing desks return" (as per a subhead in the story): writing is what people care about. They care about the task, not the tool. The furniture provides a context in which to do the task and needs to accommodate the tool (whether it's a tower-case PC or an inkwell), but it's purpose is to support the task.

Another interesting point is that furniture styles change more slowly than technology. That's absolutely true. In fact, other than the bleeding edge, furniture styles that people actually buy are pretty much frozen in the 1950s: Country, French Provincial, Colonial, Eames Modernist (and probably a couple others) represent 90% of the market. (maybe I'm wrong about this, maybe there's a secret cachet of "70s Swinger" style that's still getting a lot of play, but I don't think so) This is actually a good thing, since the adoption of smart furniture can leverage the expectations and modes of a host of existing furniture tropes (modalities, use cases, whatever you want to call the cluster of expectations people have for specific furniture pieces). The TV was a piece of furniture before it was an appliance (the Philco Predicta notwithstanding). Now it's pretty much unthinkable as a piece of furniture because culture has accepted it in its more natural state, but that intermediate stage was important for acceptance.

They don't tell you how much it costs on the site, but Sweden's Interactive Productline are selling a biofeedback game table (which has appropriately Scandinavian furniture lines) called Mindball.

As interesting to me is the company, which has as its vision statement:

We will become Sweden’s leading development partner in commercialising research results within the experience industry.

With Menlo Park's Onomy Labs, this represents an interesting new twist on the design shop: one that specializes in deep (or deep-ish) technology transfer, rather than just surface. Nice.

(link courtesy of Slashdot).

So there seems to be movement in the funding of technology for use in everyday situations:

MagInk develops and markets reflective digital ink technology, considered a global breakthrough for the billboard industry. The reflective technology makes to possible for the first time, to use digital displays outdoors, without the need for energy input during the display period. Costs are substantially lower than for existing display technologies. The proprietary technology has a very wide range of applications, including digital furniture, billboards, and building materials.


MagInk's technology is basically an ink that changes color at a computer command. The company's is presently focusing on the billboard market, but it envisions entering other industries. Poliakine says, "Imagine wall paint that changes the color of your office and living room at a computer command. In the future, it will be possible to send digital broadcasts without the need of televisions. That's the vision."

From Globes Online

And this odd collection of ideas that are an attempt to extent a consumer audio brand to smart furniture:

Symphonix Ltd, the Huntingdon based manufacturer of loud speakers, including the world recognised Mission brand, has been acquired by Fundamental eInvestments Plc, the Harlow based audio visual solutions provider.


Symphonix will work in close association with other group companies and will handle the manufacturing side of the Purely Plasma Limited (PPL) business to include a Plasma Bed, a range of wooden Retro LCD Screens and a range of household furniture centered around flat screen technology.

From Business Weekly

Fascinating. Where there's money smoke, there's technology fire and I'm interested to see where this stuff is going to go. It's also good to see that it's not just Philips and Sony. When the little guy gets into the act, that means that there may actually be a market.

The AllMusic relaunch is the worst I've seen in maybe five years. The amount of visual clutter seems to increase with every page, there's nonstandard DHTML that only works in IE, s a largely-useless Flash navigation widget, an enormous banner ad floating in whitespace, information that used to be in one place has split up into multiple screens, etc. I could go on, but it's sufficient to say any general-public site redesign that requires a manual is a failure on a number of levels. And that's not even addressing the terrible performance problems, both on the browser end and--judging from the frequent unavailability of the site--from the server end.

But this is not the fault of producers who crossed the "should-can line" when specifying fancy gadgets (a term Molly uses when talking about fashion: just because you can doesn't mean you should), or designers who designed interfaces that could only work with IE, or engineers who didn't load test the new design. No. They were never given guidance that would have allowed them to prioritize those things appropriately. The fault lies squarely with management.

When Slate's Paul Boutin, a former co-worker and old friend, came to me last week and asked me if I wanted to do a story on tired.com, I decided that it was finally time to talk about it a bit. A conceptual art project of sorts that started by accident and I've semi-secretly continued for seven years, it's about time that at least some of the questions that people have asked about it get answered.

Paul's story is called So Tired. Thank you, Paul.

[Update: It's been picked up by Slashdot!]

Summertime in San Francisco brings the cold fog, which makes for spectacular sky-scapes and undoubtedly brisk business for the fleece vendors at Fisherman's Wharf and Union Square. I'm constantly looking at the clouds, but regularly get distracted by the power lines.

I've spent the last couple of weeks preparing for the workshop William Pietri and I are going to be teaching in August. I'm really impressed with how you can take all of the references to writing code out of, for example, Agile Software Development Ecosystems and it still makes sense as a philosophy for how groups of people can collaboratively solve problems and make things. It may be the first fundamental rethinking of how things are made since Taylorism. That's not to imply that XP and the other agile methodologies are equivalent to Taylorism, but I think that they, as a philosophy of how to get groups of people to make stuff, are as profound a concept.

I'll write more about this as I finish reading and thinking about it, but I'm quite taken with the ideas at the moment.

When I wrote my rambling review/essay of John Heskett's Toothpicks & Logos I linked to Colin Martindale's The Clockwork Muse: The Predictability of Artistic Change. I hadn't bothered to read the official reviews Amazon printed there, because they deeply don't get it. I find it to be a problematic work, but a really interesting one which attempts to find a predictable pattern in creativity and probably does in several places. It came out before all of the emergent theory literature (like Six Degrees, which I also reference in that piece), so Martindale didn't have the tools to try and take his analysis further and critics had no basis from which to evaluate the book, since it was--and still is--quite in left field.

I have also found a much better review of the book by Denis Dutton. In this review he summarizes the point of the book quite well:

Perhaps it’s just that I’ve become so habituated to the literary journals, but not only did I fail to find The Clockwork Muse boring, it was for me full of all sorts of revelations. Martindale writes with a calculated, in-your-face insolence, heaping contempt on critics, humanists, behaviorists, Marxists, philosophers, sociologists. He credits Harold Bloom for having half understood, in his bumbling English professor’s manner, the law of novelty, but doesn’t have much nice to say about many others except psychologists in his own field. He uses his various theses to analyze the histories of British, French and American poetry, American fiction and popular music lyrics, European and American painting, Gothic architecture, Greek vases, Egyptian tomb painting, precolumbian sculpture, Japanese prints, New England gravestones, and various composers and musical works.

A major lynchpin of the investigation concerns what he calls “primordial content,” roughly the emotional or emotionally expressive aspects of a work. Martindale argues that the arousal potential of works tends to require more primordial content as time go on in a particular art or style. Thus the natural progression will always be from classic to romantic, for greater musical forces, for more violent metaphors, larger, more extraordinary paintings, and so forth. The (Dionysian) primordial is contrasted with (Apollonian) conceptual, which involves, if I understand him, the stylistic mode of an art. Within an established style, primordial content in time must increase. When a style changes, primordial content will decrease. Thus art evolves.

In other words, novelty in form means that content can be less complex, but as we get tired of the form, content becomes more complex (or, in Martindale's unfortunate terminology, "primordial"). Think of electronic music: at first, it was all techno and disco, 133 bpm four-on-the-floor. It was a big hit. Now, 20 years later, there's a forest of subgenres. Why was the original formula not enough to sustain 20 years of dancing? People feel compelled to create ever more complex content when a new field of ideas opens. Is the pattern of that creation somehow predictable?

Dutton raises some very good questions about the book, but concludes--as I have--that it's far from useless because it asks many old questions in an entirely new way, a way that produces unexpected answers that have a face validity that's hard to ignore. That said, the book has been on the remainder shelves pretty much since the day it was published, so it in fact has been ignored and Martindale's assertions have never been validated or refuted on anything like the terms he created them under. Too bad, and I hope that now that the emergent property analysis tools exist, someone in need of journal publication will use them to analyze Martidale's assertions.




A device studio that lives at the intersections of ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence, industrial design and materials science.

The Smart Furniture Manifesto

Giant poster, suitable for framing! (300K PDF)
Full text and explanation

Recent Photos (from Flickr)

Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design

By me!
ISBN: 0123748992
Published in September 2010
Available from Amazon

Observing the User Experience: a practitioner's guide to user research

By me!
ISBN: 1558609237
Published April 2003
Available from Amazon

Recent Comments

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