May 2005 Archives

The Consumer Electronics Association, which (I'm guessing) sets the agenda for the development of second-generation electronics manufacturers (the ones who are making stuff that was cutting edge last year cheaper this year) has put out a report (400K PDF) which has "hybrid white goods" as a technology to watch. By "to watch" I'm assuming they mean "to make very cheaply." They define the genre by example, which shows how lacking a specific focus makes defining a technology solution difficult:

the new category features such novelties as refrigerators that come with cable-ready TV screens,refrigerators that can monitor the shelflife of your in-box items; ovens that can download and execute recipes via the Internet; and even ovens that can be temperature-controlled during the day so they can store and eventually cook food via a cell phone request while you’re still at the office.

The reasons why people would want this technology are still somewhat unclear: "the prospect of making kitchen chores more efficient [...] will likely be appealing." There's that efficiency argument again, and the solution seems to be...remote controls (that big 1970s new technology hit) for appliances:

Despite the clear benefits, many consumers are intimidated by new technologies


it’s the industry goal to connect all devices to permit remote access.


Whirlpool,for example, now is testing an upgrade to let Polara owners control their ovens via a cell phone or the Net.

Remote control doesn't seem like a clear benefit to me, but it's interesting to see the marketing gears turning in terms of how it's going to be presented:

“Our research shows that busy consumers still blame themselves when they cannot provide their families with homecooked meals."

Parental guilt + efficiency = remote control. But pressing the guilt button isn't the same thing as giving people something that they're going to embrace for the long term. There needs to be genuine utility. Fortunately, the CEA does recognize this, to some extent:

As a result,consumers may hesitate if the smart kitchen appliance seems more complicated than it needs to be. The industry’s growth could be slowed if companies put the cart in front of the horse.

(and by "complicated" they mean "more work than is justified by the functionality")

John Dvorak makes another interesting point when he says:

The true goal of smart white goods is to get advertising-oriented LCD displays into the home and feed them promotional ads over an IP connection linked from the power lines.

I don't think that the companies are thinking in those terms, it's an awfully 1999 notion, but there's truth to the idea that it's going to be hard to resist cramming as much potentially revenue-generating functionality into the things, possibly at the expense of the user experience. And ads are one that gives companies dollar signs in their eyes, since it seems like free money.

The CEA says: "The industry needs to communicate the benefits in ways that demonstrate how technology makes life simpler and more efficient." However, as long as they're stuck in thinking that it's only simplicity and efficiency that people want, and that all technological functionality needs to stem from, or be crammed into, one of those pidgeon holes, and only guilt that'll get people interested, it's going to be tough to get people to buy. Yes, those are important, but they're only a small proportion of what people want from their household tools. If that's all people were interested in, why would there be so many (labor intensive) espresso makers in the world?

Now that there's an industry-friendly name for the idea and an official blessing, it's much more likely to get funded as part of R&D efforts. I hope they come up with some fuctionality for the technology other than remote-control fridges.

[in related news, iRobot just announced the Scooba a hard floor sibling to their Roomba vacuum cleaner. What's interesting is that these are appliances--white goods--that aren't based on existing white goods, but on much simpler household goods, and they're focused not on remote control, but on work elimination]

CNN is covering a Steelcase and IBM project out of IBM's Watson lab, Bluespace. Looking at the Bluespace site, things seem quiet, but the article has some interesting ideas in it:

[...]sensors and displays embedded in the furniture, which know when you arrive in the office and will automatically bring up your computer settings.

The wallpaper, or images on walls at least, will change color and pattern depending on your mood and preferences, even letting colleagues know whether you can be interrupted.

Most of the stuff they mention here, although they're talking about 2020, exists today.

One thing that troubles me about the article is that it implies that they're thinking of designing technologies for the office primarily from the perspective of the company's goals, rather than the goals of the individuals using it:

"Workers' productivity is the ultimate goal. We want to use technology in such a way to make workers as productive as possible."

Yeah, yeah, sure, sure, worker productivity is good, but that's not how people think about their jobs. Many failed technologies show that there need to be incentives for people to use the fancy tech on a day-to-day basis, or else it ends up making the organization as a whole less productive, as people struggle with the technology and central command creates new processes that require its use (because otherwise people don't use it). Bluespace does recognize this, to some extent, and they believe that this incentive is going to come in the form of attention-focusing technology:

"We're being bombarded, so we have to find a way -- we, the creators of technology -- to make this technology more aware of what the knowledge worker is doing so that we're not interrupting him or her at inopportune moments," she said.

I agree with the identification of the problem, but their solution, which is to make any surface a display (not an ambient display, but a replacement for screens), doesn't seem right:

A device called the "Everywhere Display Projector," a combination of a projector and computer vision technology, is used at Bluespace.

It projects information from a computer on to any surface, including, floors, desktops and chairs.

"The vision technology allows that surface to become interactive, so that while the computer is projecting the information on to, say, your table top, the worker can interact with that the thing which is basically just light by using light," Lai said.

This seems like it just means that there's no place you can get away from your work. The technology, as presented here, arbitrarily blurs the lines between work areas, rather than to defining them in a useful way.

They're also, somewhat surprisingly, working on detecting the emotions of workers:

"Once we get this emotion detection correct we can very quickly translate that into what we're projecting for wallpaper," Lai said.

That last part about emotion detection seems, uh, a bit out of left field relative to the other technologies mentioned. Maybe it's an attempt to bring a technological solution looking for a problem down to human scale. Frankly, I think it's potentially the most important part of the whole research, and by far the hardest, but I worry that because it doesn't instantly translate into hardware, it will probably get the fewest resources. That's kind of a shame.

Herman Miller Inc. wants to make it easier for private telephone conversations to remain private.

A device called Babble is the office furniture company's first foray into high-tech electronics. The wireless box duplicates and disassembles a user's voice before broadcasting it through a series of speakers to make phone conversations unintelligible to passers-by.


DeKruif said the burgeoning health care industry is the Zeeland-based company's most obvious customer for Babble.

"The industry has done a great job of managing paper, but there's nothing on the market to mask voice conversations," he said. "To this point, what we've seen is a piece of yellow tape on the floor and a sign that says "stand back.' That doesn't work very well."

DeKruif said the company expects Babble to also be attractive to lawyers and corporations that need to protect proprietary information in open work spaces.

A second generation Babble that protects face-to-face conversations in a similar fashion is in the works and will be marketed by Herman Miller.

(from this article)

I think that it's interesting H-M is moving away from just furnishing offices to thinking about the relationship the objects they make have, and can have, on the office environment, and I think it's interesting that they're thinking of specific markets and their needs. It seems intersting, but a product that is likely to be driven by the needs of upper management in a company, rather than the needs of the people on who are going to be using it, which I'm sure is going to limit its popularity.

Between ages 9 and 18 I lived at 29960 Rock Creek Drive, in Southfield, Michigan, a Detroit suburb. My parents haven't lived there, or anywhere near it, in more than 10 years. Even before they moved, it was already fading. I went to college, it never felt like home again: after starting my sophomore year, I never moved back. I haven't visited it since they left, but I've been there many times in dreams.

Of all of the houses before it and after it, this is the house that still appears as the stage for many of my dreams. Actually, it's not the house that's in my dreams, but the neighborhood around it. Yesterday, I was visiting Grandma nearby and I decided to document the places that my dreams take place. I went back to the house for the first time in maybe 5 years, only the second time since 1994, and the first time I got out of the car.

Here are the pictures:

Hickory Leaf/Rock Creek Drive 29960 Rock Creek Drive Across the street Kitty corner from my house Next door Chain link tunnel to Northbrook Elementary Rock Creek disappears Sidewalk on 12 Mile Road 12 Mile Road Up Rock Creek IMGP5127 IMGP5118 Rock Creek behind the neighbor houses IMGP5110 Up Rock Creek IMGP5105 Traffic island IMGP5073 IMGP5074 IMGP5125

Here is a panorama of the intersection of Rock Creek Drive and Hickory Leaf, the closest intersection to the house, which often appears (if only as an implicit location, something that feels like it's perenially nearby):

rock creek panorama

I've also made a Google/Flickr memory map that identifies the actual locations of a number of the photos:

Memory Map Cranbrook Village

I'll let the photos stand without further explanation (I'm sure there's plenty of symbolism there that you can decipher), but I think, based on the places where it "felt right" to take pictures, that most of my memories of this time were made in the summers when I was 11 and 12. I spent those summers riding bicycles with friends around the neighborhood.

What's most interesting is how mundane the photographs look and how impossible it is to convey the intensity of meaning they have for me. Or, actually, the intensity of meaning that those places have in my dreams. Not that I want to convey the intensity, that's not the point and it would be futile to try, but the mundane-ness of the images underscores how deeply ideosyncratically we're wired. If I ever had any doubt about my inability to experience images or places entirely objectively, walking into the empty stage of my childhood dreams extinguished it.

It's an incredibly powerful lesson in experince design for me, though I don't know if I'll ever be able to properly articulate it.

Intel realizes that the context technology is presented in is important, specifically furniture:

Intel, the world�s largest chip maker, today unveiled a prototype designer furnishing for a new generation of home PC - The Ryan McElhinney Home Entertainment Shell for Intel.

Nicknamed the �E-Shell�, the Home Entertainment Shell showcases today�s entertainment PC capabilities in a modernist �60�s designer housing fit to grace the most stylish living spaces.


Inspired by Eero Aarnio�s iconic bubble and ball chairs of the early 1960s, the �E-Shell� harks back to an age when just two or three simple items of technology shared equal space in the living room with exciting new furniture designs and futuristic materials.

In contrast, a study into the 21st Century living room by Intel reveals that 42 percent of Brits complain technology hardware is now crowding them out of their rooms, with an average of five remote controls to cater for home entertainment needs. One in four living rooms (or 25 percent) are stacking up more than seven separate technology devices.

Despite recognising the benefits of having one multi-function entertainment device, half of British households (49 percent) claimed they wouldn�t allow a traditional PC near their living room because of its design shortfalls.

[Sounds like an attempt to recapture midcentury Italian futurism--the last time there was a unabashedly positive view of the technological future...but I digress, while feeling somewhat vindicated]

(from this press release)

more info and pictures:


I was flipping through a book on Controlled Flight Into Terrain (i.e. plane crashes based on pilot error--and an excellent euphemism to boot) at the book store when I saw the following illustration of the causes of CFIT:


I think it's actually a pretty brilliant description of the systematic buildup of errors that occur in almost any organization, 'cept here they lead to a big crack in your plane, rather than a bad product launch or a recall. It also shows how the fault does not just rest with the last person to have had the control stick (so to speak).

[Update: a little research revealed that the diagram was originally published in James Reason's book Human Error, which seems like an interesting general theory of error.]

Jupiter just published a report called "Home Automation: The Viability of Remote Household Management". I haven't read it (I don't have a Jupiter account--if you do, and have access to this report and wouldn't mind letting me look at it, drop me a note), but the summary is pretty clear: "Consumer interest in home automation is stagnant. Slow vendor response to a growing interest in the networked home has prevented the uptake of home automation solutions."

I'm not a big home automation fan, as far as its current incarnation as an extension of audiphile technological obsessiveness is concerned, but I do think that as computers fragment into everyday objects, what we call "home automation" will merge with ubiquitous computing. If the analysts are thinking about this market as stagnant because vendor response is slow, then that's potentially a trigger for the vendor response to be quicker. Technology companies have been puttering around this field ever since Gateway tried to follow the "convergence" star and put out TV-computer hybrids in the mid-90s that weren't particularly good at being either, but there seems to be a renewed interest in the home. Dell is successfully selling TVs. Microsoft's Xbox 360, with it ability to do other things (what other things isn't clear yet) beside play games, is an interesting way to weasel into hardware without having the overhead of competing against Dell (granted, they have to compete against Sony, but only on one front). Intel has a Digital Home division. There are rumors of Apple buying TiVo.

The meme is out there, it's been out for a while, but maybe it's approaching some kind of inflection point. Most of these companies are still thinking in terms of standalone boxes, but someone's going to find the writing on the wall (i.e., the money in people's pockets) pretty soon, and then it's going to break open for consumers like WiFi did, which will in turn get the other companies into the act.

I was looking at the excellent Color Kinetics LED wall I saw at the Milan Furniture Fair:


and thinking about ambient display, when an idea popped into my head: what about an infrared LED dot matrix screen? On one hand it does come off as a kind of ironic "work that's in front of your eyes, but you can't see it" conceptual piece, such as the paintings in boxes that Art and Language did at one point. In those, there's a box and they tell you there's a painting inside it, but you're not allowed to open the box, so the painting is there, but you can't see it. On the other hand, I think that there's are legitimately interesting uses for a data panel that's only visible to technology, and yet is still within human line of sight.

Unlike wireless technology, an IR LED wall would have to be within eyeshot in order to be used. This impacts both security and it cuts down on the potential crosstalk of a bunch of wireless devices talking on the same set of channels creates. It also has the quality that it's effectively invisible unless someone wanted to see what it was broadcasting, thus moving control back into the user's sphere. The way you would access it would be to look at it through an IR-sensitive device, such as a cell phone camera (most CCDs are sensitive to near infrared). This creates a kind of effect, where your special glasses let you see information that's hidden in plain sight all around you. The ability to do that may be more comforting to people than invisible radio waves (assuming that's important).

I imagine the following situation: you're walking in a big city and there's an LED billboard that is playing some kind of ad, like one of the many giant TV billboards today. However, it also has a marker that says it's IR-enabled, so that there's a grid of IR LEDs interspersed between the visible light LEDs. When you point your IR-sensitive phone at it and look at the screen, you see that the IR matrix says that this billboard is downloading theater time information for the theaters in a 3 block radius around it. This is important for security, because you're not telling any server where you are or what you're interested in, it's just like looking at a billboard, but with a lot more information exchanged, without compromising security. While you're reading the message, it's using the flickering of the IR LEDs that spell out the message to send the data. You put the phone down and a map of the local theaters appears.

My neighborhood in Portland has a number of early 20th century apartment buildings in it. I decided to document some of their nameplates.

IMGP4888 IMGP4889 IMGP4890 IMGP4891 IMGP4892 IMGP4893 IMGP4894 IMGP4895 IMGP4896 IMGP4897 IMGP4898 IMGP4899 IMGP4915 IMGP4917 IMGP4918 IMGP4919 IMGP4920 IMGP4921 IMGP4922 IMGP4923 IMGP4924 IMGP4925 IMGP4926




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

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