January 2007 Archives

The Graffiti Research Lab pointed out that electronics are nearly as cheap as paint these days, but it took a panic in Boston (and maybe some reckless PR, but who knows) to give it widespread recognition:

More than 10 blinking electronic devices planted at bridges and other spots in Boston threw a scare into the city Wednesday in what turned out to be a publicity campaign for a late-night cable cartoon. Most if not all of the devices depict a character giving the finger.
(from the Chron)

(from Flickr)

Here's a closeup:

I think it's interesting, although not surprising, that the authorities took these to be a bomb. Electronics are black boxes (especially when they're in black boxes), so it's easy to project the worst anxieties onto them when you don't know otherwise. And, frankly, you don't and in a society full of anxiety, it's not surprising that the Boston authorities overreacted. It's probably like when the first person painted the first bad word on a water tower with a paint roller: shocking and the talk of the town, but it eventually becomes commonplace. Maybe in a few years, when LED graffiti has become, ahem, ubiquitous and anything made of steel has cluster of expired LEDs, cheap batteries and rare earth magnets stuck on it this won't be a big deal, but right now it's a sign of the times...and a sign of the future.

This has nothing to do with ubicomp, but I just spent 3 hours figuring this out and thought I would share.

I have an ancient Declaser 5100, a laser printer that was made in 1993 and has run continuously ever since. It's a total tank, works great, and, coincidentally, was one of the first TCP/IP network appliances (it had an Ethernet card in it before just about any other printer).

I just upgraded the local network, and the printer, which I had used in its TCP/IP mode, was still stuck on its old internet address. As a first generation product, changing the IP address on one of these printers is ridiculously difficult and I banged my head against the problem for a couple of hours before the solution came to me.

The short answer is AppleTalk. In addition to TCP/IP, this particular printer also speaks AppleTalk, Apple's now-abandoned networking protocol (it also speaks Novell's Netware protocol, another abandoned protocol.

Now the important thing about AppleTalk is that it allows for autodiscovery and autoconfiguration. TCP/IP, by definition, does not. This meant that the Macs in my household, which still speak AppleTalk, had no problem finding the printer, but the nearly as ancient Windows 2000 (which I don't upgrade for fear of bricking an already dicey box) was not so lucky. I struggled with various network configurations for a long time before realizing that it can also speak to the printer in AppleTalk, it's just that the incantation is arcane.

Here's what you do:

  1. Go to the Network control panel and open the local network connection that's shared with the printer
  2. Click on Properties
  3. Click on "Install..."
  4. Select "Protocol"
  5. Select AppleTalk, Click OK. It'll ask you to reboot your computer. Reboot.
  6. When the computer reboots, open the Printers folder and open "Add Printer"
  7. Select "add a local printer" (yes, you select "local printer", even though you're adding a network printer--hello Microsoft!). Click next.
  8. On the next page, it'll ask you select a port. Click on "Create a new port" and select "AppleTalk Printing Devices" from the list. It may have a weird name, but odds are there's only one AppleTalk device on your network, so choose that one. Click next.
  9. It will then search for a local AppleTalk printer and, if everything is working right, find yours.
  10. When it asks whether you want to "Capture this AppleTalk device," say no.
  11. It will then give you a list of printers. Hopefully, it selected the right one (thank you AppleTalk autodiscovery), but if not, scroll through the list to find yours. Click next. The rest is the same as adding any other printer.
  12. If it asks you about whether to keep the existing driver, say yes. Click next.
  13. Name the printer and make the default, if that's appropriate on the next screen. Click next.
  14. When it asks whether you want to share this printer, probably "no." Windows 2K device sharing is dicey.
  15. Congratulate yourself on circumventing bad configuration UI on the part of Digital and bad device management UI on the part of Microsoft using good protocol design (for certain things) on the part of Apple.

I suspect this technique will also work for any number of other AppleTalk network printers, such as Apple's early-90s LaserWriters and HPs printers of the same era. You may even be able to get an old Imagewriter dotmatrix printer working on your network if you have an Ethernet-LocalTalk media converter. Woohoo. Retro "fun," yes. In the middle of a workday, no.

Excuse me while a rant a bit:


We have a new entry in the terminology haze that surrounds ubiquitous computing, Palpable Computing. Hooray! Another word for roughly the same thing, but with a twist that could only have looked good on an EU grant application:

Palpable denotes that systems are capable of being noticed and mentally apprehended. Palpable systems support people in understanding what is going on at the level they choose. Palpable systems support control and choice by people.

Their claim is that they're inverting "ambient computing," which is supposedly invisible, with a vision of computing that's more, well, tangible. They position a set of ideas that claim to show how this approach complements "ambient computing," which I find difficult to see, since there's no really developed set of ideas about what "ambient computing" is (maybe inside all the Disappearing Computer project paperwork there is, but certainly not in common use or practice outside the community of people who were given grant money by that project). Moreover, I don't see how the terms they're using as complements relate to the things they're claiming to complement:

scalability understandability
sense-making and negotiationuser control and deference
(from here)

Maybe I haven't read enough about it, but it seems to me--at first blush--like a syntactic land grab and a linguistic distinction created to justify continued funding more than an attempt to clarify concepts and move the field forward. It's kind of a shame, and I certainly don't see how it's going to satisfy their project goals, a number of which, at least, seem to be jumping to try and create technology before they've finished making a philosophical argument:

  • an open architecture for palpable computing
  • a conceptual framework to understand the particulars of palpable technologies and their use.
  • design and implementation of a toolbox for the construction of palpable applications
  • development of a range prototypes of palpable applications
  • gaining a firm understanding of a range of practices into which palpable technologies may be introduced.

Further, as Liz points out, it may represent a rethinking, a retrenching, after an initially overly reductionist reading of Weiser and Norman . That reading may have led to the idea of "ambient intelligence" representing literal disappearance, rather than a philosophy for distributed information processing that meets people's needs and desires (which are sometimes to have things in the background and other times to not). "Ambient intelligence" may have now proven to be too ambient, and thus needs to be complemented with this new project, which may be as equally reductionist.


That rant over, congratulations on the funding and all the best luck to you in your new project, folks.

Cassidy and several others pointed me to a NY Times article about magical thinking.

[...] magical thinking underlies a vast, often unseen universe of small rituals that accompany people through every waking hour of a day.

The appetite for such beliefs appears to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain, and for good reason. The sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations, and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental distress.


The brain seems to have networks that are specialized to produce an explicit, magical explanation in some circumstances, said Pascal Boyer, a professor of psychology and anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. In an e-mail message, he said such thinking was “only one domain where a relevant interpretation that connects all the dots, so to speak, is preferred to a rational one.”

[...] in a series of experiments published last summer, psychologists at Princeton and Harvard showed how easy it was to elicit magical thinking in well-educated young adults.


The brain, moreover, has evolved to make snap judgments about causation, and will leap to conclusions well before logic can be applied.

This of course relates to the user experience design of everyday objects, including technology objects, since the tools that embody this kind of magical thinking are all the standard everyday objects of our lives. This can be seen in the illustrations to the story, which often involve "magical" objects, and in the description of how people's beliefs play out:

  • "she saw a woman stroll by with a Michigan umbrella"
  • "that young men and women instructed on how to use a voodoo doll suspected that they might have put a curse on a study partner who feigned a headache"
  • "To be on the safe side, it is best to step into the sealed room right foot first."
  • "He doesn’t change his socks; he doesn’t empty his pockets"

Cloverleafs, horse shoes, umbrellas, dolls, rooms, socks, pockets. All terribly mundane objects, and (maybe therefore) likely to be seen as particularly susceptible to enchantment. Building on the mundane may be thus be the key to making things magical, or, maybe making magical things look more mundane makes them more approachable.

In our ThingM newsletter last month I included a report of our experiences at the Consumer Electronics Show the week before. Here it is:

For most of the consumer electronics world, the Consumer Electronics Show is about incremental change to existing types of devices. The TV's are a little bigger, the memory cards hold a little more, video camera prices have dropped a bit, etc. That's critical for the health of the industry, but we went to CES to look for revolutionary technologies, rather than the evolution of existing technologies. We found several things that we felt were especially interesting:

  • Microsoft's entry into software for cars and homes. In his keynote Bill Gates talked about the introduction of technology into cars and homes. As broad ideas, they're not new (not even for MS), but we feel that Microsoft's attention, and Bill Gates' personal management of the development of their product with Ford, is significant. It means that the big companies are recognizing the value of computers outside traditional productivity applications.
  • We had a great conversation with Helen Greiner, CEO of iRobot. Her company released the Create robotics experimentation platform, which they developed and released in record time. It's a great companion to Tod's book, and makes some of the hacks in that book easier. It's also important, because it defines a tantalizing bridge between the home appliance market and the DIY market. The era of kitchen tinkering and appliance repair largely ended with monolithic, impenetrable electronics. iRobot is recognizing that innovation doesn't just come from labs, but from living rooms, and kudos to them for making it much easier for everyday tinkerers.
  • Speaking of smart homes, genuine research or thought about how to integrate technology into home life has far to go. There was an embarrassing House of the Future setup that owed more to Disney's 1950s Carousel of Progress vision than how people actually live today. Giant LCD screens attached to walls, glowing with Microsoft blue interfaces is not the way to go, folks.
  • One class of domestic robot that hardly gets any attention is the massage chair. There are hundreds of brands, they fly below most media radars, and the designs won't win any awards, but they're evolving into genuinely useful and--according to our personal tester--comfortable items. To some extent, this is how it should be: objects shouldn't have to scream "look, I'm technology!" to be valuable tools for living.
  • WowWee, the Canadian company that made the Robosapien, has a bunch of new domestic robot toys on the way. In our conversation with them, we were really heartened that they're embracing hackability. Although they aren't including a serial port on their new devices, they're labeling all of the internal circuitry and trying to not prevent people from attaching things to their electronics. We even heard that they initially wanted to make their new robotic panda with a WiFi card inside it, so that it could be controllable remotely, but decided it would be too expensive. This means that for the next generation, it won't be.
  • Possibly the coolest technology we saw was the digital pen by EPOS an Israeli company. Right now it's a pen and small USB receiver that digitizes handwriting without requiring special paper or a special pad (you clip the USB unit to any writing surface). However, the ultrasonic high-resolution triangulation technology they use works either in 2D or in 3D and opens up a whole host of interaction possibilities. Arbitrary flat surfaces can be activated as interaction devices, which is tremendously powerful. The multi-touch interaction on the iPhone becomes possible with just about anything.

I've also made a Flickr set of my photos from the show, where you can see what I thought was interesting, including the embarrassing smart house.

I've talked about video scenarios and sketching before. Well, now that ThingM is up and rolling, i figured it was time to practice what I was preaching. Today we put the first of our Technology Sketches, which are video scenarios we use in the rapid prototyping of interaction ideas. We did this one in a little more than 3 days, including all technology, design and video work, and learned a ton from the process. Here's the abstract:

WineM is a Technology Sketch of a smart wine rack. It's designed to locate wines in a wine rack using RFIDs attached to bottles and to display which wines have been located using LED backlights behind the bottles. Collectors (or anyone with a large wine cellar) can use it to search through collections, track the location of specific bottles and manage inventory with a minimum of data entry. Linking bottles to networked databases can provide information that would otherwise be too time consuming or difficult to obtain (for example, the total value of a collection, or all the wine that is ready to drink).

A full description of the ideas and technologies behind this sketch are available on the ThingM Site.


I was recently reading Fred Wilson's thoughts on user generated devices:

Yes, the web has brought this power of the user to the forefront of our society, enough to make us the person of the year. That's cool.

But what is cooler is that this is part of a larger revolution in information technology that started back in the early 90s with Linux. It's the open source movement and it's about opening up technology so that anyone and everyone can contribute to the collective good.

And I believe its time for this revolution in information technology to move into the hardware space. It's time for user generated devices.

I think this is right on: as the barriers to entry lower and standards develop, there is a natural democratization of a medium. In the 1970s it was video production, in the 1990s it was the Web, in the 2010s it'll be hardware (well, I hope, anyway ;-). This blog post reminded me of a conversation I had with Rafi Haladjian (of Violet) as part of the research for my next book. We were talking about Violet's Nabaztag and its relationship to other devices, and we agreed that passing everything through the interface of a general-purpose computer is likely to be short-lived. In the long-term, devices will communicate to each other and to do that, they need an open appliance communication protocol that's easy to use, even if it's not perfect. Period.

Let's revisit (a highly simplified for the purposes of this discussion) Web history: they beauty of the HTTP/HTML protocol pair was not that the were ideal, but they were:

  • Good enough
  • Did something immediately interesting to both creators and consumers
  • Open

That's it: those were the seeds. The protocols weren't perfect from the start, but they evolved to be "perfect" in the sense that they're good enough for an incredibly broad range of uses that Berners-Lee didn't think of, and shouldn't have had to. (it should be noted that other standards had these qualities and were not so successful, so these are not sufficient for success, but they may be necessary)

In contrast, phone companies do not believe in opening their services, try to predict everything that can possibly be done, and lock it down. Their closed-system creation may have prevented the use of wireless phone standards as platforms for anything but voice and SMS.

In the appliance communication world, no one protocol has dominated except the hated X10, which suffers from a combination of low bitrate and crappy performance. Protocols like AMX, Crestron aren't really open because they're owned by competing corporations and, as such, suffer from the problems of all such systems: even if they're not intentionally crippled by their authors, there's little incentive to include anything other than what's going to satisfy the company's short-term goals. From a programmer-as-user perspective, none of them provide a particularly good user experience.

Until there's a good-enough (not perfect: never forget the debacle of X.500!) appliance communication protocol, there's going to be no easy way for Fred's user generated devices to talk.

I'm not a protocol designer. I'm sure that people have been thinking about this for a long time, but I bet all the thought has been behind closed doors and not in a public appliance design forum and framework. That said, my vision is of a household full of devices that

  • speak to each other over TCP/IP
  • are explicitly transport-layer agnostic, so any TCP/IP transport works, whether it's Powerline Ethernet, Wifi Ethernet, Bluetooth, GSM, Lonworks or tachyon telepathy
  • use a Zeroconf address assignment and service discovery

In the most basic implementation, for example, a Powerline time broadcast system allows every device to be time synchronized, so you don't have to reset all the clocks after a power outage. More sophisticated systems can advertise themselves as displays, inputs or outputs. To use the tired coffee maker example: your coffee maker thus no longer has to include its own scheduling device; your alarm clock can schedule all necessary tasks, find your coffee maker as an output device with a standard set of services, and just tell it when to start percolating at the same time that it tells your Wifi rabbit to start caching its the news and traffic MP3s. Your pressure-sensitive carpet can just broadcast "turn on 1/10 power" to all lights in its vicinity, which turn on as you walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night, they light your way. If you have no such lights, they don't light.

The key, I think, is to stop thinking of all of these things as either giant HVAC control system protocols, automation protocols or media control protocols. The world of everyday appliances is much broader and the functions are much more varied. A house is not a factory, an office building or a TV studio. There's a huge potential here, a huge set of possibilities that's not about "automating" but about "activating" and "augmenting" everyday objects. The communications standards used that need to acknowledge that.

Thoughts on other protocols

  • DMX is open, but it's also 20 years old, tuned to work with theater lighting, based on an even-older hardwired serial protocol, and unidirectional.
  • HP's JetSend was an early attempt, and had many interesting features (a basic version could run with only 60K of memory, or something), but it's now been eclipsed not just by networking technology, but by the vastly greater capabilities of devices (i.e. we don't really need most things to run in 60K of memory anymore). We need something better, smarter, open (JetSend is covered by a patent, which is no way to create interest in your protocol--serves HP right that no one adopted it, and they themselves abandoned it).
  • BACnet is another building automation protocol, but it seems to be mired in the needs of giant building automation, and was initially defined nearly 20 years ago, which makes it about the equivalent of X10 in terms of its programmer- and consumer-friendliness. Appliances geared to individuals need something newer and more extensible.
  • What do people think of KNX? It's one of these standards that requires membership to use commercially, which I think is a terrible idea and market stifling in the name of arbitrary bureaucratic control, but it has many of the features that I mention above. If all that membership carries with it is "certification" by some arbitrary standards body, while the protocol is open and documented, then maybe it should just be used and the certification ignored?




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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This page is an archive of entries from January 2007 listed from newest to oldest.

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