Results tagged “appliance”

The following is the transcript of the talk I gave at Device Design Day last Friday.

Information as a Material from Kicker Studio on Vimeo.

You can download the PDF (885K), with all images and transcript, or look through it (and download the original Powerpoint) on Slideshare.

INFORMATION IS A MATERIAL

Good Morning! Thank you very much for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here.

ABOUT ME
First, let me tell you a bit about myself. Most of my professional career over the last 17 years has been spent as a consulting creative director, interaction designer, user researcher and user experience strategy consultant. I started doing Web design in the Jurassic era of the Web, the early 1990s--this is the logo of the first commercial website I designed in 1993. Since then I've worked with probably hundreds of web sites, and I've also helped a number of large electronics companies with their user experience issues.

I sat out the first dotcom crash writing a book based on the work I had been doing. It's a cookbook of user research methods.

And 2001 I co-founded a design and consulting company called Adaptive Path.

I left the Web behind in 2005 and founded a company with Tod E. Kurt called ThingM. We're a small ubiquitous computing company and we design, manufacture and sell ubicomp hardware.

"SMART THINGS"
This talk is based on a chapter from my upcoming book on ubiquitous computing user experience design. It's called "Smart Things" and it's published by Morgan Kaufmann. They have a couple of copies here.

This book is my attempt to create a framework for the different kinds of activities, and the products of those activities, involved in device design, and to create some useful constraints to help move the field forward. Language is a pretty effective way to create conceptual constraints, there's a strong undercurrent of defining terms in it. I try not to invent completely new terms, but to clarify how existing terms apply to the practice of designing ubiquitous computing user experiences, if for no other reason so that there's some shared terminology to use when describing what I do to stakeholders.

The book also has lots of illustrations, techniques and in-depth case studies of a number of commercial products, so don't worry, it's not all about words and concepts. This talk is largely from the wordy/conceptual side of it.

PEAK MHZ
I want to start by mentioning a curious phenomenon. If you any of you follow developments in microprocessors, you'll notice that the clock speed of today's new CPUs is basically the same as that of CPUs from five years ago. For those of us who used computers in the 80s and 90s, this is very confusing. We watched clock speeds go from 6MHz in 1983 to 3GHz in 2003. During that time, we became used to clock speeds as the measure of power and value in information processing.

But after 20 years during of a logarithmic increase that spanned 3 orders of magnitude, suddenly clock speed abruptly stopped going up in 2004. The industry went from exponential growth in clock speed to no growth, zero growth, in one season. It's like someone slammed the emergency brake.

I call this phenomenon Peak MHz.

Unlike oil, we're not literally running out of CPU clock cycles, but we are seeing a reevaluation of how we understand the value that computers provide, and this has resulted in a shift in the strategy of microprocessor makers. What happened in 2004 was, broadly speaking, that chip manufacturers saw that we were running out of uses for big, energy-hungry, hot processors, and they shifted the game. Since 2004 the competition has shifted from raw CPU to making smaller, cooler, cheaper chips that can do as much work as older chips, while using fewer resources.

Here's a slide from a talk Paul Otellini, the CEO of Intel, gave last year. Notice that instead of talking about numbers going up, processor manufacturing has become all about pushing numbers down. Instead of competing on doing more with more, they are now competing on doing the same with less. Less power, smaller size, and lower cost.

One of the main effects of this shift is that in addition to pushing the price, size and energy consumption of the latest CPUs down, it also pushes the price of all previous processing technologies down along with it. For example, at the beginning of the Internet era we had the 486 as the state of the art and it cost $1500 in today's dollars. It's the processor that the Web was built for and with. Today, you can buy that same amount of processing power for 50 cents, and it uses only a fraction of the energy. That decrease in price is the same 3 orders of magnitude drop as the increase in speed to 2004. This is not a coincidence, because both are the product of the same underlying technological changes.

When a technology falls in price this much, it opens up enormous possibilities for new products, while creating fundamental changes in society as the new technologies displace established social systems and networks.
Steam engines, for example, lowered the price of harnessing energy by orders of magnitude...and the Industrial Revolution was born as people found all kinds of new uses for mechanical energy. Mechanization suddenly became an option for making and using things where it never existed, or was highly impractical.

You can see similarly transformative effects if you look at what happened when the price of extracting aluminum dropped by two orders of magnitude in the late 19the century, or when electric motors became significantly cheaper and smaller in the 1920s. When something becomes cheap, it quickly joins the toolkit of things we create our world with. It becomes a design material. Sometimes for better and other times for worse.

In the last five years cheap, small processors have drastically lowered the cost of taking information in, evaluating it, manipulating it, rearranging it, and acting on it. It is no longer unthinkable to have an everyday object use an embedded processor to take a small piece of information--say the temperature, or the orientation of a device, or your meeting schedule--and autonomously act on it to help the device do its job better. Information processing is now part of the set of options we can practically consider when designing just about any object.

In other words, information is quickly becoming a material to design with.

This capability of everyday objects to make autonomous decisions and act using arbitrary information is as deep an infrastructural change in our world as electrification, steam power, and mechanical printing. Maybe it's as big of a deal as bricks. Seriously, it's a huge change in how the world works, and we're just at the beginning of it.

PART 1: DESIGN PROPERTIES OF INFORMATION
If information is a design material, what are its material properties? Sure, at some level there are basic information theoretic properties such as bandwidth, noise and complexity, but those are the microscopic properties, the equivalent of basic nuclear forces in material science. They won't help us design a Tickle Me Elmo Extreme, which is a device that's only practical to make using cheap information as a material. What are the MACROSCOPIC properties of information that we can use to design with?

  • Automatically sense the world

It can sense the world. There are thousands sensors that convert states of the world into electrical signals that can be manipulated as information. This also includes sensors that sense human intention. We call these "buttons", "levers", "knobs" and so on.

  • Autonomously act on the world

Actuators, which is the generic term for anything that can make a physical change based on input, can be triggered based on information. Thus, information can be used to autonomously affect the world in a way that no previous material was capable of.

  • Remember

Information can be used to knowledge about the state of the world and act on it later. This could be just a single piece of data, such as what a mechanical thermostat does when it stores the temperature you'd like to keep your house at, or something much more sophisticated, say, storing an image of everything you look at, which is what justin.tv was doing a couple of years ago.

  • Repeat exactly

One of the most transformative qualities of information is that it can be duplicated exactly and transmitted flawlessly. This has already changed the music and video industry forever.

But it also means that device behavior can be replicated exactly. We've become acclimated to it, but--stepping back--the idea of near-exact replication in a world full of randomness and uncertainty is a pretty amazing thing, and is a core part of what makes working with information as a material so powerful.

  • Create complex behavior

Information enables behavior that's orders of magnitude more complex than possible with just mechanics, at a fraction of the cost. This is a modern small airplane avionics system. It consists of a bunch of small fairly standard computers running special software.

Compare that to a traditional gyroscopic autopilot where every single component is unique, it does very little, and to change its behavior you have to completely reengineer it.

If you just thought, "Wait a minute. I know all this and, besides, Norbert Weiner covered this in Cybernetics in 1948." you're right. This is not new. We are intuitively familiar with these properties because we've been using computers for a long time. However, now it is more relevant than ever, because now these same qualities can be distributed throughout the environment in a way that's never been economically feasible before. Weiner was writing from the equivalent position of Leonardo Da Vinci, who could see that mechanized flight was possible, but it was not until four hundred years later that the technology, which included new manufacturing techniques, design techniques, and materials, such as aluminum, made widespread commercial flight practical.
We're now at a point where theory can become reality, and we're now in the position where we actually have to make it happen.

PART 2: USING INFORMATION AS A MATERIAL
So how does treating information as a material affect device design?

Object-oriented hardware
First, it changes the way that we think about hardware.

Because information can abstract knowledge, it makes it easier to reduce complexity, including the complexity of information technology itself.

Embedded processors make it possible to create an abstraction layer around basic sensing, processing and actuation components to creates building blocks that are meaningful in human terms, rather than just electronic terms. Each block is an atom of functionality that has a CPU and communicates with other blocks over a network. This is the start of object-oriented hardware. What you see here are mostly all prototypes that make it easier to demonstrate this idea, but this is already how many modern devices are constructed. A modern digital device is already more like a small network of interacting components than a monolithic product of a single ground-up engineering process.

From an interaction design standpoint, object oriented hardware means that rather than starting from basic principles of electronics, you get to focus more on what experience you're trying to create, rather than which capacitor to use. Most designers don't smelt their own iron to make things out of steel, or grow their own hardwood trees to make things out of wood. Similarly, object-oriented hardware turns information from a raw material into a design material.

ThingM, my company, makes a set of such atoms of information processing that emit light. Our BlinkM line of smart LED products makes it very easy to put controllable RGB light into arbitrary locations with no electronics knowledge or color theory. Pick some up today at fine electronics retailers worldwide.

OK, end of sales pitch.

Smart things
So what's made with these atoms?
On the next larger scale, we will see new personal tools. Today we have digital pedometers, Internet connected bathroom scales, networked parking meters, and cars that don't stall, but there will be many more. Pick nearly any object, add information to it, and you get a new object. My favorite example of this the adidas_1 shoe, which was put out 5 years ago and then almost immediately discontinued. It has a pressure sensor that it uses to estimate the qualities of the surface being run on an adjusts the heel in between strides to optimize the resiliency regardless of what surface you're running on. The buttons adjusts how it responds.
For me it represents how a small amount of information, carefully deployed can profoundly change an object.

Information as decoration
We will see information used as a decorative material, because just as you can use wood to hold up a house or make a sculpture with it, so information can be used to create incredibly beautiful, profound esthetic experiences. It has already revolutionized music and cinema, but treating it as a permanent material, rather than a medium, creates fantastic new opportunities.

Intelligent environments
When taken all together, all of these changes mean that at a large scale, our environment is growing increasingly information-based on a fractal level. Small information devices make large information devices that combine to form environment-sized devices made with information as a core material.

This is the big change that we're going to see happen in the world very soon.

PART 3: APPLIANCES AND TERMINALS
I want to shift gears a bit and talk about two kinds of devices that I believe are important to distinguish in terms of how they use information as a material. These are two different classes of object that are actually made with the same material.

Two kinds of devices
One class consists of narrow-function devices whose value is primarily in the effect that they create locally. They are made with information to help them to do a small set of specific things much better than similar devices made without information. I call these devices appliances.

The second is the set of general-purpose computing devices are designed to do many things, and they have a wide variety of sensors to maximize the breadth of potential functionality, and much of their value comes from the remote services they provide access to, rather than their local technical capabilities. I call them terminals, because they evoke the tight relationship early terminals had with mainframes. In a sense, terminals are all the same object, but one which comes in a wide variety of sizes.

Both appliances and terminals are made of the same materials, and they have fundamentally identical capabilities, which tends to be confusing. If you know the old Slashdot refrain about Beowulf clusters made from random Linux-based devices, that's a joke about how any device that runs Linux can be used as a general purpose compute platform. Yes, technically that's true, but in the era of cheap processing, it's no longer interesting. It's like joking that you can make an airplane out of melted soda cans because they're both made of aluminum. Yeah. So?

The key difference between the two classes of devices is of course the user experience they create, and that's where the design difference has to come in. If you try to make a terminal experience into an appliance experience, you break its core values as a terminal, and vice versa.

So when starting a project you can ask yourself: am I designing an experience that's more appliance-like or a terminal-like?

Appliances, terminals and networks
Probably the key consideration is how your device is going to work with a network.

Appliance + network = The Internet of Things
As a narrow function device whose primary user value is local, appliances do one of two things over a network: they provide telemetry, or they serve as interfaces for a single, simple data feed.

This kind of simple, but highly relevant, data communication is what forms the core of the Internet of Things. In this approach appliances communicate with other appliances and people to create highly focused user experiences that connect physical products to each other in highly efficient, deliberately predetermined ways. Each device becomes more valuable because it is made with information, but only in one specific way.

For example, you can check on the status of your Amazon order because hundreds of devices, hundreds of appliances, are being used to track nearly every single atom Amazon is responsible for. Right now they're using barcodes. Soon these will become RFIDs and after that they'll be active devices, like the FedEx Sensaware smart tag, which has a bunch of sensors, a GPS and the equivalent of a phone in it for sending data about where a package is and what conditions it's traveling in.

Terminal + Network = Service Avatar
In the case of terminals, adding networked data has a different effect.

One of the core values of terminals is that they can make the same information accessible through a variety of devices. This has the effect of shifting value from the device, which is a generic container, to the information it carries. The terminal becomes a temporary representation of whatever information-based services it provides access to. It becomes the physical manifestations, what I call the avatar, of the service it represents. It is not the service itself, but people sees "through" it to the service it represents.

For example, I have every expectation that I should be able to pause a movie on one terminal running Netflix and then upause it on another. Why not? It's just a hole in space, a short-term manifestation of a single service I have subscribed to. The value is in the service, not the frame around it.

The design of terminals then is then a challenge to create the most transparent window, and the device design challenge is not in the device, but primarily in the design of the service it's going to create access to.

ALL DESIGN IS A NEGOTIATION WITH MATERIALS
I feel that these are the kinds of questions we're going to have to ask, and the kinds of relationships we're going to have to examine as we extract device design from the hodgepodge of design techniques that still treat hardware, software and service design as separate entities.

Working with information as a material becomes a negotiation with this combination of technologies treated as a single thing. New materials create both possibilities and problems. We didn't get our flying cars, but nor did we didn't have to fight atomic hydroplaning Soviet battleships.

The most important thing is to engage with the material as a single material that you work with, as a unified set of ideas, rather than separate things that are divided and abdicated to others. If you are here, you create technology. This means that it's your responsibility to understand the properties of information, explore its capabilities, and build tools that make it easier to do the right thing with information than to do the wrong thing. It is our responsibility as designers to do this exploration much more than it is Intel's, or LG's or the government's. They're just mining the raw ore. We're the ones who decide what to make with it.

Thank you!

I was doing some writing for my upcoming Device Design Day talk and started to make a list of two common kinds of smart things that I've been seeing out in the world. For lack of better terminology, I'm calling these appliances and terminals. I haven't yet processed all of these ideas, but here is an initial stab at distinguishing two major classes of smart thing.

Appliances Terminals
Most functionality is Local Remote
Technical capabilities Narrow. Technology is only included if it supports core purpose. Broad. Many possible sensors and actuators are included in case they're needed by a service.
Effectiveness High. They're very good at the small number of things they do. Low. They're OK at many things.
Interface complexity Low. A narrow vision means the interface is relatively straightforward. High. The general-purpose nature of the devices means that the burden of efficacy is on the interface design.
A group of them that is interoperating is called... An ensemble A service
A single member of the group is called... An instrument An avatar
Barriers to interoperability High. Unless they're designed to work together from the start Theoretically low: they're designed to be avatars of the same service. In practice: high. Cross-avatar UX is still at an infancy.
Distinguished from each other by Specific function Size
Strength of links between linked devices Low. Connecting appliances that aren't designed to be connected is difficult. High. In theory. Theoretically service avatars should easily communicate, but that's not often the case in practice.
Examples Digital pedometers, Internet connected bathroom scales, networked parking meters, cars, Nike+iPod, cameras. smart phones, netbooks, laptops, connected TVs

This is an outline of a project that I've had on the drawing board for years, and it looks like I'm not going to actually instantiate it, so I decided today (after being prompted by a foo camp mailing list thread) to say screw it and give the idea out to the world, for better or for worse.

The core of my idea is this: that where ethernet-over-power (also known as Powerline, or HomePlug) is useful is for communication with and control of household devices. I've ranted for a long time that there isn't a good appliance communication protocol, but what I've come to realize is that it's not that there isn't a good protocol, but that all the so-called standards that try to solve smart device communications try to reinvent every layer at once. That's shortsighted, because it ends up with mass incompatibilities at all levels, so there is no agreement between device manufacturers at any level, and all of the consortia are just mini-trusts trying to get vendor lock-in so that they can be the sole suppliers of the technology. It's big companies trying to get vertically-integrated vendor lock-in and failing.

Look, folks, we have all of the pieces and we don't have to create any new standards. Here's how I see it:

  1. Wifi is great for moderately high-speed general-purpose communication to easily-movable end-user devices (and I don't mean just "portable," since this includes things like printers and set-top boxes).
  2. Cat6 is good for very high-speed communications between devices that don't move.
  3. Bluetooth, zigbee, z-wave, and all of the other short-haul, low-power, low-bandwidth wireless standards are good for movable devices that need highly near-range communication.
  4. Ethernet-over-power is good for low-speed communication to static devices.
I'm intentionally conflating the fact that these standards cover different layers of the OSI standard because my point is that we can just run completely standard communication protocols like TCP/IP and UDB over each of these lower-level media and build on that, rather than creating completely new end-to-end standards. If one of the low-level protocols doesn't work for an application for some technical reason, then it should be changed, not the upper-level protocols. That's the whole point of the model.

Anyway, I digress. My point here is to discuss a specific application for Ethernet-over-power. I've been enamored with this technology for a while, but it's struggled in the market by trying to compete with Wifi and failing. The lack of a wire, even if it's a power cable, will always beat out the wire. This competition has lead e-o-p's developers to continue to pour money into making it faster, rather than making the technology cheaper. This has limited its use to a small niche of people for whom neither Wifi nor Cat6 Ethernet works. That's essentially like saying "We're going to make cars for people who like cars that are neither fast, nor capacious, nor cheap." Sure, you'll find some niche, but it's not going to be big.

I feel that the big niche in smart household device communication. Essentially, optional low-bandwidth communication between devices that are already going to be plugged in that helps them work together, but doesn't form the core of their functionality.

Let me give you an example:


  1. You subscribe your e-o-p-enabled DSL modem to an electricity price service. It gets spot prices every 15 minutes or so from one of the realtime electricity price services.
  2. It then broadcasts that information as TCP/IP broadcast packets over the local e-o-p network.
  3. Lights throughout the house/workplace are equipped with a digital dimmer that is listening to power price packets.
  4. When the price goes over some value (which could be set once a day through a slightly different kind of broadcast packet) the lights go into power-saving mode and dim.

The lamps do not have to be sophisticated Internet-capable devices. They only have to know about a couple of different kinds of packets and to ignore all the other packets, which could be anything from digital picture frames downloading RSS image from the Internet at large, to appliances listening for "what time is it" packets that synchronize all clocks.

The technology all exists. All of it. And I'm sure it's already possible to make it cheap enough that it adds $1 or so to the price of devices at the low end. These devices do not have to be sold in special configurations that only work if you buy a single company's (or consortium's) products, they can just be sold as what they are: lamps, microwaves, picture frames, clocks, etc. The functionality only needs to come into play if you want it, and it device works as advertised whether there are any other devices on the house network or not.

The core value is that this solution creates a market justification for developing inexpensive devices that have the capability of augmented functionality, without requiring that functionality to take center stage in terms of what the devices do. This, I believe, makes the adoption of these devices by consumers more likely, and therefore the further development of such technology, and therefore the network effects that everyone wants. Until people start using the open standards that are already available, they will forever be stuck on lonely, unprofitable islands of proprietary standards, even ones that are touted as open.

[12/31/08 update: I just learned that this is called demand response in the energy business. So I guess what I'm advocating for is technologies for the development of small-scale demand response systems using ethernet-over-power broadcasts of energy pricing information.]

I spoke last night at Berkeley's School of Information Future of Interaction Design lecture series, presenting the "Sketching Smart Things" talk I gave at BayCHI last month and at CHIFOO the month before. I'm evolving this talk, rather than doing every talk from scratch. There's about 80% overlap with the previous talks, though this time around I've added several slides to explain the origin of the Information Shadow idea by citing Tom Coates' and Ulla-Maaria Mutanen's work, and I've referenced Bag, Borrow or Steal when talking about how digital technology is shifting the nature of everyday objects into subscription services.

You can download the presentation with all the text as a 900K PDF.


(image by MGChan, found on Flickr)

That last reference shows my current interest in the way that digital networked technologies allow for objects to shift from "buy and store" model to a "rent and share" subscription model. Bag, Borrow or Steal, City Carshare and timeshared condos (thanks to Nicholas Nova for reminding me of this) are all occasional use/high price products that technology has changed the ownership model for. What's a high price niche functionality today becomes commodity functionality eventually. Netflix has done it for DVDs. In one of Bruce Sterling's original Viridian speeches from 1999, he brings it all the way don to the most commodified of tools, the hammer:

If all your possessions are network peripherals, then you have a possible LINUX model for objects in the real world. In this world, I don't buy a hammer. What I really want to own is the hammering functionality. I might as well share the hammer with my neighbor == he can't steal it, and if he breaks it, I'll know immediately. A modern hammer in this world comes built around a chip, with a set of strain gauges that determine if it is worn or broke or abused. Let's network that hammer.

Berkeley's famous Tool Lending Library did a low-tech version (the subscription price for it is the cost of owning a house in Berkeley), and Ford, DeWalt and ThingMagic are tantalizingly close with their Tool Link product:

The innovative Ford Work Solutions Tool Link from DeWalt uses RFID technology to track what's in your cargo box and what isn't. Checking Tool Link before heading out to a job site ensures all tools you need are on hand. At the end of the workday, Tool Link guarantees all the gear used at a job site is back onboard.

The Ford version is a kind of personal inventory control system, but once every tool has an embedded RFID tag in it, you can start doing all kinds of things, including the kind of subscription-based resource sharing that Sterling alluded to. Soon, though, more occasional-use products will become dotted outlines that get filled in as we need them.

[Update: Treehugger has an article that says that services like Bag Borrow or Steal are Product Service Systems by the EU. Their definition is "in essence they are a means, by which we get what we want, without needing to own the product that provides that service." I think that the term, and its PSS acronym, sounds too abstract and generic and that the idea would spread if it was called something more informative and evocative--I dunno, "library" for nonprofit ones and maybe something like "thingshare" (riffing off of "carshare" and "timeshare") for the for-profit general class.]

[Update: Phil points to Jeremy Rifkin's Age of Access as a book-length discussion of some of these ideas with the core thesis being "Property [in the age of networked information] continues to exist, but is far less likely to be exchanged in markets. Instead, suppliers hold onto property in the new economy and lease, rent, charge an admission fee, subscription, or membership dues for its short-term use." I haven't read it--it's on order now--but like much of Rifkin's work, it seems like there's an essence of truth to the idea even though the presentation is hyped.]

Here here's your latest computer fridge news: Whirlpool has partnered with a domestic groupware software company called Cozi. Right now, it's just a branding partnership with Cozi's calendar/to-do list/grocery list etc. software for families, but it's clear where this is going: WP is going to create an embedded version of Cozi's software for their centralpark fridge line and then create other ways to connect to the same service. First it's the fridge, then it'll be an iPhone widget, and if it's a hit, a "household activity dashboard" on Mom's desk at the office, like what Ambient devices has done with some data feeds. Or at least that's the hope.

Electronic household organization tools has been around a long time (I took a half-hearted stab at it a couple of years ago). Not counting pre-Cambrian kitchen computer technology, getting into kitchens was an early goal of the first wave of Internet appliances in the late 90s. 3COM's Audrey, one of the classic failures of this first wave, advertises that it "can be the family's nerve-center in no time, handling schedules, phone books, and notes." Cozi's pitch is similar: "Cozi helps busy families manage schedules, appointments, shopping and communications from wherever you are — the kitchen, car, office or even the grocery store."

Timing is critical in technology adoption so there's no reason why these technologies can't work now when they failed 8 years ago. Many people who in WP/Cozi's likely core audience of affluent 30-something new home buyers are probably thinking much more about their families now than they were 8 years ago, because they probably did have them then. However, the repeated failure of the idea is something to learn from and I hope that Cozi has been studying people's habits and the pattern of earlier similar technologies to see why they didn't work out. Is it purely because the value of the service versus the cost isn't great enough (i.e. dry erase boards are cheaper and more flexible, but don't allow you to check your kids' schedule from the road, but that's OK with most people) or is there something deeper? I'll be interested to see where this goes.

Last night I presented a version of the Sketching Smart Things talk I gave last month at CHIFOO to BayCHI. It was an honor to be invited to speak there because BayCHI is such an institution in the HCI world and because the talk was in the PARC auditorium, feet from where the core concepts of ubiquitous computing were first formulated. Thank you, BayCHI and Rashmi!

The presentation is available on Slideshare:

And as a 710K PDF where you can see a complete transcript of my talk in the notes.


(photo from Flickr, (cc) dailydog)

CHIFOO, the CHI forum of Oregon, invited me to speak at their January gathering, and it was an honor and a pleasure to accept their invitation. Their lecture theme this year is "From Ideation to Innovation," and I used the theme as an opportunity to describe our recent projects, including our work with the Henry Ford, and our products, and the theoretical framework that we're developing to think about ubiquitous computing user experience design and incorporating the principles of agile software development into design.

The full presentation is available as a 1M PDF.

Here's a highlight, the ThingM theoretical framework:


1. Information Processing is a Material
When a designer can include information processing in a product for very little cost, the calculation becomes not one of engineering complexity, that’s relatively cheap, but one of competitive advantage. What you do with that CPU becomes part of the design of the product and needs to be designed with the same attention to the other parts as any of the materials being used. And just like a material, it creates some new capabilities, and imposes new constraints.
2. Applianceness
Coined by Bill Sharpe of the Appliance Studio, states that applianceness is "the set of properties that guide the design process towards simple, helpful devices that exploit the potential of embedded information technology in everyday things." The core of the idea for me is that focus in functionality is more important than arbitrary flexibility. When computation is cheap, we no longer have to make general purpose computers. (Sharpe and his colleagues at an earlier incarnation of the Appliance Studio also did an excellent set of design principle cards (120K) that I still carry around)
3. Physical Objects Cast Information Shadows
In our modern world, everything exists simultaneously in the physical world and in the world of data. Nearly every object’s information shadow can be examined and manipulated without having to touch the physical object. Think of the Amazon and Google book APIs. Information shadows have lives of their own. Wine has a particularly rich one.
4. Devices are Service Avatars
Networks mean that the same information can be accessed and manipulated through a variety of devices. Most value rests in information, rather in the device that’s communicating it, which means that the devices become secondary. A number of familiar information appliances--cell phones, ATMs--are basically worthless without the networks they’re attached to. They are physical manifestations, avatars, projections into physical space of services, but are not services themselves. This means that when thinking about how to design user experiences for ubiquitous computing, the design of the service becomes as important as the design of the device. (I wrote more about this idea a couple of years ago)
5. Granularity Determines Key Aspects of Experience Design
Ubiquitous computing devices can come in all sorts of sizes and the user experience design for them must take this into account. This has been true since the earliest days at PARC when Weiser defined the tab, pad and board as names for the scales of the devices they were developing. I use a different set of terms, but the key idea is the same: what works at one granularity doesn't necessarily work at another.
6. Magic is a Powerful Interaction Metaphor
The concept of enchanted objects can help generate ideas about interaction and as a way to create user experiences that are easier to explain. People have a tendency to create animist explanations for the behavior of technologies that exhibit unpredictable behaviors. They treat their Roombas like pets, they get mad at their laptops, they think their iPod is obsessed with a band, etc. We can use these natural associations to design ubiquitous computing interactions. (I've written and talked about this idea more extensively before)

Doing some research for my upcoming CHIFOO presentation, I realized that there have been a number of attempts at merging computers and refrigerators. Here's a timeline:

1998: The V-sync "Internet Refrigerator"

"With a speedy Pentium II microprocessor and huge hard drive, it packs more computing power than most home PCs, and has separate compartments for fruit and vegetables."

1999: The Electrolux Screenfridge

"Electrolux earlier this year unveiled the Screenfridge, a connected refrigerator designed to allow users to order groceries over the Internet, but the product has yet to ship."

2000: Whirlpool/Cisco fridge

"While the Whirlpool refrigerator won't cook an omelet, it does have an integrated Web-browser to search for recipes that match the food items people have on hand. In case you have no idea how to make an omelet, you can prepare the meal by watching a celebrity chef on the Web pad."

2002: Whirlpool's Connected refrigerator

"Whirlpool's refrigerator transforms into a multimedia communications centre. The owner can surf the Internet, receive e-mails, listen to the radio, watch TV, videos and DVDs and even talk on the phone."

2003: LG's Digital Multimedia Side-By-Side Fridge Freezer with LCD Display

"It's the ultimate in kitchen technology with a built-in MP3 player for downloading and playing music from the internet, e-mail and video mail using a built-in camera and microphone. It even has full internet access so you can re-stock the refrigerator on-line or check on the latest news and weather - all without leaving the kitchen. And it's great for storing food too."

2006: Electrolux Screenfridge (again)

"The Screen Fridge is connected to broadband and TV via wireless connection. 15" touch screen and pop-up keyboard. As if Internet, email, phone, radio and MP3 player are not enough, Electrolux adds highly advanced calendar and video messaging system so the kitchen truly becomes the center hub in your house."

2007: Whirlpool centralpark

"Custom choices will include satellite radio, a Web tablet with interactive message board and family calendar, a digital picture frame, a DVD/CD player and more."

I like to watch how companies try the same idea over and over and how the ideas evolve. Initially, the computer fridges were just tablet PCs stuck into the door of a conventional refrigerator. Why were they there? Who was going to be using it? How were they going to be used? No clue. And sure you could do all the stuff they advertised (listen to music, make a phone call) because you could do anything you could do on a laptop. You could compose a Powerpoint or write software, too, but you wouldn't do that, or anything else, because there was no clear reason for it. The products quickly disappeared with the end of the first dotcom boom.

Then a resurgence happened. What was different? I think that companies, helped by the staff user researchers they hired in the interim, started to realize that it wasn't the computer that was important, but what people did with it. Not until the most recent Whirlpool offering does the idea of a computer fridge disappear entirely to be replaced by a series of functions that various modules can do. Each module is, of course, a computer, and every module can probably do the same functions as the other modules from a computational perspective. But that's not the point. The point is that the modules have different interfaces. They're different tools. Focused tools. Tools where the design uses a computer to help the user accomplish a task, just as they use waterproof plastic for the buttons and stainless steel for the shell.

[4/20/08 UPDATE: I noticed that in the proceedings to the 2008 Internet of Things conference there's a paper by Matthias Rothensee called "User Acceptance of the Intelligent Fridge: Empirical Results from a Simulation." His conclusions, from the abstract, are "It was found that generally a smart fridge is evaluated as moderately useful, easy to use and people would tend to buy it, if it was already available. Emotional responses differed between the assistance functions. Displaying information on durability of products, as well as giving feedback on nutrition health and economics are the most appreciated applications." That sounds like, not surprisingly based on the market response, faint praise at best, but I haven't read the paper yet.]

I started keeping track of interesting developments in furniture design recently. I'm primarily focused on the integration of furniture and technology (call it "smart furniture" ;-). Most of these have been collected from the gadget blogs over the last couple of months, so you may see familiar things if you follow those.

Massage Chairs

I had just noticed that massage chairs are domestic robots when Matsushita had to recall 68K of them. Now what this means is that there were at 68K massage chairs in the world. That's fewer than the number of Roombas or iPods, but that's a lot of chair-shaped domestic robots, and Panasonic is only one of dozens of brands producing the things.

EL Couch

Designer Danielle Sobik has made a prototype reactive electroluminescent couch. I think that her narrative that it's designed to bring couples apart by providing glowing color feedback that they're sitting too far apart is a bit simplistic (OK, so it works once, what's the daily utility) and, frankly, unnecessary: why not just have a couch that glows when people sit on it, and the glow changes depending on the orientation. I think it's also interesting that her goal seems to make the modernist design esthetic of the couch form she's using "more personal." This is a theme that seems to be reappearing recently, and it makes sense to me (but, then again, I'm no fan of Modernist minimalism).

Herman Miller includes charging into desktops

Induction based battery charging (most frequently seen in cordless electric toothbrushes these days) has been one of those technologies that has been possible for a long time, but practical maybe only recently (and maybe not now). Herman Miller's licensing of the technology, and including it into their portfolio of products makes it distinctly more possible. It also creates an interesting technology lock-in problem. This may be the first technology H-M has installed that's tuned to a specific set of devices that the company doesn't make. As those devices evolve, how will H-M update this technology? More importantly, how will they reassure office managers that the desks they're buying today--the very, very expensive Herman Miller desks--won't be "obsolete" 2 years from? This may be the thin edge of the smart furniture wedge, since the drastically different lifecycles of furniture and technology are what have prevented deep inclusion of tech into furniture.

Whirlpool Centralpark

A similar idea is Whirlpool's new fridge/accessory charger. They're being explicit about the pieces being swappable, so therefore trying to make it "futureproof." I'd be interested to see if that'll work, or if the whole assumption that things need to be recharged is going to disappear in a couple of years with new battery technology and induction charging. But that's of course not how Whirlpool's customers purchase: they have iPods today and when comparing Whirlpool's fridge against the Subzero, any slight advantage helps. It'll be interesting to see how well this sells. It's also interesting, because it provides electronics-level power input into the face of a refrigerator, which not only opens up all kinds of hacking possibilities, but also expansion possibilities. The classic "stick an LCD display into the front of your fridge" idea can't be far behind (though probably no one will buy it, as they didn't before).

Finally, a couple of design-oriented technology notes. Exploring the integration of technology into everyday life is the leitmotif of this blog, and the other side of installing technology into everyday objects is making technological objects that already exist better integrated. To that note, here are two fascinating recent examples:

Suck UK's fabric clock

An excellent melding of DIY, ironic anti-Modern design, historical reference (think 1960s tabletop radios) and technological camouflage, a simple idea for a 30-year-old technology and a great use of LEDs. Go Suck UK, go.

Samsung's blinged-out washer

Again, I'm no fan of cold Modernist minimalism. My reasons are many, but--among other things--it no longer make sense to treat the products of technology as if they were from a scientific lab, even when a lot of science goes into making them. That level of communication is no longer necessary, and we've grown used to tech. So much so, that casemodders, the hotrodders of our age, are the vanguard of technology personalization and expression. They show us that bling is a core part of our lives, or it should be. In our hearts, we all bling. Rimless architect glasses and Eames furniture are still bling, they just come from a different social background than gilt and Baroque curlicues. I think it's about time that appliance makers recognized and embraced the latter as a legitimate design style, which is why I'm so happy to see this washing machine. More bling!

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.

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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?

I returned from a week at the Milan Furniture Fair yesterday (I've put a large collection of unsorted pictures from the Fair on Flickr). It's my third year going to the Fair, and I always find it a fascinating experience. This year was special, because it marked the first time I was able to participate. Over the last four months I worked with Whirlpool's Global Consumer Design group and and Syneo to put together a book-length description of their in.home experimental design project.

Every two years for the last 4 years Whirlpool does a large-scale conceptualizing and prototyping exercise to examine and extend the limits of appliance design. The previous installment, in.kitchen was two years ago and focused on the kitchen. The one before that, Project F on laundry.

This time Whirlpool decided to try something different. Recognizing that the role of appliances is moving away from their traditional places in the kitchen and laundry room, they decided to explore a household of linked appliances. This involved two major shifts in traditional appliance design thinking: conceptualizing new devices for locations where they've never been and inventing ways that they could all interact as a system, rather than just as standalone devices. Whirlpool and Syneo created 11 new appliance concepts that they took all the way to physical prototype and installed at the Future Technology in the Kitchen exhibition at the Fair. To envision how these products would interact, they developed four use scenarios and had the prototype house "act" them out. The four scenarios represented (roughly) an active morning, a quiet morning, a busy evening and a quiet evening. Together we added specific details to each scenario to create an engaging narrative.

My contribution was as researcher, writer and editor of the book describing the project and contextualizing some of the reasons for why this kind of exploration is important. I can't include the book here here, but I extracted some pages from a draft and compressed them so they would be reasonably downloadable.

Here are:

[note: all of the images in these PDFs have been severely compressed to make for downloadable PDFs]

I think that the project turned out very well and I am really honored to have been able to contribute. Appliance design, as a concept, has the potential to be on the forefront of making domestic technology actually useful, rather than merely exercises in technology. Compare the concepts of "appliance integration" and "home automation": the first one describes the unification of devices that have specific functionality, with--presumably--a similarly narrow focus in terms of the purposes of integration; the latter is an abstract concept that implies that in "automation" in itself is somehow beneficial, without specifying what's being automated.

But I digress. It was a great project to work on and I'm very grateful to Whirlpool for initiating it and to Syneo for bringing me in.

Here are some pictures I took of the setup at the Furniture Fair:

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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]

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ThingM

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

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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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