Ambient Information Environments
Ambient Devices is offering a really intriguing new line of products, the goal of which is to "embed information representation in everyday objects". They make small objects which softly change color based on feeds of data they receive wirelessly. Feeds include information like the latest stock market prices or weather forecasts. Imagine one of their Orbs which will glow progressively more red as your portfolio declines, perhaps inducing you to sell.
There is an ever-widening interface between computation and the physical environment, and this company seems to be one of the few which is working intelligently on the question of how to adapt the incredible power of computation to the ways in which humans really think and perceive, while at the same time making technology more humane and enjoyable.
Ambient Devices identifies their approach as lying somewhere between the "push" and "pull" models of information access. Pushing information from its source to the end user can be annoying and obtrusive if the information isn't needed immediately. Pulling information requires thought and effort on the part of the user, which is sometimes too high a cost for information which is not always needed or relevant. What is needed is a "third way", which allows people to acquire information in the ways most natural to us.
Think of how well people can absorb information about their environments without even trying to. Have you ever anticipated a coming storm while working in an office cubicle by almost-subconsciously registering a subtle shift in the indoor ambient light caused by the darkening skies outside? Humans' perceptual systems are very finely-tuned to our natural and social environments. We have sophisticated peripheral sensory thresholds which allow us to concentrate when needed &emdash; e.g. the second hand on the wall clock is moving, but don't interrupt the brain with useless information &emdash; while at the same time snapping us to attention if something important or startling happens in the periphery. This fact about how we perceive the world is what suggests to me that the future of human information interaction will rely heavily on ambient information environments which are rich with data when focused on, but unobtrusive enough to truly be "lived in". When was the last time your news was calm and glanceable??
Speaking of glancing, Matt Webb explains his idea of glancing as an application of social software. The concept seems to be in a nascent state, but is intriguing nonetheless. He also points us at a fascinating tidbit about a new text messaging trend among Japanese kids -- sending an empty text message to someone as a way of communicating "hi, just checking in, send me a message if you'd like to". Think of it perhaps as a disconnected wink -- a form of communication which is nearly empty of information in the conventional sense, but rich (and perhaps rife) with meaning in a social context. Could a wink be one of the most densely packed and efficient mode of communication humans have yet found?
Tangentially related are a few of the more interesting new applications of social software: Upcoming.org is a simple-but-social event tracking database, and Tribes.net is attempting to harness the millenia-old human (not to mention primate) predilection for making their most important decisions while deeply rooted and informed by their immediate social context, or "tribe".
My Upcoming.org event listing