Ambient displays and high heels

More ambient devices in the news. The one that caught my eye today is a “My Traffic” widget that shows, with a simple little clock-like device, how long your commute home is going to take. Unfortunately, I saw that in the print version of Technology Review, so I can’t link to it yet. But the idea is that you program in your route on their server and they talk to the traffic databases to figure out how long it should take. I don’t know how well it works, but it fits in nicely with their philosophy, which is to fold a lot of data into one simple message.

Ambient Devices lists several other product applications that illustrate their philosophy in action, things like weather prediction displays and stock market monitors. According to them, ambient information lives in a sweet spot between push and pull. You don’t go looking for it, and it doesn’t intrude. But you are gently made aware of when you should act.

Think about unobtrusive background information in your workplace that might nevertheless make you get up from your desk and do something. On a sunny afternoon the sky might suddenly go dark and remind you that your car windows are down. Or your stomach might hear “Happy Birthday” down the hall and think of free cake. My favorite example of ambient data comes from when I worked at NASA. My building contained almost exclusively male engineers, and had long echoing corridors with hard floors. Whenever a woman wearing any kind of high heeled shoe came by, the sound was unmistakable, and a dozen mechanical and aerospace engineers would lean out of their offices to take a look. I don’t think they even realized they had been trained by the sound, let alone how rude it looked. It was just a gentle click that correlated with desire, thereby generating heat and motion. Then it was back to the computer.