An open platform for ambient information objects.

  • Animatronic Agent: synthetic-speech tweet reader

  • Archaic Indicators: network information via vintage voltmeters

  • Open Orb: color status lamp

The history of ambient computing

Since the dawn of the personal computer, people have loved and hated the PC. In its attempts to emulate everything with just a few simple modes of input (keyboard, screen, sometimes mouse) it inevitably fails to do many things well.

And, since every mode of communication on a PC is a schematic emulation of a more natural, ancient method of doing or saying something, one of the primary experiences when using a PC is that of being pulled out of whatever state of mind you were in before engaging with the device.

More importantly, you are inevitably pulled into a state of concentration, necessary to parse the analogs and workarounds and abstractions and approximations that comprise the language of communication in the PC domain.

As soon as the PC began to dominate the first-world experience, people struggled with its modal weaknesses and proposed alternatives. These strategies and observations have been known by many names over the decades (subtle, ubiquitous, calm, quiet, pervasive, ambient, distributed, sentient computing) and I believe with luck may find traction in the trend we call today the Internet of Things.

Some of my favorite milestones in the evolution of ambient computing:

  • Sometime around 1988, Mark Weiser of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center coined the term ubiquitous computing.
  • In 1995, John Seely Brown and Mark Weiser wrote a seminal article called Designing Calm Technology.
  • Andy Hopper’s 1999 paper Sentient Computing described the intersection of home automation, ambient computing and pervasive surveillance that is hinted at today (2014).
  • In 2002, Ambient Orb hits the market, from Media Lab spinoff Ambient Devices. It’s one of the first attempts to productize quiet computing.
  • By 2005, Ambient Devices’ walled garden business model has hit the wall.
  • Published in 2006, Everyware by Adam Greenfield was an inspiring survey of the potential applicability of these concepts to products and our everyday lives. Not only was it a profound influence on me personally, but it predicted some of the applications we see emerging today as the Internet of Things.

The subtle computing concept

The core concept has always been that, rather than attempt to create a single machine which concentrates everything into a conglomerate interface, surround ourselves instead with small, simple, quiet things, carefully designed to integrate seamlessly into organic life.

Brian Eno said:

“The trouble begins with a design philosophy that equates ‘more options’ with ‘greater freedom’. Designers struggle endlessly with a problem that is almost nonexistent for users… With tools, we crave intimacy.”

A child learns to use a hammer with a little experimentation, and never, for the rest of its life, asks why it doesn’t saw wood very well. Do one thing, and do it well: that is the promise of subtle computing.

Today, the Moore’s Law for hardware continues to drive computing power into the fabric of our lives and erodes the cost barrier to surrounding ourselves with custom experiences tailored exactly to our needs. The days of changing our lives to suit the extreme limitations of a hugely expensive object which dominates our personal environment are numbered.

I’ve been yearning for such a day for decades; and have been experimenting with alternatives since 2002.

Attempt #1: Creative Peripherals

Way back at the beginning of the century, as Ambient Devices and others started to try and productize subtle or ubiquitous computing, the PC age was in full force.

Apple shook up the world by dropping the serial and parallel connectors from their computers and accelerated the promise of the “Universal” in USB.

But people never really got it. Businesses were not doing anything interesting with the one ubiquitous medium we had going, and the technology was far too complicated for the average tinkerer.

And Ambient Devices had entered this fascinating new world of possibility with proprietary, locked-down, short-view, nearly-useless executive toys. They really blew it, as far as I was concerned.

They could have provided the foundation of a global standard for IoT decades early, if they had not been greedy and short-sighted. So I began to try and create an open platform for experimental ambient computing, using USB.

I dreamed of learning the minimum I needed to know, just when I needed to know it, while I was relaxing at home, through subtle signals which did not disrupt my flow. Instead of “you’ve got mail,” and stopping what I’m doing, and signing in, and scanning the awful text-scape of my PC to deduce the few things that really matter from all the noise and distraction.

I made some cool prototypes. An open color indicator orb; a counter made from a vintage voltmeter; a twitter display; even an animatronic desk assistant who can read your tweets to you.

I knew that the magic would be the openness of such a system. I planned to open-source the firmware and the hardware designs, and I tried to make Firefox, the coolest, most open browser in the world, the open platform for ambient indicators. I imagined the global community making extensions to create ever more interesting features for connected gizmos. I made some fun experimental extensions that drove my prototypes.

But I didn’t know how to engage and energize a community back then. And the scope of the work was far greater than I could ever achieve without an immense amount of help. So the idea never really went very far.

Original site archived here.

Attempt #2: Aiosphere

And more importantly, while I was tinkering the world changed: always-on desktops fell away, and laptops became the standard. And when you close the lid of your laptop the USB port powers down, so USB cannot be the basis of ambient information anymore.

I realized that the future was going to be radio. I began to plan a system built around the eventuality that I felt was inevitable. I imagined small things throughout your environment, that I called Ambient Information Objects, or aios.

I felt that each home would be a small network of such objects, all of which served the people who lived there. I called this zone the aiosphere, and thought it would be a useful primary organization.

I assumed that a more powerful gateway object would link all your ambient objects to the global network.

A decided that this gateway object would most likely rely on a relationship with a server object, which would present to the user an interface for organizing and customizing their aiosphere. The server object would manage relationships between one’s aios and data services, and other aios elsewhere in the world. I called this overlay on the internet the aioverse.

For many years I kept a blog about this topic at aiosphere.com.

Attempt #3: Ambient i/o

Today, I am interested in the potential of Bluetooth Smart (aka BLE). I’ve observed that countless efforts to get real small-object networking ubiquitous have fallen victim to the greed of companies and consortiums trying to lock down their proprietary standards, killing the chances of their platforms becoming the true ubiquitous solution we need in order to build the open system I still dream of.

So, why am I now interested in BLE, even though it’s not even a networking standard? Because they were smart in many critical ways; they made it:

  • low power (devices can last months or even year on a coin cell)
  • low-bandwidth (devices can be very simple)
  • protocol-independent (you can do most anything within b/w limits)
  • low cost (it will someday be the cheapest radio you can get)
  • license-free (anyone can use it without registration, certification, joining a consortium, etc.)
  • most importantly, they made it an extension of Bluetooth, so it was virtually guaranteed to end up in every mobile device in the world.

So what’s the upshot? Now we have a shot at being able to explore the possibilities of new ways to communicate, without even needing to build a gateway: every mobile device can now run background apps; and everyone who would be interested in ambient computing has such a mobile device; and you don’t really care what an ambient device has to say if you’re not there; and when you’re there, you most likely have your mobile device with you.

I think BLE will offer a platform for novel and interesting new forms of communication and new zones of context. In the aiosphere phase I saw two zones of ubiquitous computing relevance to a person, a home zone and a world zone. BLE promises to extend this to at least five unique contexts, each of which offers unique and fascinating opportunities for exploration:

  • on the body (now)
  • in the car (now)
  • in the home (now)
  • in retail environments (soon)
  • in public spaces (maybe someday)

So that’s where I’m playing these days. Stay tuned: I will most likely create a blog for this work too!