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Mark Weiser and Calm Technology —

Every once in a while I remind myself how cool Mark Weiser is, and then I go see what he’s up to and remember he’s dead.

He did a bunch of cool things, but the one that I keep going to again and again is the idea of “Calm Technology”. Such a simple idea, such a brilliant little nugget that warms my hands again and again while I think about my relation to the world. The paper/explanation of Calm Technology I like the most is here. Ignore the part about the MBONE going anywhere (the internet at large ended up going for peer-to-peer and using it for file transfer, and then later Skype and similar technologies totally paved over the filled-up hole). Instead consider what it’s saying in a more grand sense.

In opposition to the general world where we associate a blinking light with “this is something” and a switch as “make it do this or not do this”, the calm technology outlook instead provides a place, an environment where stuff is arranged, and all manner of ideas are presented in that arrangement. I was first turned onto this whole thing when I browsed over to the page for LavaPS, which is a lava lamp that sits on your desktop and relates multiple vectors of your machine’s performance and state via a graphical lava lamp.

There are people spending months out of their year many jumps ahead of this, and there are most certainly preceding and post-dating examples of this line of thinking, but somehow Weiser (and Brown)’s overview of this thinking always makes me think of stuff anew.

For example, Wired paused momentarily in its endless cascade of remixed Wikipedia articles and idiot opinion pieces to mention some possible new animation frameworks within the new version of OS X. As an example, it mentions the idea of smoke rising from the logo of DVD Burning software to indicate it’s burning, and then the idea that you blow on your microphone to dissipate the smoke. “Feh, Style over Substance” read the comments after that idea. But looking at it from a Calm Technology approach, you instead could have the smoke grow thinner and thinner as it goes (much like a burning-down candle or log) and change the color of the smoke to indicate errors, slowness, and so on. In other words, you have the smoke itself (style) become the substance of a range of messages you would otherwise have to open the logo to understand. Numbers work too, but you don’t have to process the numbers; there’s just smoke going on. A totally fantastic idea? Probably not, but it’s amazing the kind of riffing ideas you do get when you apply some of this calm technology approach to things.

Like all pretty OK ideas, calm technology has a funky start-up/company associated with its implementation, that bucked all odds and survived the dot-com crash. It’s called Ambient Devices and basically allows various devices to give you ambient/calm information while not giving up screen time. One of them is the “Ambient Orb”, a plastic ball that changes color based on whatever scale of stuff you want to be tracking. Turn red for lots of traffic on your ride home. Turn green for clear roads. And so on, and so on, many cool ideas coming to you as you think about expressing some aspect of your life in colored plastic balls. Too bad the story of this Orb with me has been the same for 5+ years; “Hmmm, Calm Technology… hey! Ambient Orb! Holy crap, it’s expensive.” And it is, $150 for one of these little bastards. I consulted for a while in the office where Ambient Devices is located in Cambridge, and I’ve held a bunch of these little Orbs in my hands. Cool! But not worth $150.

See? I went off again, just because of Mr. Weiser.

Probably because I’m the documentary-making guy, I think of the logical way to honor a person to be a documentary about them. But that’s not particularly necessary to find out a lot about Weiser, who did stuff with what he called “Ubiquitous Computing”, the idea of computers being embedded everywhere. Academic circles are good at knowing who did what when, but the whole “computers everywhere and where do you go with it” thing is Weiser’s in my book. If you do a Google search for “Calm Technology”, “Ubiquitous Computing” or “Mark Weiser”, you’ll find dozens of links mentioning him, his work, and what he was about. A worthwhile endeavor.

I miss you, dude, and I didn’t even meet you!

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One Comment

  1. James says:

    It’s interesting he mentions cellphones, as some people have described twitter as giving them an ambient intimacy of what their friends are doing.