Thank you, socks. Thank you, desk. Thank you, clock.
With inspiration from Marie Kondo, I set about decluttering my house this weekend. After watching a few episodes of her television show, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, my life has indeed been changed. And at the behest of the world’s foremost consultant of cleanliness, I thanked my belongings before setting them aside for disposal or donation. Fortunately, none of my possessions spoke back in response. But how much harder would this process have been if they could?
What is now seen as a silly request from a TV host may not be far off from commonplace behavior in the near future. Not just thanking our items when we no longer need them, but every day when refrigerators re-stock the pantry or bathroom mirrors remind us to book a haircut before our upcoming trip. In a previous blog post I asked, What’s A Computer? In the age of ambient technology, the answer is everything and nothing at all. Ambient technology is the ubiquitous presence of electronic environments that are sensitive and responsive to the presence of people. If Kondo’s approach to tidying up is magic, then the joy sparked by ambient tech-influenced interior design will be pure sorcery.
The phrase is having a moment in the sun, but the premise and technology has already been a mainstream staple and literally child’s play since at least 2013. Microsoft’s Xbox One Kinect gaming bundle brought voice and gesture technology into millions of homes before the popularization of the term ambient technology reached the levels it has today. Users could change channels via voice command and swipe through interface options using a wave of the hand.
Ambient technology presents opportunities for retailers to bridge the gap between their online & physical retail stores, long an issue for the industry’s omnichannel practitioners. Using beacon technology that communicates with customers’ phones, retailers can now track the interaction of users with the brand from online browsing to in-store shopping and vice-versa.
I keep my fridge stocked with as much fresh produce as possible. The drawback is that I often forget what I already have or how long I’ve had particular items. Then a mad dash begins to find a recipe that uses up the last of week-old cucumber or month-old acorn squash. The latest ambient technology for kitchens tracks such items, offering reminders of what needs to be bought and what has already been bought that needs to be consumed.
Companies looking to enter the realm of ambient technology have immense opportunity before them. Our increasingly hectic schedules would benefit from more computing devices that offload our decision making and outsource our heuristics. However, much room remains for missteps as this industry finds its footing.
Ever-present smartphones are so deeply embedded in our daily habits and activities that they already seem a bit ambient. But most of these devices still require active effort and thought to use. Our ubiquitous smartphones face the greatest threat of disruption from ambient technology. Smart watches and wireless headphones have already begun replacing the core uses of phones. Connected vehicles and eyewear will further that trend. Phone makers produce many of the devices that threaten to cannibalize their core product, so their suite of offerings offers some agility for the changing market. However, the businesses that rely on smart phone use as we now know it, face existential crisis. Businesses reliant on app stores of mobile devices must begin to devise resilient operating strategies for the next phase in computing interaction. The recommendations below serve as a guide to business leaders through the most pressing issues of ambient technology.
High Tech, Meet High Design
We moved along the immense tech learning curve of iPhones because the design was beautiful and intuitive. The proliferation of IoT products and ambient tech devices for home use call for a similar approach regarding design. As ambient technology pioneer Mark Weiser said, “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” The future of work so often falls into jobs in computer coding or engineering. But putting all of that technical prowess to work for largely non-tech savvy customer bases requires talented designers that deeply understand the way people think and behave. We’ll need visual designers to help our technology disappear from sight and voice interface designers to remove the need for physical interaction with devices.
Leave the parlor tricks to the magicians
Ambient technology presents a myriad of opportunity for visually stunning devices and decor options. While good design is at the core of usability for these devices, it must extend beyond just something nice to look at. But with so many options, its easy for such inventions to veer into the realm of parlor tricks. Instead, focus on ambient interaction that has profound impact on our psyche and well-being. People prioritize usability for appliances in places of residence. Simply put, they just want things to work. Superfluous visuals with embedded ambient tech will be reserved for museums and retail experiences. Any ambient technology with aims of primary use in homes should design for function just as much as form. And not just function, but actual usefulness. We need devices that spark joy even after the sheen of newness wears off.
Mind your ethics
With increasing intelligence of the things we bring into our houses, so increases our expectations of them. Our view shifts from simply bringing things into the house to inviting over houseguests. And with the ability to carry out tasks, respond to conversation, and recognize my movements around the house, our connected devices are far more akin to actual houseguests than to furniture or appliances. Any good houseguest is expected to have a baseline level of manners and ethics. For people to grow more comfortable with always-on, ambient technology in our homes, that tech must abide by strict privacy rules. Monitoring the way people use the space in their houses or how often and when certain furniture is used would create a treasure trove of useful data for manufacturers, architects, and interior designers. But given the intimacy of such settings, the approach to privacy and data governance must be of the utmost importance. Keep the creep factor low!
Only the most privileged of 1 percenters can afford things like a butler service. The enablement of ambient technology in the home can provide far more of us with the comforts of in-house staff available around the clock. But how will the ubiquity of engagement with digital butlers impact the way we communicate? As more and more items around us are given a voice and some level of artificial intelligence or personality, how will children grow to learn respectful conversational engagement? The question extends to adults too. We are often more child-like than we’d like to believe.