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Ambient Visualisation
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 135]

Ambient Information Visualisation means perceiving information coming from objects located in our environment that change their properties, colour, smell, tactile pressure, according to the state of the information they monitor. A potentially important field is opening up for them.
Orbe Ambiental (foto pequeña)
Ambient Devices Ambient Orb. The device changes its colour continuously according to the state of the information it tracks in real time.
Source: BrookStone

Much of the information that we use every day goes unnoticed, on an almost subconscious level. Nevertheless it's there, informing us unobtrusively, without interrupting what we are doing or requiring our conscious attention.

This information comes from our environment, from the ambience around us, and we use all of our senses to acquire it. It reaches us through the light coming through the windows, the pressure waves that shake the air enveloping us, the smells that the objects surrounding us give off, the multiple chemical and physical interactions that we deal with every day with our environment.

We know that it's a nice or an awful day, that it's sunny or rainy without the need to stop and think about it. We can relax listening to the music in the background without it interfering with other activities. It's information that "is simply there, floating".

Dr. Hiroshi Ishii, head of the MIT Media Lab Tangible Media Group el MIT MediaLab  centred on the research of tangible user interfaces, has been studying this type of interaction that uses ambient media as its main foundation.

The concept underlying ambient interaction is to use our physical (tangible) environment as a vehicle for digital interaction. According to the company Ambient Devices (a spin-off of MIT Media Lab) there are three basic types of interaction:

  • Pull: The user communicates voluntarily with a device in order to extract detailed information from it. For example it's the typical case of the computer we consult to find out what the weather will be like tomorrow, if there's snow on the ski slopes or the behaviour of a particular stock exchange title.


  • Push:  Service providers present information directly to the user, based on his/her preferences. This generates an unexpected interruption in the user's activity. This is the case of the news messages that we receive through the mobile phone.


  • Ambient. The user configures the information that an ambient device continuously gathers and displays it in real time. The information "floats" in the ambient without interrupting or requiring our express will in order to trigger the search and display of the same.

An example of this last type of interaction is Ambient Devices' "Ambient Orb". This is a device in the form of a frozen glass ball that changes colour (it can display thousands of them) according to the state of the information that we have previously defined as worth tracking. This can be the weather forecast in a certain place, the value of certain bonds or just if there are a lot of e-mails waiting for you.

Gama de Colores del Orbe
Ambient Orb: Some of the colours the the device emits, according to its state.
Source: Ambient Devices web site.

Glancing at the Orb or just having a quick look at it out of the corner of our eye is enough to know the basic information that we are interested in monitoring, getting it in an unobtrusive and immediate way without interfering with our activity. The information is there, always changing.

The Orb only needs to be plugged into the electric network. The information is received through the existing wireless network (in 90% of the USA) in a similar way as the mobile telephony works. For this reason no computer or Internet connection is needed.

In order to configure it to track particular information of your interest you just call over the phone to Ambient Devices and explain what information you want to link to the colours. Alternatively you can fill in the form provided in their website obtaining the same result. Information about the Dow Jones index comes by default with the device. Other basic channels like weather or pollen forecast and some more, including if your wife or boss is available at Instant Messenger, also come for free. More specific information requires paying a monthly fee.

It can seem that this invention is a little limited regarding its possibilities. Maybe the people that suffer from pollen allergy think differently. Only time will tell. Ambient Devices is already working on other, more sophisticated devices.

In any case this is a firm step towards the experimentation of a new way of interaction with information that doesn't require our permanent attention, doesn't interrupt our activity, asks very little from us and summarises a lot of information in a very simple visualisation (see the page about Phidgets http://www.cpsc.ucalgary.ca/grouplab/phidgets/gallery/index.html )

I have the feeling that we'll see more devices of this paradigm in the future and our environment will become increasingly informative. (see the page about Phidgets or Physical Widgets, prototypes of physical devices that facilitate ambient interaction).

Links of this issue:

http://www.brookstone.com/shop/product.asp?product_code=373159   The Ambient Orb at Brookstone
http://www.media.mit.edu/research/ResearchPubWeb.pl?ID=39   MIT's Tangible Media Group
http://www.ambientdevices.com/cat/orb/orborder.html   Ambient Devices "Ambient Orb"
http://www.ambientdevices.com/cat/orb/FiveAmbientOrbs.jpg   Image with five different Ambients
https://myambient.com/java/my_devices/login.jsp   Ambient Devices configuration website.
http://www.ambientdevices.com/cat/applications.html   Other ambient devices
http://www.cpsc.ucalgary.ca/grouplab/phidgets/gallery/index.html   Website about Phidgets (Physical Widgets)
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