Weather vanes seem so last century. Today's newest weather devices can get their information wirelessly from the Internet.
Consider the illuminated "Beacon," a glowing box that changes color based on conditions forecast for your city. Or its youngest sibling, a "Wireless Weather Forecaster" the size of an alarm clock that displays cartoonish clouds, suns or raindrops to convey your five-day forecast. This $80 electronic forecaster is due to arrive in stores next week.
Both receive free updates constantly via a nationwide pager network, with no subscription necessary. They are creations of Ambient Devices Inc., a start-up based here that is attempting to sell "glanceable" Internet devices to convey information quickly. Think high-tech cousins of the traditional clock, gas gauge or toaster that dings to signify your toast is ready. Such objects offer the sort of visual and auditory cues that help us process information faster than modern computers, which require us to grab a mouse, click around and read text.
"Cognitive psychologists call this pre-attentive processing," said Ambient Devices President David Rose, "because it uses a part of your brain that happens before your conscious mind attends. Think of it as pure peripheral vision; you receive the information without perceiving it as being taxing."
So far, three-year-old Ambient Devices has sold fewer than 60,000 devices, none of which strikes me as the kind I would be tempted to buy myself. Yet the company fascinates me because it is working on the frontier of making computers more intuitive, simpler and less demanding on our lives.
I recently dropped by the research laboratory where the company's philosophy was born, the "Things That Think" group run by professor Hiroshi Ishii at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. One of his students, Benjamin Resner, co-founded Ambient Devices and serves as its vice president of technology. Among its investors is MIT Media Lab founder Nicolas Negroponte.
Ishii has for nine years been the brains behind what MIT calls its tangible media research group, exploring approaches to manipulating digital data that require more hands-on, up-close and personal activity than the standard computer keyboard and mouse. His lab looks more like a magician's playroom than a scientist's workplace. Colorful pinwheels spin overhead, strung together like Christmas lights. They are linked to a computer, so the speed of the spinning wheels can become a signal of what traffic is like on the roads outside, or how a company's internal data traffic is flowing. Sluggish movement, for instance, might suggest that too many file transfers are clogging an Internet pipeline.
Ishii wanders over to a small table, picks up a glass container shaped like a perfume bottle and yanks its stopper. Symphonic sounds fill the room. "Many elderly people cannot remember how many medicines they have taken," he said. "These bottles could talk to you."
The snazziest items in the room are bright, colorful robotic building blocks that Ishii's researchers call "Topobos," a prototype for a kind of toy. Topobos are simpler and easier-to-use versions of Lego's MindStorms programmable robots, with more advanced capabilities than the "Record & Play" toys Lego released last year. Topobos require no computer programming and have built-in memory allowing them to retain and replay physical movements. You snap together plastic pieces to create animal-like creatures or mechanical devices, then push a "record" button and move them around. It memorizes the movements and replays them later.
Among Ishii's most intriguing research is the idea of digitally transmitting physical presence. When you move or squeeze something, it's recorded as a digital code and sent via computers to another location, where it is decoded and directs an identical object to move the same way. Another person holding or touching a replica of that same object feels it and senses your presence. At least, that's the idea. I tested the notion with wooden rolling pins connected via a cable; the result was a startling sense of physical connection with Ishii. We felt each other pushing the pin back and forth. Already, he said, cell phone manufacturers are experimenting with embedding his technology into phone handsets. He envisions the technology also helping to make videoconferencing more realistic.
Ishii said much of his work is rooted in an early childhood experience with an abacus that his mother gave him to keep him occupied and connected to her while she did bookkeeping nearby.
"The abacus represents information in such a physical way," he said, holding one up. "You can directly touch, manipulate and even feel the information. You don't need a manual."
The company he helped inspire, Ambient Devices, has only nine full-time employees and contracts out most of its work, with manufacturing done in China and Taiwan. While it expects to sell 60,000 devices by the end of this year, Rose predicted it will sell five times that many in 2005.
On the drawing boards are new, fanciful ways to turn household objects into data receivers, said Rose. This week, the company planned to show off a health mirror prototype at a high-tech health conference. It has a built-in digital display with icons that flash to tell someone standing in front of the mirror about the status of their health.
Next month, the firm is planning to release a $150 desktop display called the "Dashboard," which relies on interchangeable digital cards to determine what the device does. Available cards will include reports on weather, local traffic, skiing conditions, air quality, stock portfolios, or even a company's sales.
"It's very retro," said Rose. "It works like the first computers with punch cards. Each face card has little punch holes on the bottom that tell the device which card is inside."
Even if all these inventions flop miserably -- I mean, did anybody really buy one of those "SPOT" data wristwatches that Microsoft released in January? -- I remain a big believer that computing will become more intuitive once it hops off the desktop and gets embedded smartly in our surroundings.
Leslie Walker's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.