smart things

November 10, 2010 — Leave a comment

Mike Kuniavsky, is a writer, designer, researcher and entrepreneur and co-founder of both ThingM, an electronic hardware design, development and manufacturing company, and Adaptive Path, and author of the book: Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design.”

In a post on Boing Boing, he reflects on  the   design of computational objects.

“Ubicomp has been a long time coming. Xerox PARC made good progress in the early 90s (see this 1991 video), and momentum to develop useful embedded computing devices was starting to build, but then the Web hit. Attention and investment shifted to the Web, which only required traditional computers with a screen, keyboard and mouse. Digital hardware came to mean lighter laptops and mobile phones. Ubicomp disappeared from the public eye for a decade.

However, it didn’t actually vanish. At the edges, outside of the mainstream consumer electronics and personal computer worlds, using small processors to create interesting behaviors became increasingly popular. Adding a cheap processor and some clever mechanics in a $15 plush toy let retailers sell Tickle Me Elmos for $35. Toy designers did not think of themselves as being in the computer business, because they (and other groups, such as car designers) used information processing tactically as a way to differentiate in a competitive market.

Mainstream ubicomp is coming back. The success of Internet services on mobile phones demonstrates that networked products can stretch beyond a laptop browser. The prices for CPUs have fallen below a threshold where incorporating them becomes a competitively viable business decision. Research labs have developed new technologies for embedding information processing in virtually anything. New businesses, such as FitBit, and Green Goose are based on the fact that processing is cheap, and you can include it in anything.

The idea of a single general-purpose “computation” device is fading into the same historical background as having a single steam engine to power a whole factory, or a single electric motor to power every appliance in a house. As it fades, designers and developers have to learn to design smart things that serve the interests, abilities, and needs of people. We must create a practice of ubiquitous computing user experience design.”

Dave Gray, who collaborates with Peter Morville on the Ubicomp Sketchbook, discusses the information shadow concept Kuniavsky introduced, and links it to Bruce Sterling‘s spime concept.

“The information shadow is the information that’s associated with an object such as its name, number, position in space and time, and so on. […] Information shadows allow designers to make objects simpler, to reduce the size of interfaces and reduce the display requirements of an object.”

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