Amber Case is an entrepreneur and researcher who helps Fortune 500 companies design, build, and think through their roadmap for connected devices. She is the former co-founder and CEO of Geoloqi, a location-based software company acquired by Esri in 2012. She spoke about the future of the interface for SXSW 2012’s keynote address, and her TED talk, “We are all cyborgs now”, has been viewed over a million times. Named one of National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers, she’s been listed among Inc Magazine’s 30 under 30 and featured among Fast Company’s Most Influential Women in Technology. She is the author of An Illustrated Dictionary of Cyborg Anthropology and Designing Calm Technology from O’Reilly Books (Fall 2015). She is a passionate advocate of privacy and the future of data ownership. Amber lives and works in Portland, Oregon; you can follow her on Twitter @caseorganic and learn more at caseorganic.com.
There is no less technology involved in a comfortable pair of shoes, in a fine writing pen, or in delivering the New York Times on a Sunday morning, than in a home PC. Why is one often enraging, the others frequently encalming? We believe the difference is in how they engage our attention.
– The Computer for the 21st Century: The Coming Age of Calm Technology(1996), Mark Weiser with John Seely Brown for Xerox PARC, 1996.
With the advent of self-driving cars from Tesla, smart watches from Apple, and connected appliances like Google’s Nest, we are fast approaching an era where everyday objects are becoming integral to how we understand the world and manage our lives online — a trend often described under the broad term, “the Internet of Things” (or IoT). And while there’s much about IoT to be excited about, there’s just as many dangers we need to plan for now.
As people become more and more overwhelmed by technology, they’ll find it negatively impacts their life, getting in the way of doing great things. This is a losing proposition for the companies that employ them. As Xerox PARC researcher Mark Weiser pointed out in 1993, “we can’t design the world the same way we would for a desktop”. Twenty-two years later, we’re still focused on building technology that’s complex and code heavy, with heavy applications struggling to work on connected smartphones, despite minimal battery life and consumer attention.
Beyond the devices themselves, we face an omnipresence of data — not just from devices, but from connected cities. And our attention is overdrawn from the devices we already have. The social network of people is 6-8 billion; with the Internet of Things, we’re facing a social network of devices of 50-60 billion nodes. And when so many devices exist in the world, the most scarce resource will be our attention.
This is why the insights of Weiser and Brown around calm technology, nearly two decades old, are important for us to revive and renew for our era. Calm technology aims at reducing complexity for Internet-connected devices, and compressing information into the periphery. And having dedicated the last few years of my career on the technology of place, I believe tech’s next great challenge is designing a future for calm technology.
We are already seeing some early, notable iterations of calm technology on the market, perhaps the most well-known being the Roomba vacuum. With its tone-based communication system (chirping happily when a room is cleaned, emitting a somber tone when it’s hampered by an obstacle), Roomba is easy to understand and use. (Owners frequently mention how their Roomba makes them feel relaxed just by its presence.) And while there are countless weather apps for the smartphone, the Dark Sky app has a unique, calm tech approach to telling users about the conditions outside: The app uses your location to determine upcoming weather patterns around you; when a weather change is detected, you get a push notification about the weather change and how long it will last. The app only notifies you when it has something contextually significant to tell you, and otherwise runs in the background.
Calm technology is about designing devices and interfaces that respect the lives of people, instead of getting in the way and introducing more abstractions. Calm technology is about the future of attention; a new vision to make the Internet of Things work for us, not against us. From an engineering perspective, it will require a return to lower level device languages, and LEGO-type projects that reward interoperability (instead of the walled gardens we have now). If we’re successful at that, expect a massive sea change, because successful technology for the IoT era will become really simple, with minimal interfaces.
And as designing for calm becomes the standard, it’s my hope that we’ll also see more apps that use feedback loops to help people regain their mindfulness and sense of focus. (Expect “perspective as a service” in the coming decades.) I’m excited to see calm design principles already emerging as a Silicon Valley trend, and am confident they’ll become even more pronounced in coming years Then the future of the Internet of Things will be calm — elegant, humane, unobtrusive.