The world around is made up of information that competes for our attention. How much is necessary? How much is not?

We cannot interact with our everyday life in the same way we interact with a desktop computer. Technology shouldn't require all of our attention, just some of it, and only when necessary. Take a teapot, for example. It tells us when it is ready, and is off or quiet the rest of the time. If technology works well, we can ignore it most of the time.

When we design products, we aim to choose the best position for user interface components, placing the most important ones in the most evident and accessible places within the screen. We also need to establish what help and alerts are needed, and how and when display them. To solve this, we can be inspired by the principles of calm technology.3

Calm technology describes a state of technological maturity where a user's primary task is not computing, but being human. The idea behind Calm Technology is to have smarter people, not things.

Calm technology augments and brings relevant information to a person without the person needing to constantly monitor or watch it. Rather than focusing on computing and data, calm computing places emphasis on people and tasks.


A large portion of our brain is devoted to peripheral processing. Calm technology makes use of our peripheral attention, allowing us to be aware of more things with less cognitive overhead. Calm Technology encalms and informs, allowing the user to remain serene and in control.

The next evolution in computing must focus not on smarter technology but on smarter people. A world in which machines take care of the unnecessary details.

Humans do well when they curate that information after it has been filtered by a computer. A world where computing is blended into the fabric of everyday life allows people to be more human instead of less, but this technology must be designed to be 'calm'. It must be polite and work with us, not against us. When a machine is programmed to act like a human, it fails. And vice versa, when we as humans deal with poorly designed interfaces, we are more machine-like than human.

Calm technology provides us the details we need to get our job done without getting in the way of our lives.


The terms "calm computing" and "calm technology" were coined in 1995 by PARC Researchers Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown in reaction to the increasing complexities that information technologies were creating. He felt that the promise of computing systems was that they might "simplify complexities, not introduce new ones".1

Weiser believed that this would lead to an era of "calm technology," in which technology, rather than panicking us, would help us focus on the things that were really important to us.2


"The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it."

 

-Marc Weiser (1952-1999) Xerox Parc, 1988

 

Like a tea kettle alerts its owner with a shrill whistle, we can design technology that lets us be aware of its state without having to constantly watch it.


Principles of Calm Technology


1. Require the least amount of cognitive overhead

A tea kettle can be set and forgotten, until it sings. It does not draw constant attention to itself until necessary. A tea kettle's whistle brings information from another room to one's attention.

2. Provide information without distraction

An inner office window provides an understanding of whether someone is busy or not without the need to interrupt them.

3. Compress information into other senses

Some products use buzzes instead of visual displays to present information or changes. These devices can convey the same amount of information without distracting the wearer or taking them out of their environment or task.

4. Respect social norms and culture

Google Glass is an example of a fear-inducing technology. Placement of the camera at eye-level, cost, design, and its connection to a siloed, limited social network are both contributors to this social result.


Examples of Calm Technology


Sleep Cycle

Sleep Cycle is a mobile application that monitors your sleep and allows you to track times of deep sleep and REM.

You can set an alarm in the app and Sleep Cycle will wake you up before the time at the best place in your sleep cycle with a soft noise or buzz. Because the haptic alert occurs under your pillow, you can configure it so that you can wake up without anyone else being affected by the alarm.


Live Wire (Dangling String)

Dangling String was an installation created by artist/engineer Natalie Jeremijenko to make visible the flow of network traffic through a medium. The art installation involves one's vision, sound and touch. The frequency of the Dangling String's rotation is connected to network traffic.

"Created by artist Natalie Jeremijenko, the "Dangling String" is an 8 foot piece of plastic spaghetti that hangs from a small electric motor mounted in the ceiling. The motor is electrically connected to a nearby Ethernet cable, so that each bit of information that goes past causes a tiny twitch of the motor. A very busy network causes a madly whirling string with a characteristic noise; a quiet network causes only a small twitch every few seconds. Placed in an unused corner of a hallway, the long string is visible and audible from many offices without being obtrusive."

Jeremijenko worked with Mark Weiser on Live Wire while at Xerox PARC in 1995.



"The dangling string increases our peripheral reach to the formerly inaccessible network traffic. While screen displays of traffic are common, their symbols require interpretation and attention, and do not peripheralize well. The string, in part because it is actually in the physical world, has a better impedance match with our brain's peripheral nerve centers."

-Weiser, Brown, The Coming Age of Calm Technology


Tea Kettle

A tea kettle can be set and forgotten, until it sings. It does not draw constant attention to itself until necessary. A tea kettle's whistle brings information from another room to one's attention.

If a technology works well, we can ignore it most of the time. A teapot tells us when it is ready, and is off or quiet the rest of the time.


Inner Office Window

An inner office window provides an understanding of whether someone is busy or not without the need to interrupt them.


Jawbone Up

Some products use buzzes instead of visual displays to present information or changes. These devices can convey the same amount of information without distracting the wearer or taking them out of their environment or task.

The Jawbone Up has a single button and a colored status light. The device can be set to buzz after a short nap or at the optimium sleep cycle for a good night of sleep. It counts movement in the background without requiring additional action from the wearer. The device synchs to the user's phone through the audio jack and gives a summary of the wearer's individual day in sleep and physical activity.


360 Degree Video Conferencing

Polycom's 360-Degree Videoconferencing Camera can see an entire conference room, allowing meeting attendees to see non-verbal communication and cues without having to be in the same place.


Status Light

A simple status light can convey important information without needing to speak a language. A lavatory light can easily notify the obserrver of its status in the periphery and does not require textual translation.


Olivetti Research Active Badge

The Active Badge system was an early wearable computer developed by Italian computer manufacturer Olivetti in 19901 for research and corporate use.

Active Badges badges were worn around the neck and operated only in specially-wired buildings, where each room and door has an infrared transceiver to communicate with the badge.2 The Active Badge used infrared signals to communicate a person's location: Olivetti developed a name badge that transmitted a unique id to IR receivers placed in rooms around a building. This allowed these "smart rooms" to track a person's location and log it in a central database.

Active Badge Today

David Greaves wore an Active Badge at Cambridge University to unlock the buildings where he worked and to give out his location.3

Although the Active Badge was useful, Greaves mentioned his colleagues "stopped wearing their badges in the office environment once they had a mobile phone".4

Sources

1. Rhodes, Bradley. A Brief History of Wearable Computing. http://www.media.mit.edu/wearables/lizzy/timeline.html#1990b

2-4. Greaves, David. Olivetti Research Active Badge. 2000. http://koo.corpus.cam.ac.uk/projects/badges/index.html


Have more examples? Get in touch!


References

1. Begole, Bo. Ubiquitous Computing for Business. FT Press, 2011. Pg. 12.

2. Want, Roy. A Ubiquitous Life. Bio of Mark Weiser. http://www-sul.stanford.edu/weiser/Bio.html Created 29 April 1999. Accessed Jul 2011.

3. Zampieri, Ornella. Customer Intimacy and Calm Technology. Wolters Kluwer | The Intelligent Solutions Blog. 07 Oct. 2011. Accessed 18 May, 2014. http://solutions.wolterskluwer.com/blog/2011/10/customer-intimacy-and-calm-technology/


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