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Keep the Noise Down: Calm tech in the age of distraction

Posted by on 06/02/2017

In last week’s UpVote podcast by Wired, there was a very telling story from Raj Samani, Chief Scientist at McAfee/Intel. He was asked about the WannaCry ransomware cyberattack: “I started to get emails in my inbox and my phone started to blow up […] I haven’t really slept since that day. I was on about 400 messages an hour […] I was with my daughter, who’ s 11 years old, and she put her phone next to mine—mine was like a Christmas tree—and she said “Daddy I can’t wait ‘till the day I get 400 messages an hour.” I couldn’t stop laughing, and a said: “I wish I was getting zero like you”. This is becoming the norm now.”

Blow up. Christmas tree. 400 messages an hour. A non-stop audiovisual assault. And an 11 year-old who aspires to being in the midst of it someday.

The language we use when describing what our devices do is exaggerated. But the feeling we get isn’t. Our senses are constantly bombarded, often by unnecessary or repeated messages, leading to distraction and panic.

We need calm technology.


A phone “blowing up”

Calm Technology

Calm technology was first coined by Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown in 1995 (before, even, the most needy attention-grabbing apps and devices were invented). They were reacting to the increasing complexities that IT was creating, and Weiser believed there was potential for tech to “simplify complexities, not introduce new ones.”

This would lead to an era of “calm technology”, which would help people focus on the things that were really important to us.

More recently, cyborg anthropologist (amazing job title) Amber Case has continued the study and advocacy of calm technology. Her work can be found here, but read on for a summary.

Unexpected changes

July 2016—around one month after the Brexit bombshell. A lot of people needed a vacation; those who voted Brexit fancied a trip abroad to celebrate, those who voted against wanted to make the most of queueless arrivals terminals while they still could.

Would they need to bother calling Aunt June to pop over and feed the dog? Absolutely not. PetNet’s automatic feeding system could be scheduled to release portions of doggy chow as little or often as required.

So off people went. And mid-vacation, just as they were enjoying some fish and chips on the Costa del Sol, an email from PetNet popped up to inform that a server outage had taken down the system for a number of users. The automatic food dispenser would not work, Truffles would not be getting his din-dins.

Case calls this a clear example of tech needing too much of our attention. If the solution (PetNet) to a problem (peace of mind that pet is being fed) creates more anxiety (pet = dead?) because of something in its design (doesn’t work without internet or fully-functioning servers), the design should be altered.

On this, Case said:

“Tech should empower the periphery […] the world is not a desktop.”

With that in mind, it’s worth exploring some good examples of tech empowering the periphery.


PetNet: A good excuse for a cute hungry dog pic

Physical cues

Are you slouching as you read this? Chances are, you are (I’m slouching as I’m writing).

LUMOback Smart Posture Sensor is a wireless posture sensor with mobile app that is worn on the lower back. It’s designed to be slim and comfortable. The app shows you an avatar—Lumo—that mirrors your posture. If you’re slouching Lumo slouches, turns red, and looks pretty miserable. If your back is straight, Lumo’s happy.

The thing is, you don’t need the mobile app at all. It’s very useful if you want to track your data, but if not the sensor will work independently of it. It does so by sending a gentle vibration as a reminder to sit up straight. These small, smart reminders don’t need your undivided attention. It works on the periphery, and gives you the minimum amount of distraction possible.


Lumo: Like having your Mom correct your posture

Visual cues

Some people stick their heads out the window. Some turn on the TV to a news channel and wait patiently. Others feel it in their bones.

Despite all our technological advances, we’re yet to achieve one important thing—knowing what the weather’s doing on a daily basis.

Have you ever had a conversation that’s gone like this?:

Partner A: What’s the weather like today?

Partner B: How should I know?

Partner A: Haven’t you checked?

Partner B: I’ve just woken up. I know as much as you.

Partner A: Alright, alright. No need to shout. Just a question.

Partner B: Well it’s a silly question.

Partner A: You’re always so condescending in—

—OK, let’s give this imaginary couple some privacy. But the point is, we’ve never been very efficient when it comes to expending the least amount of mental energy on this simple question.

As more and more smart speaker devices are installed in homes, people are taking advantage by asking for weather information. Essentially, though, getting this information is still a three-step process:

  1. Activate speaker.
  2. Ask question.
  3. Get answer.

How about a zero-step process?

Hue lightbulbs can change colors depending on the data sent to it. Connecting it to a weather app allows it to change color depending on the weather. Placed strategically, not only can this setup tell you what the weather’s doing, but it also provides a non-intrusive visual prompt. Purple? It’s raining—grab an umbrella. Blue? It’s freezing—get your warm winter jacket.


Hue lightbulbs: Sexy mood lighting, whatever the weather

If you think about it, we already use this kind of “ambient awareness”. Take driving, for example. When traffic needs to stop in order to let another line of traffic pass, you get a subtle visual prompt in your periphery—the traffic light.

It’s been working pretty well for years, unless of course people consciously choose to ignore it, or their senses are dulled to the point that it doesn’t register i.e. driving under the influence. There’s no need for the inside of the car to start flashing red, the stereo to switch off suddenly and scream: “WARNING, WARNING! CODE RED!”

We’ve even tried adapting this for a smartphone age. In Holland, LED lights were installed at pedestrian crossings in order to deliver a more subliminal message to people engrossed in their phones.

Audio cues

Machines that talk are great. And advances in AI have made machines more useful. But they don’t always need to talk. Here’s Amber Case again:

“Machines shouldn’t act like humans, and humans shouldn’t act like machines.”

The idea is currently a popular one. Champions of AI are advocating that the technology will pick up the heavy “processing” work, giving humans time and space to think—essentially, helping humans to be more human. If you’ve seen the video of Ocado’s distribution warehouse, you’ll know this isn’t science-fiction. The entire distribution line in the factory is humanless, save for a few employees at the end loading the completed deliveries into transportation units.

Essentially, people are keen for there to be a dividing line. In the case of calm tech, however, the idea is that we shouldn’t be forcing machines to mimic humans when there’s a solution that allows us to solve problems with less hassle.

Case gives the example of Roomba, the circular robotic vacuum cleaner that made a key cameo in Breaking Bad (spoiler). When it’s finished cleaning the room, it doesn’t yell: “I’m done cleaning!” Instead, it plays a short, triumphant trumpet notification tone. It’s a tone that’s internationally recognized, there’s no translation needed, and it doesn’t force us to engage our senses.

Consider the frequency as well. With Roomba it’s one notification at the most important point of the process—the point at which the user needs to step in to put Roomba away (before the cat sits on it). Most of us have downloaded an app that notifies too frequently, about things that are way too irrelevant. It’s the kind of app that has a very short shelf life.


Roomba: Credits include Breaking Bad and YouTube cat videos

The minimum amount of tech

We don’t want to live in a world where our homes—or any environment for that matter—are filled with things that are constantly competing for our attention. Developers need to consider social norms, and ask the question: “What’s the minimum amount of tech needed here to solve the problem?”

If you truly dig into this question, your product will simplify the world—and your users will thank you for it.

This article was based on the work of Amber Case. Check out more examples of calm tech on her website.

 Steve Howe is a freelance writer, translator, and teacher living in Barcelona.

Read more about him here.

Topics: App promotion