Between the Cracks of Time

The description of calm technology as an engagement that alternates between the user’s needs for “center” and “periphery” is also an analogy of how memory functions. The most popular conception of memory is that it exists as a linear sequence of happenings, then sits in the back of the mind like a dusty VHS waiting to be discovered and played in its entirety. Charles Fernyhough, British developmental psychologist and author of the book “Pieces of Light,” writes of research that increasingly point toward memories as anything but a neatly packaged, linear strand of data. If anything, they exist as fragments of details hovering in the fringe of consciousness and are assembled by the mind when the situation requires. In that light, pun unintended, memories are notoriously unreliable, as suggestions inserted during the time of recollection could easily be woven into the “memory.”

I’m interested in creating an interactive scenario in which fragments of a particular environment is recreated as a projection. I find that the more time one spends in a space, the less one “sees” of the details. The mundane breeds indifference. One may pass by a metal ashtray that has a little ceramic frog hanging off the side, on a table at the corner of the long hallway ten times a day: to use the bathroom; to find a colleague, to go to the kitchen, etc. And one day someone shows this person the ashtray with the frog and he would be seeing it for the first time: one of many fragments of objects floating in the periphery the memory of this hallway.

To another person, this ashtray may be a portal to another time, another world. Person B, as opposed to Person A to whom the frog ashtray is invisible, had traveled to Prague five years ago, and was lost in the winding old city streets looking for the rumored former residence of Franz Kafka. Frustrated she finds a cafe and flops down to recollect his bearings over a coffee. And on this cafe table is this odd-looking ashtray with a plastic toy frog that possibly a child who sat there before her had forgotten. The tablecloth under the ashtray was checkered red and white and the chairs were brown wood, worn in the seats where countless patrons have sat. So Person B, who works in the same hallway as Person A, passes by this ashtray in the hallway, and it jumps out at her like a beacon.

To these two persons, “center” and “periphery” are the same object: the froggy ashtray. One sees and does not see simultaneously.

The space around them can also be a periphery – and be subject to fragmented shifts. My visual work is collective fragmented information about a particular space. Layers of time could be overlapped and interwoven within these fragments. The ambient layer of information could possibly be the quiet shifting of these layers as they merge between the present and the past. Should a viewer become more invested in exploring the scene, the proximity of the viewer or interaction with an object related to the ambient scene may trigger another level of information: the periphery becomes the center, a portal. The oxymoronic osmosis between these two boundaries is like a sense of journey and discovery within the limbo between the cracks of time.

combo3_o yesterday_today_tomorrow_o

Revisiting Threats and Peripheral Noise

The most plausible explanation for peripheral vision seems to trace itself to evolution. During their hunting and gathering phase, humans needed to be aware of threats that do not dominate their main line of vision; this kind of critical information also gives the perspective of direction of the threat. While Pousman et al’s paper focuses on ambient media that display non-critical information, the fidelity in today’s ambient media and our modern day interpretation of what a threat is can allow us to investigate innovative approaches in ambient media by revisiting of how we can feed critical information to our peripheral senses more responsibly.

Distractions are an unfortunate outcome of the current proliferation of information and some irresponsibly designed stimuli which can exist at the periphery of our senses start to demand our attention. Because of this, we might need innovations that diffuse the noise from our periphery and help focus our attention. Of course, this is not in the way the isolator helmet does it (courtesy Noura:, but ambient media may be able to distinguish peripheral noise from peripheral signal in real-time to help us focus. Interpreting threats – both from an evolutionary and a modern day perspective – would then become an important asset to ambient media despite the various definitions of ambient media relating to non-critical information. Directionally, threats can also extend to time and space – for example, a threat to a student can be missing an important deadline or making the student aware that her workload is about to multiply in the next few weeks.

Ambient media may also help augment our peripheral vision by helping us identify threats which lie beyond our peripheral vision too. For example, on detecting a potential threat pursuing the user at night, ambient media could trigger street lights or a nearby car alarm to attract attention to detract the threat.

Ambient City Lights

I’m interested in what kind of information could be unobtrusively provided in an urban environment, without being distracting for drivers/residents, whether as installed at bus stops, on lamp posts or elsewhere in the urban environment.

One idea I would love to see is for a column to light up in a muted fashion whenever a bus arrived, perhaps having different colors for different bus lines. This is especially useful if buses need to be flagged down and do not stop at every stop. I find myself having to look up from my reading/phone, or any kind of work, while waiting for buses, preventing me from focusing on anything in case I end up missing my bus.

Effectively that waiting time becomes dead time (usually twenty minutes or so for me), where I’m unable to focus and constantly distracted by needing to look up to see if my bus is arriving. Even a simple installation that lights up with one light of the same color whenever any bus arrives would allow me to get much more done. Attaching a generic sensor/signal to each bus stop and bus would enable this. Because the column is large enough, I would be able to notice it even without looking directly at it – I can notice it peripherally even as I’m reading my book/talking.

Similarly, I’m often unsure whether I need to run for my bus, esp. since the various apps I use are often inaccurate. The same technology could use a different light (color, half lit up, etc) to indicate buses arriving in 5 minutes (etc). This would signal whether I need to run; for people running errands or deciding whether to go home/get food/run errands, it can unobtrusively provide a signal of what would be most time-efficient for them to do. I might prefer to go home right away then buy take-out (etc) if my bus is arriving soon.

The same technology could be used for the arrival of trains, it is similarly fascinating to think of other information that can be unobtrusively communicated in an urban context that would be useful to commuters, citizens, residents, pedestrians, individuals etc…





Muzo – A Calm Design that Brings Calmness to the Center

I’ve always been interested in technology that brings zen and calmness to people’s life. So the topic of calm design and ambient design really pleases me. A week ago, I stumbled upon a new technology named Muzo. Muzo is a state of the art vibration monitoring system that will turn everything into an acoustic environment with its own speed of sound.
It blocks noises around you. There are three modes for different scenarios – Serenity, Sleep, and Secret.

Each mode adjust your sound environment for the task you are performing. I wonder how the concepts of the reading can be related to the conceptual design of this device. The paper talks about that a calm technology is one that can move between center and periphery and making the user more attuned to the information instead of of being attended to. The Muzo does this not by moving back and forth from center and periphery, instead, it creates a new environment that becomes the center of your environment and wipe out the periphery noises that you do not want to attend to. This analogy might be similar to the clear glass window in the office space, in which you have your personal zen zone but you can still get minimal information from outside of the zone. Without this device, we are forced to work in an open office, but with it, we can now build a clear window that blocks noises!

I think that’s probably why even on its kickstarter page it talks about clear window!

Muzo – Your Personal Zone Creator

Ambient schedule

Events and meetings in calendar applications usually have reminder notifications that let users know they are happening soon, but a 10-minute in advance reminder for an event is often overly jarring. Sometimes, the reminders come too late and I would be late even if I left then. Other times, the reminder is too soon and just distracting. The first problem is somewhat solved by Google Now when it gives notifications about travel time to another location, but the second problem can be solved with ambient media. I enjoy having the Campanile play bells on the hour, keeping an ambient sense of the time, but ambient media could make that specific to my calendar. A slowly rising sound or vibration would be less distracting when I am focused on something else and only need a background reminder of the time.

To do light

As I am wrapping up my homework from yet another week of academic rigor, I can’t help but wish that my environment reflected my feelings of accomplishment and ‘reward’ me for all I have achieved in this past week.

I almost always use Google Keep to keep track of the tasks that I need to complete in a given amount of time. Whenever I complete a task, I find myself opening the app to strike out that particular task. The feeling that I experience by striking out tasks and getting to end of my to do list gives me a sensation of pseudo bliss – I suppose it’s caused by the release of dopamine. To mirror these feelings, and to display information which has hitherto been contained inside fancy apps, I propose the idea of a To-Do Light.

In my mind, this is a light which connects to your smartphone and syncs with your preferred To Do List app – Google Keep, Evernote etc. Once synced, the light, connected to a power outlet may glow a deep shade of red to indicate a long list of tasks which needs to be tackled. The red light becomes a metaphor for work that needs to be done by the user. I think red makes for an appropriate color in this scenario since it generally commands attention, and for a lot of people, it also symbolizes urgency. As the user completes tasks and checks off those items off his/her list, the color of the light changes to mild hue of yellow/saffron to indicate work being done. Once the user completes his final task, the light changes to a bright white to symbolize bliss and happiness.

In many ways, the colour of the light at any stage of the user’s to do list becomes a metaphor for what many people strapped for time feel inside of them. To make the light transition to different, milder colors seems only reasonable to do in order to realize the user’s digital strikethroughs in the real world.

Fitness Trackers !

There are a lot of examples discussed by Pousman and Stasko in their paper about the taxonomy of Ambient Media where they explain the core factors that help us categorize ambient media systems. Systems have been categorized based on their levels in each dimension of information capacity, notification level, representational fidelity and aesthetic emphasis. One such example from the systems that have become very common now is fitness trackers.

Fitness trackers come in various sizes and a broad range of capabilities. Some are just a watch replacement where the devices, on connecting to Bluetooth, display very basic notification information from the phone along with the time. Others are more complex with heart rate monitors where the devices monitor sleep patterns, steps and calculate calories expended during the day. Let’s discuss the fitness trackers with a heart rate monitor. For the particular example of the Samsung Smartwatch, one can see a varying range of ambient information as well as personal information on it. Since it displays a lot of ambient information such as the weather details, activity tracker details, sleep pattern details, etc. we can categorize it as a high information capacity system. There are notifications both in the “ignore” and “interrupt” levels in the watch. While pulling up the watch in front of your face can show you the time and weather information or the fitness information, you also get notified whenever there is a phone call or a message is received. The weather animation with the state of weather around, the charts that represent the amount one needs to walk to reach workout goal along with various watch faces clearly shows how high the smartwatch is on the representational fidelity. Even though the watch is so much more powerful than a “normal” watch, it maintains the beauty and simplicity of a normal watch that looks great on one’s hands ! Smartwatches are truly very aesthetic.

In conclusion, I would say that there are plenty of other ambient media systems around us that fall into one of the different levels in the 4 dimensions. A status LED on a hard disk, the router with its different light modes which informs us of the status of the internet are all examples of ambient media.


Ambient media: virtual window

The first example came to my mind is a virtual window that brings the weather, sun light, nature indoor, when reading on calm computing and ambient media. When I worked for my last employer, my office didn’t have a window. Just like many of my colleagues, I often felt down to stay in a windowless room for a whole day. I thought a virtual window could help me to calm down and improve my productivity. In the taxonomy of ambient system, the information system of virtual window is quiet, and “afford opportunistic glances to the information”. It gives people an illusion that they are staying outside and they are close to the nature. This kind of ambient information would be helpful for people who have to seat in front of their desks during most of the daytime, but still want to connect to the outside world. People don’t need to give full attention to the “windows”, just knowing that the “window” exists and an occasional glance is enough to make a different in a closed space. I came across Winscape, a virtual window that can show different sceneries such as Golden Bridge, beach, snow etc. It also mimics an actual window, if you move, the angle of the scenery changes accordingly. A brief introduction video is embedded below.

Wearable Information

With the rise of wearable technology and constantly tracking aspects of your life, I would like to see how we could share data about ourselves in the form of ambient media. I think it would be fun and engaging to display “stats” about ourselves through wearable symbols, like clothing that changes colors as you meet your “goals” for the day – it could be a conversation starter or an area where the people you see daily encourage you to succeed, whether that is in the form of steps or completing your checklist. It also raises the question about what information people want to share about themselves – maybe a pair of headphones could change based on the genre of music you’re listening to or your mood in order to passively signal to others information about yourself without needing to engage.


You could also image some kind of pin or token that could be altered based on an event need – for example at a MIMS alumni event you can change your pin color based on what you are interested in, as defined by the event organizer.


These types of “wearable” passive examples of ambient media would be considered to be under the “Symbolic Sculptural Display Archetype” Design Pattern by Pousman and Stasko (Fig 2, p. 72), since it only displays a few key pieces of information about the user in an abstract symbolic form that can be altered. They could also be elements of aesthetic design, or fashionable pieces, as well as cultural statements.

Some ideas

When I was reading the articles for this week I kept thinking about what kind of information I would like to have available in my surroundings, in a non-obtrusive way. Then, the first thought that came to mind was an issue that worried me (kind of) at the beginning of the semester. On August I moved to a new place, and for the first time in my life I was going to have roommates. Of course this was (and still is) a whole new experience for me because most of my life I lived with my family, and since I moved to the U.S. I lived by myself. Anyway, something I care a lot about is being respectful of other people’s space and comfort. Therefore, I would like to know when I could do things like playing the kind of music I like out loud in the living room, using the old squeaky dryer, or the super noisy blender without bothering other people. So, I think it would be awesome to have some sort of simple, yet elegant, information system (maybe a symbolic sculptural display, according to Pousman and Stasko) that would let us know who is home, and even maybe a simple status (“no bother”, “not my best day”, “sleeping”, “happy to talk”, “need human interaction”, “silence, studying” etc.)

Other ideas that came to mind are dynamic and aesthetically pleasing visualization of:

  1. The amount of electrical energy consumed by a specific space (room, office, house, building).
  2. The number of paper towels used in a specific public restroom
  3. The amount and speed of electrons flowing through a specific wire
  4. The amount of UV radiation
  5. Being a bit more futuristic, the “average mood” of a space, considering the general mood (although it might be very hard to classify human emotions, they are very complex) of the individuals that are in the space. Or the aggregated mood of the space but by visualizing the mood of each individual (in an anonymous way, obviously). I’m imagining some sort of 3D matrix of lights, and light representing a person, and each color a emotion.