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Introduce Ambient Internet Applications (AIA)

Posted by Moxie Zhang | March 10, 2008 .

At the 2008 Emerging Technology Conference (ETech), Dave Rose, Co-founder and CEO of Ambient Devices, explained how the concept of ambient devises applies to our daily life. An ardent anti-PC guy, Rose is an advocate for PC-free Internet access with ambient devices. As I sat through the session on ambient devices and the importance of user interfaces, I keep relating the concepts involved to rich Internet applications (RIA). Although Rose’s lecture was primarily about hardware, it seems “anti-PC” is just another way of promoting the use of ambient devices. After all, we will have to live with personal computers for a long time, regardless of whether they are desktop, portable or handheld. Also, software development will continue to be an important part of technology enriched, modern lifestyles.

Based on my thoughts about the ETech Conference, I’d like to introduce a new term—although it is partially stolen—ambient Internet applications (AIA). This should be seen as a part of RIA.

In short, an AIA application should be:

  • Glanceable—The classic ambient device is the clock or a watch. We consume the information provided by such devices merely by glancing at them. Most of the time, we don’t care about the exact time in detail; rather, it’s the approximate time we’d like to know. An AIA application comes with an interface that enables the user to consume information by using only peripheral sight.
  • Non-intrusive—Unlike phone calls, snail-mail, and e-mail, which virtually run our daily life with interruptions, an AIA application is almost invisible until you glance it for quick information.
  • Discrete—Most modern devices and applications are like babies, in that the more attention they attract the better. Many developers and designers seem to think the “R” in RIA stands for colorful, animated and eye-catching. To some extent, the point of creating RIA is to attract more attention to your application. In contrast, an AIA application should be designed solely for utility. It should apply to devices that are designed to improve the quality of life by providing information and services in ways that are unobtrusive.
  • Single purpose—An AIA application is usually designed to do just one or two very simple things. The brain power needed to work with an AIA application is very minimal.
  • Concise—The information provided by AIA applications is by nature a summary that requires no interpretation. The data provided helps to drive decision making at a glance.
  • Connectivity—An AIA application is well connected. Real-time data feeds an AIA application by constantly running in the background. It works for users all the time, but without them knowing or caring about it.

Against this background, AIA should be seen as just a small subset of RIA. In other words, it’s another user-interface (UI) design approach for a specific category of software application.

Thus, the art of designing effective AIA applications will require an understanding of subtle ways to deliver information. While I am sure there are many lists available on this, common elements would include: motion, color, angle, pattern and text.

  • Motion—The vibration of a cell phone tells you a lot without actually touching the phone.
  • Color—The human brain is trained to recognize that green means peace and red means danger.
  • Angle—The needles on a clock literally “point” to the time.
  • Pattern—People almost automatically “click” on elements that look like buttons.
  • Text—People read simple, concise text on signs, etc.

At this point, many readers are likely saying to themselves, “There is nothing new here.” We’ve had widgets on Mac for a long time. Microsoft has adapted this approach over time. Like me, many readers will have been through the cycle of installing new widgets, getting excited about them, then disabling and uninstalling them. Why? Because they get in our way! They all require attention and time that we simply don’t have to devote to them. The widget concept is right, but the current philosophy for design and implementation needs more work. AIA could be an answer.

Over the period ahead, I’ll try to come up with some useful case studies and develop prototypes to investigate the ways in which AIA works. Meanwhile, I would appreciate your thoughts on AIA.

You can send me your ideas [ how?]



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1 Comment so far
  1. anzek  July 8, 2008 7:54 am

    your grammar makes thing written no ambient. Info unconsumed without filter-like brain to decode say-thing. Hurt bad to message. yeah, we’re stuck with pcs for a LONG time.


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