More Human Ambiance in Ambient Computing

How to make ambient computing work—for people

Everyday, we’re forced to run through a gauntlet of gadgets to accomplish basic tasks. But, what if—instead—you could interact naturally with a multitude of smart devices subtly embedded in your surrounding environment? This notion of ‘ambient computing’ is exciting, but for years science fiction films sold us a vision of this future where most personal interactions have been automated away—replaced with life-size holograms and disembodied voices.

All of this screams ambulance, not ambience. Over the last few years, the tech industry has begun to explore this not-so-fictitious future. Unfortunately, many are so preoccupied with making this vision feasible that they haven’t stopped to consider whether it’s also desirable. I believe, if designed right, ambient computing can subtly enhance people’s relationships with other people and the natural world around them, just as ambient lighting makes a living room feel warmer and ambient music makes a conversation flow smoother. I’d like to share a few provocations on what we should do differently to make ambient computing work for people.

Getting smarter about what smart devices we’re building

Desirable products tend to serve a higher purpose, like a suit that makes you feel confident or a house plant that creates a tranquil atmosphere. They don’t need to be expensive or cutting edge, they just need to amplify or complement your life in some meaningful way.

Right now, the smart device industry, in a fury of feasibility, has flooded the market with gimmicky products, like $8,000 voice-powered toilets. They might be feats of engineering, but they won’t change your life for the better. Instead, let’s get a little smarter about what smart technology we’re building. Let’s focus less on short-term feasibility and more on sustainable desirability. Let’s consider what real problems we want to solve, such as helping senior citizens live at home all alone or helping kids now stuck at home feel less alone. And once we’re clear on the higher order purpose, then let’s build the products to make it happen.

The future is already here—it’s just not even connected

Now don’t get me wrong, I love cool technology. When (reasonably-priced) smart devices came out a few years ago I bought them all—smart light bulbs, smart toasters, smart plugs. My house was a playhouse and these gadgets were my toys.

Except my toys didn’t want to play nicely together—heck, they didn’t even talk to each other. Each new device was just one more thing I needed to command separately. None of the devices built off each other to create a seamlessly magical experience.

This is because the industry keeps putting out new cool devices, but doesn’t consider (or for that matter, have any incentives to consider) how to meaningfully connect the devices. The result is you have additions, but not augmentations or synergistic value.

Instead, the industry should consider the use cases and end-to-end journeys in which each device plays a role. For instance, imagine your alarm clock, window blinds, and coffee machine were all connected. When your alarm sounds in the morning, the blinds automatically go up, the sun gently wakes you up, the espresso machine starts whistling, and the smell of fresh coffee lures you out of bed. Now that’s a desirable future.

The thing is: this future is already here, it’s just not even connected. The 3 smart devices needed to make this happen already exist and are even reasonably priced. But they’re just not connected in a way that lets them produce a desirable experience that’s greater than the sum of the individual parts. Wouldn’t it be great if the manufacturers, instead of doing their own thing, teamed up to connect all the basic products already out there to produce amazing experiences?

Start relationships by being interested not interesting

Think about all the people in your life who you’d trust to recommend something different for you, like a new style of clothes. Without exception, these people have taken the time to get to know you—what you usually do and don’t do, like and dislike—and reflect that knowledge back to you. This gives them the leeway to, every now and then, go out on a limb and surprise you with a pair of neon pink boots you didn’t know your wardrobe needed. Sometimes their predictions are off, but—even then—you won’t be offended because you have that relationship.

This relationship-building is often skipped by technology that promises to anticipate and satisfy your unspoken needs. Right out of the box, smart products will claim to predict what you want before you know you want it or do things you didn’t even know you wanted done. I usually reject these suggestions out of spite because, even when they’re interesting, I don’t trust them—my human instincts crave the credibility of relationship-based recommendations.

I, too, share in the blame. I was one of the founders of Google Now, a Search feature. It would offer recommendations based on your search habits, like where you might want to eat or fly. Most people ignored these predictions because, apart from already knowing where they wanted to eat or fly, they found it hard to discern where and who these suggestions were coming from. In short, the feature spoke to you but not with you.

A few years later, you can have a conversation with any number of AI-powered assistants who ask questions and respond to your answers. There’s still a danger in trying to do too much too soon, so I constantly challenge my teams to design this assistive technology to be more personable and focus on building that trust. Let’s make this technology more interested in people, so people will be more interested in the interesting stuff technology has to offer.

Healthy relationships evolve over time

In every healthy relationship, there’s an active back and forth where each individual continuously listens to and improves the other over time. The relationship between people and technology lacks this flexibility.

Sure, technology and people co-evolve, but this happens at a macro and not micro level. You need thousands of people who want to improve something about a particular product before developers will manually change it. By contrast, if only one person wants to improve that same product, well they’re just out of luck. This is because technology operates within the predefined parameters of the creator, not the consumer. Devices aren’t built to absorb any new signals from the consumer that weren’t already accounted for. The hardware is too hard and the software isn’t soft enough.

My Nest thermostat, for instance, automatically regulates my house’s temperature by absorbing and processing several signals, like the time of day or the weather outside. The input might vary, but the variables are fixed; this is all the researchers and developers accounted for during the product development cycle. That means I can’t tell my Nest to make the house colder whenever I watch “Frozen” with my daughter so she snuggles up to me.

I might be the first person to have thought up such a cool use case, but the smart device can’t do anything with my idea—or any of your ideas—because its system is so deterministically constrained and one-sided. So if people are to have healthy relationships with ambient technology, then we need to start building in more mutability and flexibility into smart devices so all the smart people out there—not just the designers and developers—can improve them.

Seeking serendipity and surprises

Flexibility—the openness for new signals, the willingness to do things differently—can of course lead to diversions from your intended goals. Think about the last time you were trying to figure out the best way to get somewhere new. (I know, it’s been a while, right?) You probably just used your smartphone’s navigation system.

Were it not for the pandemic, I’d still be asking people for directions. Over the last 20 years, I’ve lived in 9 foreign countries and I always jumped at the opportunity to ask people for directions, even if I kind of knew where I was going.

Sometimes, it was because I felt lonely and was looking for any excuse for human interaction—especially in Japan. Other times, I just used this opportunity to practice the local language on some native speakers. But most of the time I was trying to tap people’s intimate knowledge of the area and discover some things I wouldn’t have seen on a map. This often led to delightfully unexpected experiences.

I might also prefer Google Maps to asking people for directions if it only allowed for serendipity and surprises. Right now, Maps just gives you the quickest and most efficient route from point A to B. It never suggests the most desirable route. Maybe that’s a longer but more scenic route. Or maybe it’s a road that goes past a lake where cute little ducks cross the road. If anything, Maps will steer you away from those ducks because they cause traffic delays.

This is the same situation with smart devices: they optimize for efficiency, but never for joy and happy accidents. Your smart sprinkler will always go off at a time of day to minimize evaporation and save you money on water. But the sprinkler won’t optimize for the perfect time to see a beautiful rainbow in the mist. Or slightly more mischievously, it won’t start spraying when your neighbor’s dog is trying to do its business on your lawn.

If we design ambient technology to be purely utilitarian and efficiency-focused, the system will consider these happy accidents to be noise and optimize them out of the equation. Instead, let’s design ambient technology to allow for serendipity and surprises.

Tepid technology, human warmth

These are just a few things that will make ambient computing work—not necessarily technically or economically—but work for the people the technology is meant to serve. And that means supporting ambiance and human warmth.

And to support this human warmth, the technology needs to be tepid. That means neither hot nor cold, just room temperature. Think of a swimming pool that you step into and completely forget you’re even in water because it’s perfectly in sync with your body temperature. When you’re in that pool, you can concentrate on just swimming or drinking a cocktail and enjoy the sunset with people around you.

This is how ambient technology should be: it should blend in seamlessly into the background, while subtly enhancing people’s relationships with other people and the world around them. In short, technology should be bland and boring, not striking and memorable. Because it’s ultimately people, not technology, who give the world its warmth and ambiance.

And it’s ultimately people like you who have the power to keep it that way. So please share with me your ideas for how we can make the future of ambient computing more human-centric. I’ve already heard from my colleagues Chrisoula Kapelonis, Josh Leong, Daniel Padgett, and Cathy Pearl, but now it’s time to make your voice heard.