Ambient Devices: Content as Color and Motion

Ever wish that you could know the temperature outside without having to read any numbers? Are you the type of person who can't resist going online every five minutes to check the price of your Ebay auction or your stock portfolio? Well a company called Ambient Devices is designing with you in mind.

Formed as an offshoot of research conducted at MIT, Ambient Devices has developed a wireless communications network that allows for everyday items to become "glanceable objects." Pritesh Gandhi, VP of operations, defines glanceable as "being able to look at something and know what you need to know instantly." The company compares this ideal to the traditional push/pull model of content delivery, where pulled information results in a glut of time-consuming, often unnecessary details and pushed info interrupts and intrudes on an individual's life. Ambient Devices wants to straddle the line between these two and offer seamless integration of only the most pertinent information into people's lives.

To that end, they currently offer two products, the Stock Orb ($149) and the Weather Forecast Beacon ($179). One's a sphere, while the other's an elongated cube, but both are made of hand-blown, frosted glass, change colors based on an ever-changing stream of data, and are built with any eye towards style as well as function.

Contrary to their names, though, neither is limited to displaying stock or weather info, respectively. The Ambient Information Network, which runs over existing paging networks hosted by Metrocall, gives users with a modicum of programming know-how the opportunity to create "custom channels," according to Gandhi. "It's fairly easy to do." All you have to do is point your device to a Web site or content feed of your own design, so the only programming language that you need to know is HTML. Some early adopters have already set up their Ambient Devices to track the "energy consumption in their home, or the number of hits to their Web site," says Gandhi.

But the potential uses for this technology don't stop there. Some of the prototypes that Ambient Devices has in development include the Ambient Healthwatch, which lights prescription-related icons at doctor-recommended medication times; and the Ambient Pinwheel, which begins to spin once an email has been received and continues to increase in speed with each new message. The next Ambient Device to hit the market (due out in the fall) will be a trio of Dashboards: Executive, Outside, and Sports. Each features three analog meters with a host of swappable faces, each with its own function.

Ambient Devices has also licensed its platform to companies like Sony, who is working to see if it can incorporate it into both new and existing products. "We offer them a solution that they may be trying to work on themselves," says Gandhi. "We've already done a lot of the legwork." While the Orb and Beacon can be purchased through Brookstone, there have yet to be any devices utilizing Ambient's platform released by third-party manufacturers. Gandhi is optimistic, though. "In the not too distant future we'll see opportunities for other companies to release products," says Gandhi.

The wireless service comes in two flavors: free and fee. "The free services essentially includes some default channels," says Gandhi. Ambient Devices has partnered with companies like AccuWeather and HyperFeed to create these free channels, which allow users to get weather information for their home city as well as four others or follow macroscopic markets like the Dow and NASDAQ. For $6.95 a month, users can upgrade their Orb to follow their specific portfolios or even individual stocks.

While the Ambient Information Network currently only exists in the U.S., the company is trying to make inroads into European and Asian markets. "Unfortunately, paging is dying," says Gandhi. Although that doesn't have them too worried as no one is planning on ripping the broadcast towers out of the ground. "We just don't want the market to forget about [paging] and not have any operators left," says Gandhi. "But most of these operators are being swallowed by larger companies," meaning that ambient devices do have the potential to one day be a viable way of unobtrusively delivering content the world over.