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New technology relies on human visual system

The Ambient Orb uses technology and the human visual system to tell users of changes in information that is transmitted from the Web.
David Rose, president of Ambient Devices, displays an Ambient Orb, at his company headquarters, in Cambridge, Mass., on March 26. The orb changes colors to reflect trends in information on a particular subject which is transmitted via the Internet.Robert Spencer / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It looks like a size-XXXL chicken egg and it glows in colors that change and waver in intensity as it tracks qualitative shifts in financial data from the Internet.

But the white plastic Orb was designed to be far more than a barometer of the Dow Jones Industrial average, it's programmed out-of-the-box function.

Adherents see the glowing $150 device as pioneering a movement where data generated by computers will be increasingly expressed not on video displays but in objects that fit more naturally into our lives.

Ambient Devices of Cambridge, Mass. began selling the Orb a year ago. If the Dow average is up for the day, it glows green. On a down day, the Orb reddens. The colors' intensity reflects the extent of the swing; yellow means the market is stable.

Provided with that basic information, an Orb owner can decide whether to go online for more detail.

Ambient users have programmed Orbs for a remarkable array of tasks: tracking job openings in Atlanta, measuring the flow of visitors to a Boston-based interactive design agency's Web site, gauging energy use in a New York City apartment, tracking eBay auctions, notifying someone when a particular person is online or a certain number of e-mails have filled their inbox.

"When you think about the magic of the Orb, it's a thermometer for the rest of your life," said author Seth Godin, who writes on business and social trends. Godin hopes to program his Orb to track sales of his books on to save time and "increase my peace of mind."

Using the human visual system
The Orb's power lies in how can reflect the ease with which humans process basic visual information.

"It's based on our brain's natural ability to process many streams of information in parallel," said David Rose, the president of Ambient Devices, which says it has sold about 20,000 to date. "Our perceptual system is great at multiprocessing hundreds of peripheral cues every second. We do it without even trying. Today's computer interfaces completely ignore this."

Rose envisions Orbs and related products being scattered throughout people's offices, homes and cars, "dedicated to information they care about."

The idea behind Orb came out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, where "Tangible Bits" research led by Professor Hiroshi Ishii aims to replace computers' graphical user interface with tangible representations of the data they produce — giving physical form to information.

Paul Saffo, research director at the Institute for the Future, calls the Orb and similar objects "calm computing devices" and believes they augur future relief from information overload.

'Ubiquitous computing'
They reflect the "ubiquitous computing" concept pioneered by the late Mark Weiser, former chief technologist at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, he said. In 1998, Weiser built a water fountain outside his office whose flow and height mimicked the volume and price trend of the stock market.

"Ubiquitous computing is roughly the opposite of virtual reality," Weiser wrote in his research. "Where virtual reality puts people inside a computer-generated world, ubiquitous computing forces the computer to live out here in the world with people."

Ambient's Rose thinks a huge market awaits the Orb and its descendants: "Once people are aware how easy and delightful it is to have these information devices in their lives, it will become second nature."

Ambient Devices delivers information to its products through a nationwide wireless network that the company says reaches more than 90 percent of the U.S. population. Users can register and customize the information their Orbs reflect via the Internet. The Orbs can even be "tuned" to several different data streams.

Ambient isn't stopping with the Orb.

Spinoffs in the works
Spinoffs in development include interactive, color-changing picture frames that let people inform loved ones far away know when they are "thinking about them." Each frame has a "proximity monitor" that lets users know how close the person at the other end is.

Other inventions include an Ambient-equipped watch, on which prescription-related icons light up at doctor-recommended medication times. An Ambient keychain fob shifts colors based on user-specified traffic information (congestion, accidents, etc.) requested by the user, and the Ambient Pinwheel spins to show users that "they've got (e-)mail."

Ambient's newest product, the Dashboard, uses an old-fashioned needle — like those once found on stereo receivers — to track information such as a futures market that weighs President Bush's re-election prospects.

At MIT, Ishii's group has a project that, like the Ambient Frame, explores the possibilities of interpersonal communication — but through touch. Using force-feedback technology, its "inTouch" devices let users separated by distance interact through networked physical objects.

Other applications of tangible computing include health care, where it's being considered as a way of monitoring weight, daily exercise or depression symptoms from a distance.

For now, the challenge companies like Ambient Devices face is persuading non-geeks to buy the technology, Rose acknowledged. The Orb originally cost $300.

"The price needs to get down to sort of like the clock range before people would have more than a few around their house," he said.