5 Everyday Objects That Can Now Be Powered By The Internet

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David Rose displays an Ambient Orb, which changes colors to reflect trends in information on a particular subject which is transmitted via the Internet. (Robert Spencer/AP)
David Rose displays an Ambient Orb, which changes colors to reflect trends in information on a particular subject which is transmitted via the Internet. (Robert Spencer/AP)

Smartphones and tablets allow us to do amazing things. They help us gather and organize information and learn about our world. They can keep track of our personal bank accounts and the national debt.

But to David Rose, they are just slabs of glass with limited powers that distract us from the moment. His view of the future is of a place where everyday objects — from umbrellas to trash cans to coffee tables — will be enlivened with the force of the Internet.

The guiding concept here is the "internet of things," a world of embedded technology that will give us "enchanted objects" — smart devices that will work better for us.


David Rose, researcher at the MIT Media Lab and author of the book "Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things." He tweets @davidrose. He will be discussing the book at the Harvard Book Store Thursday night.

Five Everyday Objects That Can Now Be Powered By The Internet

Pill Bottles

  • "The glow cap talks wireless through AT&T’s network to the cloud, but because it’s on an ordinary amber vial, it can really subtly prompt you to take your medication on a regular basis, which is a huge issue in this country, as you may know. And so this is just an Internet-connected pill bottle cap, and it tries to be as subtle as possible... It starts off with just a really subtle pulsing light, and then, if you still haven’t taken your med after a couple of hours, it makes cute little arpeggio ringtones... And then, after even more time, it may text you or it may eventually call your home phone if you’ve had a transplant and you really need to take your immuno-suppressant, for example. [If] it’s really critical, then you really want this to be insistent, not just subtle and subconscious.”


  • “The skype cabinet [is] like the dedicated red phone to Gorbachev, except in this case it connects a 6-year-old old boy to his grandparents... I’m happy to have my son talk to his grandparents as much as they’re both willing to talk to each other, and I want to make that communication as seamless and as high-verisimilitude as possible, so they both simply open a door and there they are. So that cabinet knows that they’re nearby because it has a proximity sensor and it sort of glows when each other is nearby. And it’s just a dedicated connection... He’s not actually interested in talking to that many other people and neither are they, so you know, it makes sense to embed these connections into furniture or into the kitchen — where they have theirs — in a way that can allow them to talk that much more frequently, and much more serendipitously... For shorter time periods... it’s nothing that I have to orchestrate.”


  • “The Google latitude doorbell was really designed for the sort of end-of-the-day coordination. You want to know who's on their way home and how soon will they be arriving. So, this was inspired by a record that my parents used to play from Prokofiev, 'Peter and the Wolf.' Where, essentially, every character in 'Peter and the Wolf' has a ringtone... So as people are on their homeward bound, it uses their location, which is given by Google Latitude, to basically trigger a subtle ringtone for that family member that plays on this doorbell. So it gives you a sense of how soon someone will be home and the pace of their homecoming, and it’s calming to know that they’re on their way. And for me, this is sort of a key point, which is, you might want to map that information of location onto a map, but a map is way too intrusive, right? Your friends don’t want to be tracked on a map all the time, but if you just take the information and abstract it a little bit, and make it ambient, in this case, it’s a sound-only interface. Then you get this sort of ‘breeze of presence’ idea that’s really useful and nice to have around and doesn’t require another screen in the house. And it’s not sort of overwrought with specificity, which I think is a problem with a lot of the apps we have today.”


  • The proverbial wallet was a prototype that was done for Bank of America. I think the problem that they saw was people are using plastic rampantly, credit cards rampantly, without any sense of how you’re blowing through your budget for a month, though this is an ordinary leather wallet that has a variable resistance hinge and it talks to the cloud, so as you get closer and closer to your budget limit for the month, it becomes harder and harder to open the wallet and you get a sense — you get this tangible sense — of maybe you shouldn’t be spending money... as quickly as you expected to... What I love about this object is there’s no screen in sight. It’s using this sense of touch and of resistance of haptic feedback to communicate, and it probably acts even on a semiconscious level, right? As you reach into your wallet and grab this thing, you know it’s feedback that is so subtle, because its embedded in an ordinary gesture and an ordinary object and so it doesn’t increase your cognitive load of having to, like, open an app, and think about it, and... access information. And I would hope that more interfaces have that sort of tangibility and subtlety and embededness in our lives.”


  • "The ambient umbrella was inspired by the ambient orb. The orb is sort of a crystal ball where the color can shift to represent any information you want, whether it’s pollen count or wind speed or your book’s position on the bestseller list... anything you care about... One of the most popular things we tracked at ambient devices with the orb, in addition to price of energy for doing demand management for energy companies, was the weather. So the color was matched to the temperature, and it would subtly pulse if there was rain dew. And, you know, it was a beautiful object and people loved it, but it didn’t really communicate its purpose. And so we thought, well, why don’t we embed that LED — and that connectivity to AccuWeather — into an object that would communicate its purpose? And so, inspired by Frodo, who was given... an Elvish sword that glows when Orks are nearby. So, you know, it’s an object that anticipates its own use. So we thought the perfect place to embed this information about the rain is in the object that you need to act on when rain is due, so it sort of locates the information in that decisional moment... Not before you need to think about the umbrella, not after you need to think about it, but exactly when you need to pick it up. And so, I think that’s another recipe for calm, is to not tell people information before they can act on it, so it’s sort of positioning the information right in that critical moment."


The New York Times: Putting Magic In The Mundane

  • "The diminutive camera is just one of many devices Mr. Rose calls “enchanted objects” — that is, ordinary items that can do extraordinary things: cutlery and condiments that monitor your eating habits, an umbrella that tells you when it’s going to rain, a trash can that orders food, a table that displays your Facebook photos."

The Boston Globe: David Rose Draws Ideas From Spy Films, Literature

  • "An inventor and instructor at the MIT Media Lab, Rose is bullish on science and technology. But he’s also keenly interested in the human element. Enchanted objects, he says, are “based on the same psychological needs or drives that we’ve always had,” including the desire for connection, safety, and personal expression."

This article was originally published on July 17, 2014.

This segment aired on July 17, 2014.


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