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This chapter is from the book

Untethered Displayable Data

Might there be too much data heading our way? How will we deal with the onslaught of even the digested data (information)? Will our thumbs be sore from constant PDA and cell phone surfing? People considering crossing the divide will need more comfortable ways to deal with the onslaught of data.

Some forward-thinking people are convinced that the solution for data overload is to have at least some of the data (or information) presented to us using non-computer–related methods or tools. Data that is presented via small devices that could appear in and around our lives and deliver data in mechanical or color form could relieve our brains from the unwanted overload. "There is the notion that cognitive psychologists call ‘pre-attentive processing’—things that your brain can process without any apparent cognitive load," explains David Rose, president of Ambient Devices, an MIT spin-off. "Things you don’t perceive as distracting—color, angle, shape, pattern, motion, for example—will allow your brain to focus on more pressing issues. This then frees up your brain for either more difficult cognitive problems or life’s daily challenges."

"Hmmm," we think. How so?

It turns out that the concept of displayable data, in spite of all the cognitive load stuff, is straightforward and easily explained through example. One such displayable device available today is called an Orb (from Ambient Devices); it is a small globe-like object that is capable of glowing in different colors while connected wirelessly to a data source. Let’s say the Orb is monitoring the price of your favorite stock (Microsoft, maybe?) in near-real time while perched atop a bookcase in your office. As Microsoft’s share price goes up during the trading day, the Orb glows green. And, of course, it glows red when the price declines. Perhaps it could be trained to flash red if the decline is precipitous. Deceptively simple, eh? Well, that is the idea. No complex spreadsheet manipulations, no sneaking over to the Yahoo! financial Web site to check the share price during work hours, no thumbing through the financial pages on your way to work. You look, you know. In fact, you may not even have to look directly at the Orb. A mere glance in its direction would tell all. Far less cognitive processing is required on your part and it does not interrupt your train of thought.

Here is another use (albeit less practical) for an Orb-like device: periodically monitor in real time the distance between you and a loved one. Suppose that your significant other travels frequently on business. Give your significant other a cell phone with GPS capability, and you could program the Orb to radiate warm roseate hues when he or she gets closer, or icy blue tones when moving farther away. How about a pictorial rendering of a nearby city, or an appropriate song, like "I Left My Heart in San Francisco"? As the kids leave for school in the morning, they can "observe" that Mom is still far away but heading home. Later, the Orb glows a loving amber hue as Mom is just about to be dropped off outside.

Along far more practical lines, the cities of San Francisco, Denver, and Chicago are experimenting with displayable data devices that tell bus riders waiting at a bus stop how close the next bus is. The device glows a particular color to indicate the distance or time-wait for the next bus arrival. NextBus manufactures small GPS "pucks" that are placed on the tops of public transportation buses. A NextBus monitoring system aggregates the location information of all buses into a Web-available database. "The public transportation budget in San Francisco is a half of a billion dollars and they loose $400M a year. They have to run buses every 15 minutes, otherwise people won’t take the bus," describes Rose (presumably due to too long of a wait period). "If you can increase the awareness of the time of the ‘next bus,’ you can decrease the frequency that buses run and save money." Those cities are currently using NextBus’ service and giving away Orb-like devices to riders for free. They have experienced a 15 percent increase in ridership simply by giving people a convenient and nontechnical visual tool that helps them know when to get on the bus.

Such bus-monitoring technology will likely be rolled out to school children as well. A major morning stress factor in nearly every U.S. household with school-age children is the mad dash that often occurs when preparing for the arrival of the school bus. Typically, parents send their children out to the bus stop 10 or so minutes early just to be sure that they do not miss it, even in the rain and in freezing weather. Real-time bus-distance information conveyed by a simple observable object near the front door could alleviate much of this stress.

How about some other creative uses for display information technology:

  • IBM is experimenting with using a displayable technology to indicate a project’s status (Are we behind? How far?) that hangs on a wall much like a clock.

  • Orbs could be used to suggest vacation-area sailing conditions for those avid sailors among us (cue up the sound of waves crashing against the hull).

  • Or skiing conditions atop your favorite mountain (an Orb with miniature swirling snowflakes inside).

  • Or the three-day weather forecast (images of sunglasses or galoshes are projected on the wall).

  • Or your wife’s fertility (bells and whistles).

Some of the information is for fun; some of it is for practical purposes. A somewhat surprising benefit of displayable data lies in the presumed ability to actually change behavior patterns. If your electric company placed an energy-efficiency Orb next to your thermostat, you might become a more efficient energy user. If you see that the project at work is slipping, you might work a bit harder. If you could see that your own personal body metrics (heart rate or temperature, for example) were meandering away from normal, you might behave differently or eat differently, or maybe even exercise more regularly. Displayable data could enable a wider set of people to cross the connectivity divide.

Those of us already living deep into full connectivity can survive with the rudimentary PDA-based Web surfing (and other similar technologies) available today to access data. But this is not sufficient for a large section of the population, such as urbanites waiting for the bus to get to work. In many ways, we are already trained and willing for more passive display sources. We populate our homes with clocks, with thermostats, with outside temperature gauges, humidity sensors, and a battery of gauges. More pervasive wireless coverage and decreasing costs of computer and cell equipment will help the new forms of data presentation, but we will not become a fully connected society until all of us have mass means to exploit information. Displayable data can politely push information to large audiences. When the average lower-income city dweller can waste as little time waiting for the bus as the adjacent luxury condo owner, we have achieved a new value in the saturation of data in our lives. As with the washing machine, all classes benefit.

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