Last time, I wrote about ambient technology (calm computing) with the point that, even as we’ve wired a new nervous system for ourselves, we’ve neglected to make it a healthy nervous system. Ubiquitous computing is demanding and its calls for attention are ever more insistent.
Change in unlikely to come in venues, such as the world of browsers, where participants succeed by being flashy and intrusive. If I’m an advertiser, your life at high alert isn’t an invitation to step back; it’s a challenge to bring you to higher alert.
Another model suggests itself. What if ambient technology could do the important work of helping people to live healthier lives? A place to start might be in helping people for whom nature isn’t doing the job. For instance, people who are subject to migraines usually have signs telling them that one is on the way, but often they disregard them because something else is grabbing their attention or the signs aren’t definite enough. If they take the medication after the headache has begun, it is harder to get relief. What if the signs were detected by a device, and people could be alerted more directly? (I love the idea of getting a phone call saying, “Take your medicine – a headache is on the way.)
My wife reminded me of a similar, very low-tech method designed for epileptics. There are reports that dogs can sense when an attack is coming on and can be trained to alert the victim in time to move to someplace safe, lie down or call for help. The dog is just a pet most of them time, but springs to action when needed with barking, pawing or even blocking the victim from going toward obstacles (such as stairs). Here, where the signs are often too subtle for the person, a technology might be developed that similarly is in the background, unnoticed, until needed.
Normal signs for action diminish with age. For instance, your stomach may give you an unmistakable message that you’ve missed a meal, but older people often forget to eat (or forget that they have eaten). This is a serious problem that contributes to ill health in the elderly. And while kids, who seem to be connected all day to electronic devices, could be alerted as part of the typical flow of texts, buzzes, alarms and calls, older people may be averse to new technologies. Designing for effective but nonintrusive reminders might be the best way to upgrade and track meals, medicines and even exercise.
I purposely put health in the title because opportunities extend beyond dealing with illness and loss. It seems ironic that a car, in a gentle ambient way, can tell you how you can increase gas mileage, but cars (which, face it, spend a lot of time carrying overweight people around) don’t provide similar ambient feedback to encourage us to eat less and exercise more. A chair in the living room might be a good target for such technology, but cars are already packed with sensors computing power, ambient feedback and captive audiences.
In fact, cars are probably at the leading edge of ambient technology for the very good reason that it is a mistake to distract drivers. Asking a car to make a contribution to health does not seem to be too much of a stretch, and reaching out beyond the driver to passengers could extend the possible benefits. But we should also think about the possibilities to do more with gaming and simulation, exercise equipment and the kitchen. The opportunities are everywhere if we can think past attention grabbing and identify situations where ambient technology serves us best.