Ambient Findability

I have never been an early adopter of technology. I’m more of a skeptical fast-following frugalist. So it’s not surprising that I only recently entered the promised land of the wireless web.

Equipped with a Dell Latitude C400, a Minolta Dimage X, and a Motorola V60c, I can finally sit in my backyard, write an article, check the polar bear’s sales rank once a minute, email pictures of my feet to friends, order pizza, and utilize pre-attentive processing to make sure our three year old is looking after our baby responsibly.

Having achieved this network nirvana, the question is inevitable: what’s next? For an information architect with library roots, the answer is obvious: ambient findability.

I want to be able to find anything, anywhere, anytime.

What’s surprising is how close we are to making this impossibly strange dream a reality. Ambient interfaces, sensors and small tech are about to intertwingle the physical and virtual worlds in shocking ways that will make history of the Diamond Age.

Ambient Interfaces

At this year’s Advance for Design in Las Vegas, David Rose brought some cool toys to his show-and-sell session. David’s company, Ambient Devices, embeds information representation into everyday objects, enabling lights, pens, watches, walls and wearables to tell you when you’ve got email, when it’s going to rain, when to take your meds, how your stocks are doing, and how long you’ll be stuck in traffic today. While I’m not convinced we’re about to undergo a “paradigm shift to glance-ability,” I do want an Ambient Orb and a Talking Table.

Jeffrey Huang of Harvard University then told us about the Swisshouse, a “radically new kind of consulate located both in Boston and on the Internet.” This prototype for convergent architecture creates social spaces that seamlessly combine the physical and the virtual, transforming places into portals and putting the web on the wall.

Sensors and Small Tech

According to the experts, advances in MEMS and nanotechnology will soon kick small tech into the big time. While smart dust and personal fabricators are more exotic, sensors will drive change faster and further in the near future.

In a Ten Year Forecast, Paul Saffo explains that we’re about to add eyes, ears and all sorts of other sensory organs to our devices and networks. Sensors and small tech already make it possible to access real-time traffic reports on the Web and to find your kids using a GPS Personal Locator.

Before long we’ll have sticky sensors and radiofrequency (RF) tags the size of a postage stamp. You’ll be able to stick them to the back of your remote control, the inside of your purse and the bottom of your spouse’s shoe. Yes, our ability to track the location of everything all the time will raise some privacy concerns, but privacy is history anyway.

Designing for Ambient Findability

So how will the convergence of ambient interfaces, sensors and small tech change the work of information architecture and design?

In short, it won’t.

Consider the following bold predictions:

  • Keyword Searching Reigns Supreme. Ten years from now, users will still enter one or two keywords into a search query box, and they’ll still be frustrated by the results. Hopefully we’ll have some algorithmic advances that take us beyond Google, but ultimately we won’t escape the ambiguity of language.
  • Metadata Goes Mainstream. We’re going to create an explosion of metadata. In order to identify all of the people and objects we want to be able to find, we’ll need to tag them with metadata. This will usher in the era of personal information architecture that Jakob Nielsen predicts in our book’s foreword.

Your Predictions

Okay, so you’re disappointed by my predictions. Well, what did you expect from a skeptical fast-following frugalist who’s multi-tasking in his backyard? Please, tell me your predictions.

by Peter Morville