Yesterday I had the pleasure and honor of speaking at the Information Architecture Institute's IDEA Conference in New York. I got to share the stage with David Rose, CEO of Ambient Devices, probably the most pioneering consumer ubicomp company. The title of our session (as chosen by Peter Merholz, who curated the conference) was "Digital IA in a Physical World." David spoke about Ambient Devices' history from the Ambient Orb (well, actually, from his childhood home) to their current products, and how they've changed their vision since they began. I spoke about how ThingM developed our smart wine rack, and the larger context in which we do our work.
Speaking to an audience of information architects, I really wanted to emphasize what I feel is the fundamental change that information processing goes through when it becomes ubiquitous. One of the ways I've been discussing this transformation in the last couple of years is by talking about information as a material. I reiterated that argument for the IDEA audience:
[...] embedded information processing and networking starts behaving like a material.
Let me explain. When a product designer can include information processing in a product for very little cost, the calculation becomes not one of engineering complexity, that’s relatively cheap, but one of competitive advantage. Including a CPU becomes a line item in the competitive analysis of making an object, just like the calculation about what to make it out of. Of course, as any brand new material, adoption doesn’t come all at once, it trickles in first in one industry, then another. Think of nylon going from being a molding material in 1941, to panty hose, to cogs in sewing machines by the 1960s. You can already see it happening with information processing. All kinds of toys now depend not just on their physical appearance, but behavior created by electronics, for their competitive advantage.
I also described why we chose to augment existing objects, rather than creating wholly new devices. For me, this is because existing objects already have highly-developed information shadows that we aren't fully taking advantage of and that there's still much potential in exploring augmented everyday objects:
Every material object casts an information shadow. It exists simultaneously in the physical world and in the world of data. That information shadow has a life of its own. Sometimes that life is pretty simple. But it can also be complex, maybe as rich as the physical object’s life. Like Frank [Lanz of area/codesaid yesterday, the border between the real and the virtual is becoming more porous. This is also where IA comes in: the information architecture of these shadows IS the information architecture of objects. With this project we wanted to unify the informational and physical aspects of a common object. We looked around for objects with rich informational lives, and after discussion about books, clothes, and cars, we settled on wine.
In the rest of the talk, I describe some of the design challenges we faced in creating the WineM and how we solved them. You can get the whole presentation(684K PDF) with my notes.