"…as Refreshing as Taking a Walk in the Woods." Travelling through time to revisit the idea of Calm Technology

author: John N.A. Brown, Institute of Informatics Systems (ISYS), Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt
recorded by: IEEE ICME
published: Sept. 18, 2012,   recorded: July 2012,   views: 4189


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In 1995, Mark Weiser and John Seeley Brown said that computers would enter society in 3 stages. The Mainframe Era was followed by the Personal Computer Era. They predicted that the internet and distributed computing would lead to an era of Ubiquitous Computing. Some say that it has, but what we now call UC is not what Weiser and Brown described. It is true that each person now uses many computers, instead of the other way around, but they did not just define UC by the human: computer ratio.

"The most potentially interesting, challenging and profound change implied by the ubiquitous computing era is a focus on calm."

Calm Technology is based on the two ways that humans process information. Trying to focus on more than one thing at once is stressful, but humans can take in much more information if it is presented peripherally; in a way that allows the individual to judge whether or not to give it more attention. Basic physiology and neuroanatomy show that we naturally examine things closely while at the same time using other senses to keep track of subtle changes in our environment, warning us when the peripheral becomes important. What’s more, the process of plucking things from the periphery, examining them and then deciding how to resort them is a comforting activity. It makes us feel at home and in control.

Ubiquitous Computing is everywhere now (if you’ll pardon the pun) but Calm Technology has been all but abandoned because it is harder to design and implement than traditional multi‐media interaction. So, instead of deliberate calm, we have constant text message alerts, ring tones and email pop‐ups demanding the immediate attention of everyone within earshot. Imagine instead that your cell phone would subtly let you know who is trying to reach you without pulling your attention away from the task at hand. It could be as gentle as familiar footsteps drawing close or the hint of a smile on your touchscreen.

Hardware and software are now more than good enough, and rich multimedia can be customised, stored, accessed and processed quickly and cheaply. It is time for Human Computer Interaction based on rich and textured interfaces; interaction that is less like a series of screaming emergencies fighting for our attention, and more like a walk in the woods.

It is time for Calm Technology.

Weiser and Brown, “Designing Calm Technology”, 1995, Powergrid Journal, 1,1. (Available from: http://sandbox.xerox.com/hypertext/weiser/calmtech/calmtech. htm)

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Download slides icon Download slides: icme2012_brown_calm_technology_01.pdf (5.4 MB)

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