With Ambient the physical environment becomes an interface to digital information rendered as subtle changes in form, movement, sound, color or light. Current information interfaces are either interruptive or too detailed. For the first time in history, ubiquitous wireless networks can affordably deliver digital information anytime, anywhere. The result for most of us is cacophony. Ambient wants to make the world calmer.
Communication via the Internet has become increasingly pervasive. We use MSN and Yahoo messenger, email, web based bbs’s, comments on our weblogs, and online as a means of keeping and forming relationships. Friendster, buddy lists, foaf, and our online address books record our circle of friends. All of these tools help us shape both our online and offline personas. Though our internet self in essence has become less and less disassociated with our ‘real’ self, the tools themselves remain a virtual construct and are kept at a distance. Tracking the data associated with these tools is important to people, but they typically wish to maintain only a peripheral awareness of it. Unfortunately current methods for maintaining awareness are too intrusive via a multitude of on screen applications or the out of tune audio alerts.
Our solution is to bring the information into the environment more completely allowing a persons online persona to shape the environment around them.
Overview and background
The girls’ ambient room uses sound, music, animation and light projections to communicate information at the periphery of human perception. It was designed to employ both the foreground and the background of the users attention. In normal day-to-day interactions we get information in a couple ways; first we get information from what we are focusing on, our center of attention is directed. When we are driving down the road, obviously the center of our attention is in front of us. When we are speaking or talking to somebody we are constantly focusing on that person and receiving the information. But while we are driving down the road and while we are talking to someone we are also getting information from other sources, from ambient sources. When we are driving outside we may have a sense of whether it’s windy or not by the sound of the wind or the visual information from the blowing of leaves. When talking to a friend we may get an idea of what other people are doing, whether they are busy, or they’re laughing, whether their situation is serious or not by this ambient sound from the presence of other people in the room.
[Soundscapes automatically generated from the rooms network activity.]
One of the original goals of the girls’ ambient room fits very much in line with the work I have been doing with Traffic 2 and 3 and that is trying to communicate a different idea, a different type of information to deliver a concept to people that the environment in which we live or work in relies a great deal upon software and network connectivity and that the network itself is alive, and growing, and changing all the time. That software and the network is entirely silent and that we as users of these tools and systems are totally unaware of the magnitude of what is going on in the background. We are totally unaware of how these systems are constantly changing and working. So what I wanted to do, what my first goal was to bring software and the network alive and make it part of the users environment. I wanted to give life to this silent form and in the final iteration of the installation, in this iteration this concept came closest to being true.
Now the second focus of the girls’ ambient room is to subtly and artfully and I might say elegantly displaying communication which is not the users primary foreground task. I’m concerned about providing a means for the seamless transition of the users interaction between background and foreground information. Generally when a process that was not a focus of attention catches our interest we are often able to seamlessly integrate that into our activity. To be able to design something like this is a very challenging and interesting opportunity. Not only am I trying to display and communicate this information that’s not in the primary foreground task I want to remove what would normally be foreground task and that is when focusing on a computer screen to receive the information which we are displaying. I want to get people to remove their eyes from this window and allow the information to become part of their environment so that they can receive this information in a more seemingly natural way. Get people away from these computer windows and bring this information to their environment.
Our ambient room had a number of key differences from others efforts to build this kind of environment. First of all the focus of our room was on Taiwan teenagers, Taiwan teenage girls. And so the design of the environment reflects their aesthetic, their taste, and their values. It also reflects the kind of activities that Taiwan girls, as in teenagers, do when they’re in the privacy of their own room, at least in terms of computing. And that is the information that we are recording and displaying at the peripheral are MSN chat, and Yahoo chat, and email and entries to their own comment systems to their own online journals. Essentially we are providing the means to bring their digital persona into their real world environment. The concept goes beyond more than just changing the audio signals. When the user, the Taiwan teenager, is in her room and receives a message on MSN chat, she gets an audio signal, all the audio signals are in tune with one another, and also an animation is created on the wall an animation which in this case in an abstract … which fades on to the screen and fades out to the right. When she receives an email there are lines on the screen which start to animate and vibrate. The more email the more active that system is the more vigerous the animation. And for Yahoo there are a bubble like animation and sound which registers that kind of information when it is received. When information or comments are entered into her commenting system on her online website or journal there is a change in the visual state of the room. In addition to this I wanted to create a means to register a different data stream, that being the time of day. I created a number of soundtracks which change depending on the time of day, as an example, first thing in the morning the sound track very much reflects a desire to wake up, so the sound reflects energy. There are a lot of bells, tension, and dissonance. And in the evening as a counter example the sounds in the soundtracks are much more subdued, and much more relaxed. All these soundtracks and all these signals and all these visual are all designed together and in tune together.