• A Smart Furniture Manifesto

    Why Apps Will Leap Off The Screen And Into Our Lives

    Imagine a chair that plays your Pandora music, a kitchen cabinet that instantly connects you to a loved one, a trash can that reorders household essentials via Amazon… The things we live with are getting smarter. Here’s why:

    The app glut problem

    Apple just passed 25 Billion app downloads. My iPhone and iPad groan everytime I download a new one. We’re overloaded. As apps proliferate, they become less findable. And the harder they are to find, the less we end up using them. Seriously, how many screens full of 16 apps do you have on your iThing? For me it’s 11 screens x 16 apps (not counting folders) = 176. Locating the right feature at the right time is a big mental map to maintain.

    A simpler approach is to distribute and situate apps in different parts of your life–make them glanceable. The weather on the bathroom mirror, a shared family calendar on the fridge, the school-bus proximity near the entry way, traffic congestion on  key fobs, etc. As a memory aid, Plato conceptually positioned different parts of his speeches in different parts of the rooms around him. We can do the same with digital services embedded in everyday objects and fixtures.

    The problem with optimizing for portability

    Why are we so enthralled with portability? Look, I love hiking and camping and cool outdoor gear from REI and Patagonia…but the lightness and portability comes with performance trade-offs. Same with smartphones.

    At home, you’d never prefer a sleeping bag to your bed. Or an REI chair to your Eames recliner. Or a camp stove to your Viking. A Swiss Army knife is undoubtedly clever, but have you ever used one to chop vegetables for a large dinner?

    As a society, we are obsessed with the novelty of being a digital nomad… but compromises are everywhere. My smartphone screen is too small to enjoy a movie or immersive video game, the keyboard is ineffective for real writing, and speakers are too soft for conference calls. Smartphones are primarily good at being portable… like camping gear.

    For the most part, we live in homes (or hotels) and can have home-scale interfaces for technology just like we have home-scale furniture and kitchen appliances.

    As technology and biology mature, specialization and diversity are inevitable

    Kevin Kelly, in is his excellent book What Technology Wants, compares the growth of biological systems with technology evolution. As both mature, we see increasing specialization and diversity: more species of fish and coral, more screen sizes, wireless protocols, and display technologies. Variation multiplies to fill different opportunity-niches. Convergence to a perfect platonic form doesn’t happen. We see this diversity today with the plethora of e-reader options, TV sizes, and technologies (OLED, LCD, plasma, and still CRT), digital cameras, music players, etc. The trend to diversify will continue, and many argue its pace will increase. Just as time-keeping leapt from towers to wrists to everything, so will digital information and services. Furniture is next.

    Embedding promotes use

    In 2008, I invented a product called the GlowCap. It fits on ordinary prescription pill bottles and sends text messages or calls if you haven’t opened it. The product, now deployed by over dozen pharmaceutical companies and insurers, helps people take important daily medications over 90% of the time (over a baseline of around 60%). There are plenty of smartphone apps that aspire to do the same but their results are miserable. And they often prompt dangerous double-dosing. Why? Because they aren’t embedded in natural patterns of use.

    As one of our customers summarized “I have to take the GlowCap off to get the medication out anyway.”

    With GlowCaps there are no apps to download or interfaces to learn. In fact there’s nothing new to learn at all. So, augment ordinary things with digital technology, and you get frequent, frictionless use. The lesson for furniture is to let a new service piggyback on an existing object, gesture, or everyday behavior. That’s what I mean when I say the App-ification of objects–or Enchanted Objects. They are what they are, and then a little bit more.

    The app-ification of furniture

    When we liberate apps from ithings and embed them in everyday objects and gestures, they become more findable, convenient, and likely to be used. Freed from the constraints of the campers-backpack and reframed as furniture, they also inherit at least five other important advantages: glanceability, simplicity, resolution, gestural interfaces, and durability. Lastly these object+service hybrids have the best chance of proliferating quickly into people’s lives by using current product distribution networks. In other words, they have sellability.

    1) Glanceability

    Twelve years ago, I stared a company called Ambient Devices based on the insight that our brains have a natural ability to attend to peripheral information. Our first product, the Ambient Orb, couldn’t have been simpler. It was a single pixel lamp whose color was mapped to some realtime data: stock market trends, pollen count, traffic on your homeward commute, email inbox volume, energy consumption, etc. People loved it for its elegance, but also for its ‘glanceability.’ You could monitor things that mattered, almost without thinking about it. Cognitive scientists call this pre-attentive processing.


    Furniture, like a clock, can do this. Apps can’t. Apps need time to launch and navigate, but not the Energy Clock. The Energy Clock is a wall clock that shows the time, and superimposes your energy use. This is valuable information that entirely loses it’s value if it’s locked away in an app that takes 6 seconds to launch. The glanceable, single-pixel display allows you to check your home’s energy use in a quarter of a second–there’s no launch, no lag, nothing to navigate. If you can distill information into a glanceable display, you can be sure they’ll read it constantly, sometimes, without even thinking about it!

    2) Simplicity

    Some apps are funky. You often need to learn a new interface just to operate them, but not the Google Latitude Doorbell. The Doorbell uses Google Latitude on your family’s smartphones to play a special chime as your loved ones get closer to home. For families with kids and working parents, you won’t know how useful this is until you experience it, and there’s hardly anything to learn–just the different audio signal that plays for each family member. Different tunes play when each person crosses a 10 mile, 1 mile, and .1 mile radius from the home (called a geofence). Now you know that kids or a spouse is on their way home, all while preparing dinner or helping with homework.


    Our capacity for interpreting subtle sounds is remarkable. It’s one of our five senses that we often ignore as interface designers–it’s a latent channel. Humans have a limited attention pool, and while the visual channel is often saturated, our audio channel is often available. Cognitive psychology teaches us that one channel doesn’t distract from the other. Just consider driving. You can drive perfectly well while listening to music, but not while texting. And that’s why the Google Latitude Doorbell is so simple and intuitive.  The sound channel works in your cognitive periphery. You recognize who is on their way home without even trying. With the Doorbell you don’t have to text or call to find out when your family is getting home, you just know.

    3) Resolution

    A good video conferencing experience requires five things:

    1. a high-quality microphone
    2. good speakers
    3. diffused lighting
    4. a good camera pointed directly at eye-level
    5. enough bandwidth to avoid lags

    Today’s iThings have none of these.

    I’ve been working on a project to build these features concealed in ordinary kitchen cabinetry or book shelves. The camera sits behind half-silvered glass, so you are looking directly at the other person’s eyes, and the cabinet door becomes a diffused light-box. A proximity sensor illuminates your cabinet door when the other person is around theirs. This helps coordinate a serendipitous video conference, without a pre-call. The furniture is optimized for video conferencing. It does nothing else… except storage.


    This piece of furniture signals an important paradigm shift in how we think about embedded technology. The falling costs of computation, connectivity, and display allow designers to prioritize convenience, over technology affordability. Now we can dedicate a handful of cabinet doors to a handful of people who you’d like to be immediately connected with. There is no longer a cost-constraint. The key question becomes who do you want to talk to, frequently enough, to dedicate a 10×10 inch square patch of wall-space. For our family, the answer is about seven. My wife has three siblings plus her parents, my sister and parents, and my 8-year-old daughter has a best friend she wants to be connected to. Open two cabinets and a three-way video conference is triggered.

    4) Natural Gestures

    Taking out your iphone, tapping, swiping, these are learned gestures. Now, throwing garbage into the trash can–that’s a gesture we’ve been doing for generations. When we throw something away, especially in the kitchen, we often need to replace it. But maintaining a shopping list is a lot of effort. Wouldn’t it be great if your trash knew what you were throwing out, and ordered it automatically? That’s what the Amazon Trash Can does, during the natural gesture of discarding trash. Just pause for a second, and the item you want restocked will be ordered, automatically. Kick the can to cancel the last order.

    5) Indestructibility

    I used to design interactive exhibits for science museums and children’s museums. We used special military-grade buttons, industrial hinges, and hardened materials to endure wave after wave of hyperactive school children, 24/7/365, for years. Last year, I visited the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry after installing a major exhibit there in 1995. The $250,000 Silicon graphics workstations that powered the exhibit seemed less impressive, but the exhibit was still working and teaching hundreds of museum goers each day about imaging science. Now that’s durability!


    Today’s smartphones and computers, especially laptops, are exceptionally fragile, particularly around kids with fumbling fingers, juice boxes, yogurt, and applesauce. Fortunately, we can make furniture much more spill-proof than ithings, for example the FaceBook CoffeeTable. This table listens to your conversation and recognizes names of people and places that are tagged in your Facebook photos. When it makes a match that photo is displayed. It’s like a visual track for your conversation. And with a durable glass surface, bring on the spilled milk.


    Furniture is an established industry. Dedicated retail outlets are plentiful. Enchanted furniture will start as sleek, expensive, stand-alone items made with the best materials in boutique design stores, where price-insensitive, early-adopters shop. Then, as price-points compress, we will see embedded Internet features available in component-based furniture: Vitra and Steelcase office systems, PoggenPohl and ArcLenea kitchens where it will be available as an option. Finally, these features will penetrate the mass market where the bulk of furniture is purchased: Target, Walmart, Home Depot, and the clubs like Costco and Sams. In parallel, the maker culture will adopt open-source solutions and kits from SparkFun, Make magazine, and online mod sites like IKEA hackers. Expect to see a lot of creativity and lead-user invention out of this DYI community.

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