Consider the seat you’re sitting on right now.
It knows your body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure. It knows your blood’s sugar levels, how tense or relaxed your muscles are, and even what you just ate for breakfast.
Your chair can sense what mood you’re in, and has a pretty good chance of anticipating which way it might swing. Your chair can talk to the lighting and task it to adjust to suit your personal preferences, it can turn on some piped music from your favourites list, and it can block your phone for a while if it thinks you really need to be left alone.
Well, it’s all on the way, and very soon. You may have heard of the term ‘The Internet of Things’? It describes the organic process of our various devices such as phones, iPads, TVs etc. all being able to talk to each other with increasing sophistication. There are already many domestic devices and appliances that can connect to the ‘net and thereby communicate with each other, hence the internet of ‘things’.
The aspect of this that I find increasingly fascinating is ‘Ambient Intelligence’ (AmI). This refers to a field of computing whereby electronic devices are able to respond to us and our needs ‘naturally’, i.e. they don’t require instructions from us. AmI systems are embedded, context aware, personalised, adaptive, and anticipatory.
Technological advancement in this field already has nano-devices as small as a millimetre across that are able to report back to the mothership. The ultimate goal is to develop ‘smart dust’ [Read Richard Crichton’s ‘Prey’ and you’ll think twice about the wisdom of this] that can go anywhere anytime and do our bidding.
There are so many applications, pros and cons to this one, let alone a lengthy debate about privacy, but I only want to focus on one of the positives – the healthcare benefits.
Imagine these possible scenarios;
- Your own chair notices that your heart rate is a bit off kilter, so it sends off some data to your GP with a priority tag, your GP analyses it real time and concludes that you’re in deep #@*! and need to get to the hospital asap – and the ambulance has already been dispatched.
- Your child is at day care and her chair notices the first warning signs of an asthma attack, alerts the staff via their Google Glasses who jump into action, and simultaneously alerts you and sends a note to the closest ER to be on standby.
- Your elderly parent who has early dementia hasn’t been eating enough at home and is at risk of becoming malnourished. You know this because her fridge and pantry had a discussion about their inventory, ran this by the sofa and bed with their biometric data and concluded that your Mum wasn’t eating enough, so they sent you a message.
Some may see this as a significant breach of privacy, probably just up until the point where they lose a loved one through delayed response.
This microscopic and ubiquitous Ambient Intelligence is on the way, for better or for worse. It will be in our furniture, building materials, paints, fabrics, even our streets and public places. Our challenge is to embrace the positives and manage the risks and weaknesses.
[A good source of info I found on this topic is the Stanford University AIR Lab (Ambient Intelligence Research Lab) site, including some cool examples of potential applications. Something for every designer here.]