Ambient device

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Not to be confused with the company named: Ambient Devices.

Ambient devices represent a new niche of consumer electronics characterized by their ability to be perceived at-a-glance (also called "glanceable"). Ambient devices use pre-attentive processing to display information (ZIEGLER, 2012) and are aimed at minimizing the user’s mental effort. Associated fields include Ubiquitous Computing and Calm Technology. The concept in question is also closely related to what is usually referred to as The Internet of Things. (DAECHER, GALIZIA, 2015)

The New York Times Magazine announced ambient devices as one of the Ideas of the Year in 2002 on the heels of a start-up company, Ambient Devices, releasing their first product Ambient Orb, a frosted-glass ball lamp which maps information to a linear color spectrum and displays the trend in the data. Other products in the ambient genre have since been produced, such as the wifi-enabled 2008 Chumby, and in October 2012 the more sophisticated, 52-LED device MooresCloud (a reference to Moore's Law) from Australia.[1]

Initial research on ambient devices began at Xerox Parc with a paper co-written by Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown entitled Calm Computing. Associated fields include Ubiquitous computing (also known as Ubicomp) and Calm technology.

Core Concept[edit]

The notion of ambient devices revolves around core concept of immediate access to information. The original developers of the idea (HYATT, ROSE, 2002) state that in the majority of cases an ambient device is designed to provide support to people in carrying out their everyday activities in an easy and natural way. An average person living in a modern society is being overloaded with abundance of information on a daily basis. Through the introduction of ambient devices into their day-to-day routine an individual gains an opportunity to decrease the amount of effort to process incoming data, thus rendering self more informed and productive (ROSE, 2002).

The key issue lies within taking Internet-based content (e.g. traffic congestion, weather condition, stock market quotes) and mapping it into a single, usually one-dimensional spectrum (e.g. angle, colour). According to one of the concept originators David L. Rose this way the data is represented to an end user seamlessly, and its procurement requires an insignificant amount of cognitive load.


The history of the concept of ambient devices can be traced back to the early 2000s when preliminary research on ambient devices was carried at Xerox PARC, according to the company’s official website. More recent history is closely linked with a company titled Ambient Devices. The MIT Media Lab website lists the venture as the one founded by David L. Rose, Ben Resner, Nabeel Hyatt and Pritesh Gandhi as a spin-off from the MIT Media Lab.


One of the examples of the ambient device technology is Ambient Orb, introduced by Ambient Devices in 2002 (KIRSNER, 2002). The device itself was a glowing sphere which was continuously displaying data through perpetual changes in colour. Ambient Orb was customizable in terms of content and its subsequent visual representation. For instance, when the device was set to monitor a particular stock market index (e.g. NASDAQ), the Orb glowed green/red to represent the upward/downward movement of the stock prices; alternatively, it turned amber when the index is unchanged. Nabeel Hyatt stated that the device was marketed as an interior design item with additional functionality.

Another prominent ambient device is Chumby, which was released in 2008 and served as an at-a-glance widget station. Historical background to the venture is available via official website. Chumby was able to push relevant customizable data (weather, news, music, photos) to a touchscreen through Wi-Fi (LYONS, 2008). Even though it greatly surpassed all the products resembling Ambient Orb in terms of functionality and was proclaimed one of the top gadgets of 2008 (DUMAS, SORRELL, 2008), the production was ceased in April 2012, and since 1 July 2014 Chumby is available only as a paid subscription service (WELCH, 2013).

See also[edit]