Information, the new material

The mundane things around us are quietly getting a lot smarter, fundamentally changing how everyday objects are designed. Anoto pens, Roombas and Tickle Me Elmos are all computers at heart, but little resemble their word processor-running/DOOM-playing ancestors.

Thanks to Moore's Law it is now nearly as easy (and cheap) to incorporate information processing into a mass-produced object as it is to create a custom injection-molded plastic part. The capability to manipulate information and create behavior has become a component instead of the goal of digital product design. Soon, Internet-connectivity for bathroom scales and wireless sensors in running shoes will be expected options, like color and finish. We will take for granted parking meters that send us messages before they run out, just as we take for granted Bluetooth headsets, MP3 players and Netflix streaming.

This movement towards computational objects that don't look like what we currently describe as computers represents a fundamental shift in the design of technology. It blurs the edges between industrial design, product design, architecture and interaction design. It's been called many terms ("pervasive computing," "ambient intelligence," "The Internet of Things", etc.). I use "ubiquitous computing," the name Xerox PARC gave the trend in the late 1980s.

Ubicomp has been a long time coming. Xerox PARC made good progress in the early 90s (see this 1991 video), and momentum to develop useful embedded computing devices was starting to build, but then the Web hit. Attention and investment shifted to the Web, which only required traditional computers with a screen, keyboard and mouse. Read the rest