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4.3Calm Technology (CT): Increasing Supply Without Increasing Demand

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If Ubiquitous Computing would 'only' be about putting computers everywhere and in virtually anything, than users of such technology might still feel overwhelmed by both all these devices around them as well as by all the input and information they receive from them. It is for this important reason that UC goes hand in hand with a special technology, one which enables users to do more while at the same time a sense of calmness remains as well as the notion that you are still in full control of everything you are doing. This new approach or technology is called "Calm Technology";

"The ultimate goal of ubiquitous computing is to implement calm technology, a world where computers do not cause stress, but enhance our lives and make many tasks easier. Eyeglasses are an example of calm technology. They help us to see the world more clearly, but they do not distract us from what we are doing, and we are barely aware of their existence. According to Dr. Weiser, the purpose of a computer is to help you do something else. The computer should extend your unconscious and the more you can do by intuition, the smarter you are. Like Donald A. Norman, he believes that the best computer program is the one in which the computer 'disappears' and the user seems to be working directly on the problem."

The greatest strength of Calm Technology therefore lies in the fact that computers are made to conform to their users, and not the other way around. Information is presented in the manner that a user decides, and is easily accessible. The user does not feel distracted or slowed down by using this Calm Technology: he can do more with less (effort), i.e. it will enable him to process more information without getting the feeling that this task is more taxing.

"Designs that encalm and inform meet two human needs not usually met together. Information technology is more often the enemy of calm: pagers, cellphones, news services, the World Wide Web, email, TV, and radio bombard us frenetically."
from [WEIS95]

What is it that makes one technology Calm, whereas another technology is perceived as overwhelming or irritating? The difference is in the way technologies engage our attention. Calm Technology (CT) engages both the periphery as well as the centre of our attention, and can easily move between the two. The term "periphery" is meant "to describe what we are attuned to without attending to explicitly"; "Whenever people learn something sufficiently well, they cease to be aware of it. When you look at a street sign, for example, you absorb its information without consciously performing the act of reading.. Computer scientist, economist, and Nobelist Herb Simon calls this phenomenon "compiling"; philosopher Michael Polanyi calls it the "tacit dimension"; psychologist TK Gibson calls it "visual invariants"; philosophers Georg Gadamer and Martin Heidegger call it "the horizon" and the "ready-to-hand", John Seely Brown at PARC calls it the "periphery". All say, in essence, that only when things disappear in this way are we freed to use them without thinking and so to focus beyond them on new goals." (from [WEIS91])

It should be clear that what is denoted by "periphery" is anything but trivial or unimportant. What is in the periphery at one moment may in the next moment come to be at the centre of our attention and so be crucial: "Ordinarily when driving our attention is centred on the road, the radio, our passenger, but not the noise of the engine. But an unusual noise is noticed immediately, showing that we were attuned to the noise in the periphery, and could come quickly to attend to it."

A calm technology will move easily from the periphery of our attention, to the centre, and back. This is fundamentally encalming, for two reasons:1
1. By placing things in the periphery we are able to attune to many more things than we could if everything had to be at the centre. Things in the periphery are attuned to by the large portion of our brains devoted to peripheral (sensory) processing. Thus the periphery is informing without overburdening;
2. By recentering something formerly in the periphery we take control of it. Peripherally we may become aware that something is not quite right, as when awkward sentences leave a reader tired and discomforted without knowing why. By moving sentence construction from periphery to centre we are empowered to act, either by finding better literature or accepting the source of the unease and continuing. Without centring the periphery might be a source of frantic following of fashion; with centring the periphery is a fundamental enabler of calm through increased awareness and power.

Thus, when designing CT, it is important that the periphery is informing without being overbearing.

A technology can not only empower our periphery by making it easy to move from the centre of attention to the periphery and back, but also by having it enhance our so-called "peripheral reach" by bringing more details into the periphery. "An example is a video conference that, by comparison to a telephone conference, enables us to attune to nuances of body posture and facial expression that would otherwise be inaccessible. This is encalming when the enhanced peripheral reach increases our knowledge and so our ability to act without increasing information overload." (from [WEIS95])

A good example of a practical and very 'humble' application of the idea of Calm Technology is that of the "Dangling String":

"The 'Dangling String' is an 8 foot piece of plastic spaghetti that hangs from a small electric motor mounted in the ceiling. The motor is electrically connected to a nearby Ethernet cable, so that each bit of information that goes past causes a tiny twitch of the motor. A very busy network causes a madly whirling string with a characteristic noise; a quiet network causes only a small twitch every few seconds. Placed in an unused corner of a hallway, the long string is visible and audible from many offices without being obtrusive. It is fun and useful. The Dangling String [illustrates] how to create calm technology. [...] It creates a new centre of attention just by being unique. But this centre soon becomes peripheral as the gentle waving of the string moves easily to the background. That the string can be both seen and heard helps by increasing the clues for peripheral attunement."

The concept of Calm Technology can be summarised as becoming attuned to more by attending to it less. The concept that is the topic of the next section - Augmented Reality - tries to reach a similar goal (enabling a user to do more work with less effort) but quite different techniques are used here to accomplish this.

1= This information is largely quoted from [WEIS95].
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Chapter 4 - An Introduction to Ubiquitous Computing, Calm Technology and Augmented Realities "Desperately Seeking: Helping Hands and Human Touch" -
by Björn Hermans