Context: Ambient Devices

tl;dr: Ambient objects aim to make data glanceable. They embody the notion of 'calm computing' which seeks to design interfaces that are non-intrusive and avoid any demand on attention. They are often simple, elegant, and abstract representations provided through audio, visual or haptic feedback.


Ambient objects aim to make data glanceable. They connect us to complex information like weather and traffic in an extremely accessible format. They don’t intrude like our phones which buzz and whirr to demand attention, instead they subtly nudge us to act when we happen to glance in their direction. They are calm and they distill information from the broader world into the minimum we need to know in order to act.

At their core, ambient objects are about embodying data in the real world. They enable us to engage with digital information in a physical space. They allow us to perceive the conditions of the world beyond where we are at any moment. They are specific, purposeful, elegantly simple abstractions of data placed around us to give us value.

David Rose in Enchanted objects explains these abilities and the design process as follows:

“I see seven “abilities” that differentiate enchanted objects from smartphones and their apps. This translates into how we learn them and they learn us. Their ability to engender trust, for them to act as respectful agents of our time and attention. The most important: glanceability, gestureability, affordability, wearability, indestructibility, usability, and loveability. “ … What is the process of enchanting an object? What are the steps involved? Are there degrees of enchantment? … This five-step, organized approach to thinking and creating products will deliver on the seven abilities of enchantment… The higher the object climbs on the ladder, the more sophisticated or enchanting it becomes. Not every object need reach the top, but value can be added at each step:

  1. Connection: adding sensing/sensor capabilities by connecting to the cloud.
  2. Personalization: adding and leveraging personal information.
  3. Socialization: adding connections to friends, loved ones, and colleagues.
  4. Gamification: adding the fun and motivational elements of videogames.
  5. Story-ification: adding a human narrative for the product, service, or user.

Examples of Ambient Devices

Ambient Orb

Ambient Orb

Perhaps the best example of an ambient object is the Ambient Orb. A simple 1 pixel display, it has all of these qualities. It is flexible and adaptable giving users a web-based interface to map a range of information sources to changes in light and color. For example, stock prices ups and downs are mapped into shifts from green to red.


Forecast Ambient Umbrella

Forecast Ambient Umbrella

Forecast is an umbrella with a handle that can tell you what the weather is like. It can subtly indicate if you need to take it with you when leaving the house in the morning.

Cryoscope - touchable forecasts

Cryoscope - touchable forecasts

In the same vein, Cryoscope allows you to touch the weather. It allows for simple understanding of temperature through your natural ability to determine hot and cold. The metal slab is simply heated or cooled to the desired temperature. To receive a forecast of tomorrow’s temperature, the user touches the Cryoscope—the device’s surface is cooled or heated to reflect the forecasted temperature.

Ken Kawamoto invented the Tempascope, a device that displays weather forecasts or current weather physically. It physically simulates tomorrow’s weather. If it’s going to rain water drips inside the box, cloudiness is represented by a mist diffuser, and temperature is represented by color-chaning LEDs.

Ken Kawamoto's [Tempascope](

Ken Kawamoto’s Tempascope

Unforms’s Weather Systems

Advertising Agency, Uniform, created these whimsical interfaces to cloud-based weather data. These three internet connected ‘desk-toys’ to give glanceable but playful alerts to changing weather conditions

The first gadgets rotates a color wheel from blue (cold)to red (hot) to show the temperature range outside. The second uses pattering plastic pins to fill your house with the sound of a rainstorm that has yet to start. The faster the pins start moving, the more intense the rain is falling. And the third acts like a digital weather vane, twirling in anticipation of a blustery front ten minutes away.

Vitality’s [Glow Caps](

Vitality’s Glow Caps

Changing Behavior

Vitality’s Glow Caps connect a pill bottle to online calendars given an ambient visual cue to if you have taken your medication or if you need to. They light up when it nears the time to take your medication and a home hub, typically left in the kitchen also signals it’s time to take your medicine.

People often struggle to manage budgets with credit and debit cards because they don’t have a visible indication of how much they spend. The Proverbial Wallet can inflate or shrink your wallet to give a tangible cue to the amount of money in your bank account or can make it harder to open your wallet if you’ve gone over budget for the month.

Home Energy

[Glow]( changing color as energy is consumed

Glow changing color as energy is consumed

Glow’s Smart Energy system combines an easy to install home electicity usage monitor with an ambient real-time visualisation of energy use.

… we use the fastest, most intuitive communication medium: color. Color is well studied; it’s lightning quick to understand and is more effective than graphs or numbers throughout day-to-day life. It’s also understandable at all ages making Glow a place the whole family can learn about energy use.

We’ve found through testing that users respond best to a range of colors that go from cool (blue and green) to hot (amber, orange, and red). A glance on your way out the door lets you make sure you’re not wasting energy while you’re away. And when you want numbers and graphs, Glow’s app is just a few taps away.



Show-me gives a visible indication of household water consumption where it matters - in the shower. It attempts to create better water use behaviors by giving clearer indication of how much is being used when in one of the most heavy use water activities - showering. Many other examples of ambient displays create indications of energy use to better manage household spending and to encourage greener behaviors.

Workplace and Productivty

Ishac Bertran’s Discrete Window

The Discrete Window “is a blind that provides visual feedback for a home-office environment about the users’ work activity. As an ambient display, The Discreet Window is a membrane that communicates the work intensity to both the home-office space and the outside. The more the user works, the less light is coming inside the room. Thus, the less visual contact there is between both sides of the window.”

Freek Oliver’s Tangible Email Concept

This tangible and ambient display experiments with embodying email counts through an actuated envelope. Like Breakaway, changes in digital information influence the form of the object. As new email is received, the envelope opens…

Berg’s #flock is “a set of four houses, three contain colourful birds which react to Twitter triggers, the fourth is a simple clock. A new follower, a retweet or an @message will trigger one of the birds to pop out of its house, each with a different movement. Optional birdsong can accompany each action, the volume controlled with a small dial.”

Berg’s [#flock](

Berg’s #flock


Within ambient interfaces, there’s a whole slew of internet connected devices designed as embodied ‘dashboards’ or physical visualisations of digital data. Data Phys maintains an amazing list of these “physical counterparts of data visualization” - from the connected to analog!

These objects include:

  • Data Physicalisations - “A data physicalization (or simply physicalization) is a physical artifact whose geometry or material properties encode data.” (Jansen et al., 2015)

  • Data Sculptures - “a data-based physical artifact, possessing both artistic and functional qualities, that aims to augment a nearby audience’s understanding of data insights and any socially relevant issues that underlie it.” (Zhao and Vande Moere, 2008)

(all definitions from


Christian Ferrara and Jon McTaggert’s Pulse is a tangible line graph. Like the Ambient Orb, it can be connected to specific bits of digital data and represent it in real-time. However, it can present a higher fidelity of information - up to 6 points of information - connected in a line by string.

[Tenison Road](

Tenison Road

Microsoft’s Tenison Road explores the use of physical charts to visualize the community polls and live sensor information gathered through connected devices. They’re presented in a local storefront to drive conversation with data throughout the neighbourhood.

The IoT Design Shop produced FizViz an open-sourced “Physical Visualizations of data that present information in a large format, super cool, instantly readable way. The concept is that you’d hang a set of FizViz widgets in your office, workshop, or wherever you want to watch and share data that matters”





A whole slew of new ambient wearables and jewelry is designed to subtly alert you to things you might want to know. Ringly uses vibration and color to give you a cue to apps or notifications on your phone that are important. Cuff and Kovert are very similar

While more of a haptic interface, Disney’s AirReal allows you to experience ‘nudges’ and notifications without instrumentation/wearables through a series of haptic air cannons!

Disney’s AirReal

Disney's [AirReal](

Disney’s AirReal

AIREAL is a new low cost, highly scalable haptic technology that delivers expressive tactile sensations in mid air. AIREAL enables users to feel virtual objects, experience dynamically varying textures and receive feedback on full body gestures, all without requiring the user to wear a physical device. AIREAL is designed to use a vortex, a ring of air that can travel large distances while keeping its shape and speed.