Before Alexa and Google Home became household names, Ambient Devices produced a different line of home assistants. The Cambridge, Mass.-based company wasn’t interested in adding metallic, do-it-all devices to people’s lives. Instead, it took everyday objects around the house and gave them an extra job.
Take the umbrella, for instance, an item many people leave near their doors. The company embedded umbrella handles with a chip and a light. If the upcoming 12-hour forecast called for rain, the light glowed, reminding its owner to grab it on their way outside.
This way of encoding useful information into a device was not just a cool gimmick. With another similar product, a glowing orb that let people know about the rising and falling costs of electricity, the company found that users conserved about 20 percent more of their electricity — a tangible sign that we respond rationally to new information.
David Rose founded Ambient Devices, though he’s since moved on to Warby Parker, where he’s vice president of vision technology. He’s also the author of the book "Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things."
“With that insight of, ‘Oh, this is a behavior change object, not just something that’s sort of fun to have around, but we can actually influence and nudge people in ways,’ we started working on important health issues,” Rose says.
One of his main interests in health care was figuring out how to make sure people take their medications as prescribed. According to Rose, people who don’t take their medication account for up to $200 billion a year in hospitalizations that could have been avoided.
To tackle the problem, he created a pill bottle that can send a message to the patient or the patient's family on a day they don't open the bottle. He also worked to make it easier for people to stick with doctor’s orders, by having the bottle request refills from the pharmacy when a prescription runs low.
“We started to see a huge change in behavior, so people that would have taken their meds 50 percent of the time are now taking them 90 percent of the time,” Rose says. “I’m excited by what the ‘internet of things’ can do for convenience in the home, but also to work on really important issues in cities, in health care, in other things that can really make a positive change in society.”
Meanwhile, tech companies today are working to create their own versions of Rose’s Google Maps coffee table and Skype cabinets. By linking these small, everyday items to the internet and expanding their capability, inventors and marketers are finding new ways to sell products. And they’re doing it with just about everything imaginable.
“It’s a mess right now,” Rose says. “You have internet-connected toilets where you ask them to put up the toilet seat. I’m not sure people need that.”
As the market fills with these products, Rose says he hopes that the next generation of product designers can learn to create devices that are respectful of our time, attention and privacy.