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calm technology

In computing, calm technology aims to reduce the "excitement" of information overload by letting the user select what information is at the center of their attention and what information is peripheral. The term was coined by Mark Weiser, chief technologist, and John Seeley Brown, director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Lab. In the coming age of ubiquitous computing in which technology will become at once pervasive yet invisible, Weiser and Brown foresee the need for design principles and methods that enable users to sense and control what immediately interests them while retaining peripheral awareness of other information possibilities that they can at any time choose to focus on. Calm technology, they envision, will not only relax the user but, by moving unneeded information to the edge of an interface, allow more information to exist there, ready for selection when needed. An example: a video conference may be a calmer interface than a phone conference because the explicit visual knowledge of details that are peripheral gives participants more confidence in what can be focused on and what can be left at the edge. (Think of phone conferences in which participants are never quite sure who has entered or left the room at the other end. This lack of information is not necessarily calming!) Knowledge of the periphery gives us "locatedness" without unduly distracting us.

As another example of calm technology, Weiser and Brown cite inner office windows. An office occupant can choose to focus on work within the office while maintaining some low level of awareness of the larger environment as people are seen moving in the office aisles. From the aisle, a worker has a sense of who is or isn't at work in their office. Weiser and Brown see this example as a metaphor for the Internet in which people can locate and be located by others in cyberspace while maintaining various degrees of control over their privacy and the timing in which they are willing to communicate.

As devices with embedded programming become an all-pervasive part of our environment (see micro-electromechanical systems ), the ability to design encalming devices and environments is apt to become much more important.

This was last updated in May 2005

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Mark Weiser gives another example in which you are alerted when your attention is required and not before. Think about driving a car. The motor sounds as usual and the instruments does not show any warnings. You are so used to the sound and instruments that you won't notice them until something is wrong. The slightest change in the sounds or a new light on the instrument board will immediately alert you. That is information when you need it.


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