Tag Archives: Ambient Devices

Henri wants to help designers create ambient UIs for smart devices

This interactive gizmo is making it easier for designers to explore the ambient UIs of tomorrow’s gadgets. 

Smart devices will undoubtedly continue to proliferate over the coming years. With billions of these connected gizmos expected to hit the market and ultimately make their way into our homes, this leaves one important question: How do you communicate with an Internet-enabled appliance when it doesn’t have a screen? Think about it: Your toothbrush. Your robotic vacuum. Your cooking utensils. Typically speaking, these sort of items emit luminescent cues that are used to catch your attention only when in need of a battery charge or some sort of malfunction. That’s exactly the conundrum design firm Method has set out to solve with what they’re calling Henri.


“[At the moment], there isn’t an easy way to design that. You need someone with fairly strong programming skills,” Daniel Nacamuli, Method’s lead interaction designer explains.

Instead, Henri is an interactive gadget that wants to make it easier for designers to explore the ambient user interfaces of IoT devices. The device has been developed to function as an abstract stand-in for a connected home product such your smart lights, thermostats or locks. Housed in a wooden enclosure, the system is comprised of a central box, two control panels and a desktop user interface. The main console is packed with an Atmel based Arduino, a round set of LED lights, and a built-in speaker.


Two control panels of steel knobs are linked to Henri, enabling users (even without any sort of coding background) to easily experiment with enchanted interface elements. With just a few turn of its dials, designers can devise a wide-range of patterns of lights and sounds with varying pulses, hues, intensities and durations (zero to 16 seconds), as well as watch them play back in real-time on its central hub.

The Arduino is tasked with recording the sequence and relaying it back to the desktop interface for storage. The main box also syncs with synthesizers so users can simultaneously create sound cues. Later, Henri can reprogram all of this into the final piece of hardware.


Additionally, Henri will certainly come in handy for designers across a plethora of industries like gaming. “You could use the controller to fine tune animation on a screen. Say your animation is of the sun setting and that sun is going to move down. Normally they’ll use some animation software with a timeline. What could feel more natural, is to turn the dial on the Henri, to turn the speed,” Nacamuli tells Wired. 

This interactive device is merely one component of Method’s overall efforts to raise awareness around the design of ambient user interfaces for the Internet of Things. The firm unveiled the Henri box as part of a workshop earlier this year in its Bay Area office during San Francisco’s IxDA conference. There, attendees were paired in teams and asked to program light and sound patterns on the Henri to communicate test scenarios.


“After initial brainstorming, it was clear we could use this opportunity to solve a set of problems and roadblocks that have inhibited us from designing non-screen based products in our own practice,” the team writes. “Henri allows those concepts to be tested real-time, and enhance the overall capabilities of both the designer and the product. It helped people literally think outside of the box, and be productive while playing.”

Intrigued? Head over to the project’s case study here.

16 ordinary objects ‘enchanted’ by smart technology

According to MIT Media Lab researcher David Rose, the term “enchanted object” is used to describe any everyday object with extraordinary functions. “We are now standing at the precipice of the next transformative development: the Internet of Things. Soon, connected technology will be embedded in hundreds of everyday objects we already use: our cars, wallets, watches, umbrellas, even our trash cans. These objects will respond to our needs, come to know us, and learn to think on our behalf,” Rose notes in his latest book.


Entitled “Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things,” the book depicts the blueprint for a better (or shall we say ‘smarter’) future, where efficient solutions come hand in hand with technology that delights our sense. Not only are these innovative things fun and alluring, they may hold the key to better satisfying our needs and improving our lives. “The big lesson here for companies is that they need to embrace and start designing for this world of enchanted objects,” Rose said in a recent BI:Tech interview. “It will mean a key change for how we interact with technology, and it’s a great opportunity for all of these traditional product companies.”

Rose believes that the IoT will be fully realized in the near future. To prepare for it at this moment, he is developing technology that analyzes photographs. The die-hard Maker emphasizes that cameras will soon be everywhere, capturing photos of everything. “We’re already seeing this materializing. DropCam allows people to stream videos of their homes and the Narrative camera records everything you do in a day. The photos recorded by these devices are not attractive or artistic, but the meta-data within them is stunning,” he told Fast Company

As we prepare for this embedded future — where versatile microcontrollers will give once-ordinary objects super “powers” — let’s explore some of the coolest, most enchanted objects currently in our world today. From a pill bottle that can alert you when you’ve skipped your medication to an umbrella that says whether it’ll rain, these objects provide us with a glimpse into smarter society — one where fairy tales actually become reality.

Vitality GlowCap


Always seem to forget to take that pill in the morning or before bed? This smart cap will remind you to take your medications by lighting up, making chirping sounds, and eventually sending you a text message. You can share your medication data with a remote loved one, a professional caregiver, and even your pharmacy. No more calling to refill those prescriptions!

The Ambient Umbrella


What if your umbrella had a handle that would glow if snow or rain was in the forecast? You’ll never forget to grab it on your way out the door again!

Google Latitude Doorbell


Created at the MIT Media Lab, the Google Latitude Doorbell chimes a tune when a family member is approaching the house. Each family member has their own tune. Have some fun with it: Imagine setting it to play “Master of the House” from Les Misérables as you approached the door, or the Jaws theme song for your mother-in-law.

The Ambient Orb


When you think of David Rose and ambient object, this “magical” orb is often times the first thing that pops into mind. This device tracks real-time data for the stock market, pollen count, traffic congestion, and more, and glows specific colors to let you know if the data looks good or bad.



Feel like you’re walking on sunshine? This small will let you know whether you’re actually taking in enough bright light during your day, in order to help you improve your energy levels, sleep cycle, mood, and so much more.

Energy Joule


Let’s face it, energy bills are the worst — especially those living in extremely cold climates in the winter and warm in the summer. To better help you save a buck or two, the Energy Joule can track energy costs by glowing red if prices are high, yellow if prices are average, and green if prices are low.

The Facebook Coffee Table


“Like!” Developed at the MIT Media Lab, this incredibly social-savvy coffee table listens to your conversations and displays photos from your Facebook page whenever they are appropriate to the conversation. Think Mark Zuckerberg meets Minority Report.



Never quite sure as to which outfit to buy? Ladies, you’re in luck. This smart mirror records the outfits you try on, so you can compare them and decide what to buy or wear. Never have to go back and forth again.

Amazon Trash Can


Forget to replace the toilet paper? Run out of milk? Need laundry detergent? This trash can can now scans any object you’re disposing and automatically reorder it from Amazon.

Pandora Chair


Created at the MIT Media Lab, the chair plays various music based on your level of incline. Envision the possibilities: Sit back, relax and enjoy the tunes of the caribbean. Or, sit upright, intensely focus on your work while listening to some “Eye of the Tiger.”



As our days get too busy, it can quickly become too difficult to manage our liquid intake. Luckily, a smart cup can do that for you — it knows what kind of fluid you’re drinking and track how many calories and how much sugar, fat, protein, sodium, and caffeine are in that beverage.

The Skype Cabinet


Tired of always having to grab the computer, flip it open and sign into Skype? Thanks to this recent creation from MIT Media Lab, all you have to do is simply open a wooden door and connect to a friend or loved one via Skype. No more setup, bad lighting, or those irritating headphones.



NOTHING, we repeat NOTHING is worse than losing your luggage while traveling. This smart luggage tracker can slide right inside your suitcase and inform you of its whereabouts using its companion app, which connects to the tracking device.

Energy Clock


Are the culprit in your household’s excessive energy consumption? This innovative clock shares real-time feedback on the amount of energy your home is using. It learns your consumption habits, then offers some subtle feedback on how you’re tracking against yourself.

Goji Smart Lock


As we inch closer to a Jetsons-like future, of course there will be smart locks! Easily lock and unlock your door with your smartphone, after snapping pictures of visitors at your door and automatically sending real-time picture alerts to your device.



Yes, this is exactly what it looks like: a WiFi-enabled rabbit. Unlike Peter Cottontail, this device tells you the time, a recap of the week, RSS news feeds, a report on the air quality or traffic, an MP3 alarm clock, a weather forecast, a stock ticker, and even e-mail alerts.

IoT’s Impact on Human-Tech Relationship

In a recent interview with O’Reilly Radar, Rose explored technology and its implications by first focusing on user needs. He stated, “I am confident that enchanted objects will change how we live. They will change health. They will change transportation. They will change housing. They will change how we understand our own habits around energy and resource conservation, and they will even help us with creativity and expression. I’m confident there’s a promising future in terms of this new way of interacting and positioning ourselves relative to technology. I think one of the biggest challenges is to not think about this as computing. I don’t think there is a ‘future of computing.’”

As O’Reilly Radar’s Mary Treseler notes, designers and entrepreneurs alike must focus on creating products and services that focus on human desires and needs — omniscience, telepathy, safekeeping, immortality, teleportation, expression, many of which mentioned above.

“If you can invent things that resonate with people’s existing drives, desires, fantasies — the ones that we’ve had for a millennium that are revealed through fairy tales and through folklore and through pop culture — you’re much more likely to succeed,” Rose adds. (You can listen to the entire interview here.)

Evident from the ambient objects above, a connected future is well on its way. From lighting to energy, a new generation of smart products set to increasingly power our lives calls for smarter chips. Internet and wireless enabled devices embedded with microcontrollers will give these once-ordinary “things” new science fiction-like future. Evident by the aforementioned examples, David Rose’s concept serves as a blueprint for our next-generational world, one in which is equipped with countless sensors, data and real-time interaction.

Interested in reading more? Check out the MIT Media Lab researcher and Vitality CEO’s latest book here.