Neal Ford  |
  • Author, ThoughtWorker, & Meme Wrangler

Ambient Information

For a moment, consider the following problem: it’s 1990, you must travel out of town (say, to Chicago) next week and you need to know how to pack. How can you get a weather forecast for Chicago for next week? You could tune to the Weather Channel, which regularly shows forecasts for a variety of cities. If you were desparate, you could go to a library to see if they have a Chicago newspaper. From a pragmatic standpoint, you would have consulted an Almanac for seasonal averages and hope that Chicago is having average weather. Or guess and possibly suffer. Weather information existed, but the difficulty in obtaining it was beyond the value of the information.

Now, of course, you can check the weather app on your phone and add Chicago as a favorite city. Weather information for arbitrary cites has become ambient: it’s so easy to get it becomes part of the environment, at virtually no cost.

The Apple Watch makes the information you want more ambient, which is its real value. The watch face I prefer is the digital, highest density information one, allowing you to place six information sources (of varying sizes). It includes the time (it is a watch), day/date, current weather summary and sunrise/sunset in my current location, fitness tracking, and moon phase. Because the watch face is trivially changeable, I use a more traditional analog face when going out with friends and I want less distraction.

Weather in particular is an interesting case. The local forecast is currently easy to obtain: take out your phone, unlock it, and choose the weather app. Even though that ability would be miraculous in 1990, all that interaction means that information isn’t as ambient as it could be, whereas on the watch it is a glance away. Any friction between information and its access represents a cost of that information. Apple Watch drives the cost of the information you want to see to virtually zero. I now routinely check on atmospheric conditions pretty much every time I go outside.

Weather isn’t the only useful interaction. I’m a big fan of podcasts, and the Now Playing glance view allows me to advance and interact with podcasts without touching my phone. In fact, the combination of bluetooth earbuds plus the Now Playing functionality of the Apple Watch is the state of the art listening experience for podcasts.

Directions while walking are another killer application of ambient information. I do a fair amount of walking in strange cities. Walking around with your phone application open to a map is as obvious as a neon sandwich board with the word “TOURIST” on it. But, once you’ve set the walking directions via your phone, the Apple Watch guides you to your destination, with a combination of haptic feedback and arrows.

One of the best affordances provided by the watch is the dead-simple access to Apple Pay. Combined with the inherent anonymization of Apple Pay and the instant access (it has its own special hotkey, a double-click on the recessed “People in my network” button), it’s hard to imagine an easier way to pay for things.

I’m anxious to see more from the Health Kit integration. I’m using the basic tracking functions built into the watch, but they are primitive compared to my current favorite, the Basic Peak. The Peak tracks motion but has the most sophisticated sleep analysis that I know of. The potential is present but not yet realized in Apple Watch. Health information is especially interesting, with a huge long term impact for gathering intensely personal ambient information. In a few watch generations, I fully expect that each person can opt to wear a full blown Star Trek-style medical tri-corder on their wrist (with a direct link to their physician). The gathering perfect storm of aging baby boomers and their increasing health care needs will create a huge market. And a huge privacy concern, that that’s a subject for another day.

I’m generally impressed with the user interface of most applications on the Apple watch managing to make good use of restricted real estate. Going back to weather again, when you “drill into” the weather application, it shows a time dial from now into the future, allowing you to click through populating it with cloudiness, temperature, and chance of rain.

I travel a great deal, and many of the travel applications have adapted nicely to the Apple Watch. I use TripIt, which now shows up on my wrist. Similarly, the Delta application allows you to get flight information and shows your boarding pass on the watch. I’ve boarded a number of flights now without removing my phone from my pocket–my boarding pass has become ambient information. There are of course bugs and oddness in such a new bit of tech–boarding passes have inexplicably stopped appearing on my watch, and I haven’t debugged why yet.

The Apple Watch does require tuning to get the level of notifications correct, and it has a few version 1.0 warts. However, it meets its stated purpose well: it requires you to remove your phone from you pocket much less, making information more ambient.

Disclaimer: I never used Google Glass. However, hanging around a few enthusiasts and early adopters made me less likely to do so. Google Glass is the opposite of ambient information–it’s intrusive. People look into each other’s eyes when speaking, and placing an obvious interface between that interaction is off-putting. The effect on the wearer when in a group people is highly distracting. Rather than make information fade into the background, Glass seems to interject itself. And the creepy candid camera aspect of Glass–that it can record video anytime–creates a hard barrier to genuine interaction. Perhaps this is a version 1.x limitation that will improve.

The watch form factor is perhaps the only existing fashion vector that someone can repurpose as an information device without inventing a new category of wearable. Time will tell if Apple is able to insinuate themselves into an already insular and notoriously fickle fashion world.

A lot of people are curious about the Apple Watch–a number of people have interrupted me while doing other things (especially in fertile environments for that kind of interaction, like airplanes) to ask me about it and whether I like it. I’ll save you the effort: I like it a lot.

The computing trend is clearly towards more ambient information, making me anxious for even more user experience innovation. The Apple Watch is a good first step. As information becomes more ambient, we’ll eventually walk around in the equivalent of a heads-up display, showing the things we really care about. But unlike a traditional display, it should deliver desired information at exactly the level that enhances the wearers experience without intruding upon it. Finding that line is going to be the interesting challenge for the near future.

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Neal Ford  |
  • Author, ThoughtWorker, & Meme Wrangler