Ambient technology

Technology can be fun, functional or both but either way, buttonless technology is the goal we’re aiming for.

But what exactly do I mean by buttonless? After all, our smartphones are used all day without buttons; we engage with them through swipes, gestures and even our voice. But we still have to engage with them, I like the thought of technology that engages with us.

Our devices should do fulfil their functions without the need for us to tell them.


To me, there’s something wrong with the image above. Everything’s connected- fine, I can see it all on my device- ok I guess, but what’s the point of the button? Why must I need to turn it on or off? How long will it be until it can learn and know?

I like the thought of the washing machine knowing what clothes were put in and when the door is closed, starting an appropriate wash. It’s not that it’s difficult to configure the settings and I wouldn’t describe myself as lazy but is it actually necessary? I want the radio to come one when I enter the kitchen just before dinner time to cook and play something depending on my body language, the amount of traffic on the way home or the tune I’m singing to myself. I want the shower to come on when I hang my towel on the hook or some other action. I agree there must be a switch event or a trigger for this technology behaviour but why must it be an action whose sole purpose is control. I would like this ambient technology to be there, fulfilling its purpose without it telling me and without me telling it.

We have had a degree of ambient technology for years. Automatic doors, for example, have done such a good job of doing their job without any input from us that most of us don’t even notice them at all. Automatic doors, as we know them, have been around since the 60s.

Which brings me to the Internet of Things (IoT). Please don’t make me able to control my heating, lights, devices from afar; I don’t really want to control them when I’m at home. I’d like it if my home knew I was on the way and put the kettle on, the vacuum put itself away the downstairs lights came on if it was dark amongst a dozen other things.


Ambient tabletop

Demoing the passive reactions at a FIGMENT arts festival

I said earlier that instead of us engaging with technology, technology should engage with us, but what about technology that is simply engaging.

I was recently lucky enough to be in the audience of an intimate event co-hosted in Derby’s Quad gallery by the Quad and Mainframe Monthly with very special guest speakers Leila Johnston of Site Gallery, Sheffield and Duncan Gough of the V&A, London.

They both fascinated attendees with their thoughts and experiences of experiment with different technologies from software to robotics and the different ways of passively interacting with technology or not. There was an example of technology doing fun and functionless things whether there was anyone around to appreciate it or not. Is this art? Does it matter? It sounds great to me. Admittedly I think that if the kettle started boiling water randomly when there was no-one around that would be wasteful but no-one minded when grandfather clocks chimed in an empty house.

So maybe it’s the medium that is used, hot water is out, sound waves are in! What can you think of, that would be fun to know is happening while you’re at home or out and about? What about walls that changed colour or pattern; or tables and other surfaces that react to our motions or contact.

Our devices should have a connection with us to find out what they should be doing.


For technology to engage with us it needs to know us. It needs to know us at that moment and it needs to know us from before to make a comparison, it needs to know our lives, habits and moods. These metrics may be too much for some people to be comfortable with; I’ll leave that for another discussion in another place. In using this data there needs to be some sort of inferential intelligence. How intelligent does it need to be? What happens if it decides incorrectly or has no appreciation of the magnitude of its decisions? Is there a potential for harm?

I guess ambient technology that engages with us as the masters is fine but as soon as we become the pets it’s time to rethink our ideals. But, perhaps by then it will be too late.

When it comes to A.I, kill all switches, except the kill switch; make that one really big!


Follow my hashtag #ambienttech

Read next: A great article where Leila interviews Duncan

The beauty of bots – Duncan Gough interview in full