little signals

A interesting conceptual design project called Little Signals from London-based industrial design firm Map Project Office and sponsored by Google:

Little Signals explores new patterns for technology in our daily lives. The six objects in this design study make use of different sensorial cues to subtly signal for attention. They keep us in the loop, but softly, moving from the background to the foreground as needed. 

Each object has its own method of communicating, like through puffs of air or ambient sounds. Additionally, their small movements or simple controls bring the objects to life and make them responsive to changing surroundings and needs. Just as everyday objects might find simple ways to inform us – like the moving hands of a clock or the whistle of a kettle – Little Signals consider how to stay up-to-date with digital information while maintaining moments of calm. 

Created in collaboration with Map Project Office

The project rehashes many of the same well-trod ambient media design concepts explored generations earlier, such as via the Tangible Bits Group at MIT Media Lab.

Lighting is an obvious way to deploy “quiet” ambient communications like this project proposes – its absence from this project says a lot. I believe they consciously didn’t choose lighting for ambient communications because it is too close to digital screens, and wouldn’t be perceived as cool or clever enough.

I especially zeroed in on this line from the video: “At Google, we like to rehearse the future.” What a wonderful phrase for future envisioning/early stage innovation leadership…rehearse the future.

But I also find this whole project completely, totally disingenuous coming from Google, a company who’s entire business model and revenues comes from stuffing as many crass advertisements as it possibly can into every form of digital communication we may try to engage with (just try watching YouTube lately). Google and its advertising clients will never profit from subtlety and refinement, and therefore will never continue forth with beautiful design concepts such as these.

I’ve captured some of the details from the site for posterity:

Button combines scale and sound to communicate and provide control. The top twists – right for more details, left for less – and grows as it receives information. It plays a tone when full.

Air interacts with its close surroundings. Pulses of air move nearby items, like the leaves of a plant, to attract attention.

Movement features seven pegs that graphically represent information – like a calendar or timer – through their height and motion. The pegs work individually or as a group, and are tapped for simple input.

Rhythm generates ambient sounds. Qualities of the melody convey qualities of the information, like its importance, urgency, or tone. A wave over the object, or simply turning it over, mutes it.

Tap makes use of surfaces to create sounds that act as notifications. A strong tap mean more pressing news.

Maker guide: Map Project Office published a PDF for those of you familiar with Arduino who want to try making your own versions. Here are the PDFs for posterity: