Ambient intelligence: the next generation of user centeredness

XII.4 July + August 2005
Page: 48
Digital Citation

A simple secret for design

Ingelise Nielsen, Graham Pullin

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"People come first" is the commitment to design environments that are user-oriented. The absolute priority is the experiences people have interacting with spaces, products, and services. Experiences can be designed with high technology, low technology, or no technology, but if it is appropriate to use technology, it must be choreographed to be an integrated part of life. Technology has the potential to be very powerful when used to augment the human experience. It can multi-mediate our environment and profoundly change human behavior.

Ambient intelligence applied in an appropriate way doesn't call attention to itself. It is interwoven, not tacked on. We should not think of "buildings as machines" or think of technology as "machines for buildings." But nowhere is a deep understanding of user needs more important than in the integration of new technologies in our daily lives. The right technology integration can instil magic, the opposite causes disappointment, frustration, and confusion. "Smart" spaces (with high technology integration) are not always so smart. Sometimes paper and bluetack is the smartest form of information transfer.

The Italian couturier PRADA opened their epicenter in New York City in December 2001. It was designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and his architecture and research company OMA/AMO partnered with IDEO to create the ambient technology that allows PRADA staff members to assist in choreographing the in-store sales experience. Several other companies partnered to design and implement the technology (IconNicholsen, KRAM design, and Clemens Weisshaar amongst them).

The human experience drives the choice of technology and the design of the epicenter and radio frequency identification (RFID) is the enabling technology for the store.

The dressing room is full of ambient intelligence that creates delight and magic with very simple and intuitive interactions. When a pair of shoes is placed on the shelf in the RFID closet in the dressing room, or a garment is hung on the rail, relevant information appears on the touch screen-alternative sizes, colors, fabrics, and styles. The user perceives the information as residing with the shoes and the clothes; the fact that an RFID tag is read by the antennae embedded in the closet-and the information comes from the comprehensive PRADA database on a server in Italy is not part of the user's mental model. The user interface is the very physical interaction of placing the shoes on the shelf.

A video based "Magic Mirror" permits the customer to see herself actually turning around to see the clothes from the back. The movement is detected by a camera; an LCD screen embedded in the conventional mirror covering one of the walls then shows the filmed sequence alongside the real time mirror image.

The doors of the dressing room can change from transparent to translucent at the press of a switch, enabling the customer to show the new garment to someone outside the room. The doors are made from Privalite glass; an electric current activates the conductive coating in the laminated layers of the glass to create this effect, but this is not important to the user: it is the invisibility of the technology that provides such a magical experience.


Large-scale public environments can be enabled by ambient intelligence. This is the case in Lisbon at the Vodafone head quarters. IDEO was asked to create a delightful experience for visitors arriving at their office. A four-meter cube was built and erected on a shallow expanse of water outside the reception area. The cube is a distinctive landmark, and the LCD screen covering one entire surface is programmed with a loop of news headlines, short animations and interactive games. In game mode the cube prompts the visitor to dial a number on their mobile phone or use controls embedded within the furniture in the reception area to play games solo or with others, thus enabling Vodafone's core business of cellular communications to connect in a tangible way with the visitor experience.

Ambient Noise and Ambience. IDEO recently did a project with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the design magazine Blueprint to design "the Future of Hearing" and to remove the stigma that surrounds hearing technology. However, lack of hearing is an impairment that at times affects everyone. Go into a busy bar or restaurant and try to understand what people say without reading their lips—it is not easy. But ambient technology embedded within furniture can augment the experience and the ambience of the bar atmosphere. This concept will be launched in July 2005 at an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

It is a magic experience when something pleasing happens without any effort as you walk into an environment. In the lobby at IDEO's offices in London, you can at the moment experience ambient sound which is intriguing and surprising. The installation consists of nine Muji CD Players (designed by IDEO) each randomly playing the sounds of Big Ben, birdsong, the sound of a slide projector clicking, or five distinctive voices—H.G. Wells, E. M. Forster, Arthur Conan Doyle, Virginia Woolf, and Somerset Maugham—talking about creativity.

This is hardly ambient intelligence, but it is interactive technology that creates an ambience. The voices and the music start by pulling the strings attached to the bottom of the CD players the bells. How the ambience is created is unimportant—the technology becomes irrelevant.


Ambient intelligence has the potential to provide intuitive, friendly, and beneficial connections to our environment; to improve human contact and enhance the quality of life for people. It is a part of the many tools available for the creation of products, services, and environments that improve quality of life, provide reward and satisfaction. If ambient intelligence is not useful, useable, and delightful there is no place for it.

back to top  Acknowledgements

Roberto Fraquelli was the overall leader of the Prada project; Heather Martin led the Prada Dressing room project. Steve Heron was the project leader for the Interactive Vodafone Cube. Graham Pullin and Lucy Andrews designed the lobby installation at IDEO; built by Paul South.

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Ingelise Nielsen

Graham Pullin

About the Authors:

Ingelise Nielsen heads up marketing communications for IDEO in London and Munich. She is responsible for internal and external communication strategy. Her work includes coordinating and editing three IDEO books: Masters of Innovation, first and second editions, with Jeremy Myerson, published by Laurence King, and Extra Spatial, published by Chronicle.

Graham Pullin is a senior interaction designer and project leader at IDEO in London. He is currently writing a book to be published by the MIT Press on design and disability. His work during the past eight years at IDEO has included strategy and implementation of mobile phone designs and services for T-Mobile and Vodafone and an award-winning concept project "Social Mobiles" with Crispin Jones. Before joining IDEO graham worked for ten years on products for people with disabilities.

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©2005 ACM  1072-5220/05/0700  $5.00

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