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The Digital Coffee Mug

When Things Start To Think
January 1, 1999

As tools for everyday life, today’s PCs are hopelessly complex and clunky, Donald Norman argued in his recent book The Invisible Computer (reviewed in TR, September/October 1998). For those of us frequently exasperated by our own computers, Norman’s book offered comforting validation. It also offered a tantalizing solution: Make computing ubiquitous, by replacing PCs with networks of small, dedicated “information appliances.” Yet many of the appliances Norman proposed as examples, such as the “home financial center” that pays bills electronically and communicates with the checkbook appliance and the credit card appliance, sounded just as complicated as the computers they were intended to replace.

Physicist Neil Gershenfeld, co-director of the MIT Media Lab’s Things That Think (TTT) consortium, rescues Norman’s concept by making a crucial addition. If computers are going to be ubiquitous, he argues in When Things Start to Think, they had also better be unobtrusive. The researchers in Gershenfeld’s consortium study ways to make computers truly invisible, by embedding them in traditional household objects-from coffee mugs to cardigans-that we all know how to use.

Many of these ordinary artifacts efficiently solve problems that still stump computer manufacturers, Gershenfeld points out. The translucent fibers in a sheet of paper, for example, spread light within the sheet before it leaks out in all directions. This creates a uniform illuminated background for printed text and makes words readable from any angle, feats unequaled by even the best laptop LCDs.

Since paper is such a versatile technological medium, computing power should be used to enhance rather than supplant it, Gershenfeld argues. A Media Lab innovation called reusable paper, for example, is covered with “smart toner” made from capsules containing magnetized white and black particles. The capsules can be switched on or off by a row of electrodes in a printer, and sheets can be rewritten again and again.

Gershenfeld’s tour of the near future continues with wearable computers that augment your senses and electronic cash that implements your social values (a donation to a fund-raising group, for example, could be programmed to decrease in value if spent on administration). The philosophy embodied in such inventions is that machines should provide information whenever, wherever and in whatever form users want, should be responsive to their environments, and should attend to their own needs. Better sensors and displays and new ways of hiding microelectronics in everyday materials can get us most of the way toward these goals, Gershenfeld’s stimulating book suggests. “By bringing smarter technology closer to people,” he predicts, “it can finally disappear.”

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