Skip to Content
Uncategorized

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.”

Deep Dive

Uncategorized

Embracing CX in the metaverse

More than just meeting customers where they are, the metaverse offers opportunities to transform customer experience.

Identity protection is key to metaverse innovation

As immersive experiences in the metaverse become more sophisticated, so does the threat landscape.

The modern enterprise imaging and data value chain

For both patients and providers, intelligent, interoperable, and open workflow solutions will make all the difference.

Scientists have created synthetic mouse embryos with developed brains

The stem-cell-derived embryos could shed new light on the earliest stages of human pregnancy.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.