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In an ideal world, computers will blend into the landscape, will inform but not overburden you with information, and make you aware of them only when you need them.
Calm Technologies in a Multimedia World
In an ideal world, computers will blend into the landscape, will inform but not overburden
you with information, and make you aware of them only when you need them.
By Alexandru Tugui
"In the twenty-first century the technology revolution will move into the everyday,
the small and the invisible. The impact of technology will increase ten-fold as it is
imbedded in the fabric of everyday life. As technology becomes more imbedded and
invisible, it calms our lives by removing annoyances while keeping us connected
with what is truly important. This imbedding, this invisibility, this radical ease-of-
use requires radical innovations in our connectivity infrastructure". M. D.
Multimedia, interoperability, and intelligence science hold the attention of the information world
today. The jump to tomorrow's technologies will require the incorporation of the computer as a
common item of such technologies. Thus the computer will remain omnipresent in the background
as a facilitator. It has been said that a characteristic quality of tomorrow's technologies is that they
will be calm. The term, first used by Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown in the early 1990s, has
been interpreted and built upon ever since. This paper briefly presents some dimensions of the
concept of calm technology against the multimedia background of tomorrow's world.
Historical Clues
The idea of calm technology originates in the writings of Weiser of Xerox PARC who in 1991 in
his article "The Computer for the 21st Century" [1], tackled in detail the concept of ubiquitous
computing in one's daily life. Weiser with Seely Brown collaborated in December 1995 with the
publication of the book "Designing Calm Technology" [2]. These publications laid the conceptual
basis of a future society dominated by calm technologies and the Internet. Afterwards, other
specialists have continued to develop the concepts launched by Weiser and Seely Brown.
In 1997, on the anniversary of 50 years of computing, the same article was published under the
name, "The Coming Age of Calm Technology," in the book "Beyond Calculation: The Next Fifty
Years in Computing." [3] Afterwards, other specialists added their ideas to the concept of Calm
Technology, including B. Hermans, in "Desperately Seeking: Helping Hands and Human Touch."
[4] These ideas appeared and developed as multimedia was rising as a basic information
The Evolving Human-Computer Relationship
Internet, Internet2, intranets, extranets, cyberspace . . . it is hard not to have heard or read about one
of these terms in the media. [5] Several trends categorize computer use in the information era.
1. Mainframe stage. Computers were used by experts behind closed doors, and
regarded as rare and expensive assets. This stage was the beginning of the
information era. The human-computer relationship was one of several humans to a
single computer.
2. Personal computing stage. In this stage the human-computer relationship became
balanced in the sense that individuals had one-on-one relationships with their
computers. This stage brought a certain closeness into the human-computer
3. Ubiquitous computing stage. In this stage one person will have many computers.
People will have access to computers placed in their offices, walls, clothing, cars,
planes, organs, etc. This stage will have a significant impact on society.
The Internet and applications deriving from this technology will mediate the transition from the
first stage to the third stage. It is clear that information technology expands every second, which
leads to the question, how will this technology disturb us? Will it be aggressive toward the
environment in which we live?
D. Rijken [6] formulates this issue in the following passage:
"Consumer electronics, telecommunications, the computing industry, the
entertainment industry and the media industry are all entering the digital arena. All
information will be digital; all information will be inside computers and computers
will be everywhere. While technological innovation contributes to human progress,
some people experience the world as a technopolis that causes feelings of alienation
and aversion with regard to technological products. People are still people and
many of them are having a hard time trying to make sense of all the information
around them. They are feeling bad about it. Yet, our ability to function and survive
in the future depends on our ability to relate to information. Can we interact with
this cybersoup in a meaningful way? Is there an alternative for the technocratic
These concerns led to the concept of calm technology, which assumes that computers should
disappear into the "background" of our architectural space and easily switch between the center
and the periphery of our attention much like ambient displays.
Weiser and Seely Brown summarize eloquently this future stage in which humans use a large
number of computers in the social environment:
The most potentially interesting, challenging, and profound change implied by the
ubiquitous computing era is a focus on calm. If computers are everywhere they
better stay out of the way, and that means designing them so that the people being
shared by the computers remain serene and in control. Calmness is a new challenge
that UC brings to computing. When experts use computers behind closed doors,
calmness is relevant to only a few. Computers for personal use have focused on the
excitement of interaction. But when computers are all around, so that we want to
compute while doing something else and have more time to be more fully human, we
must radically rethink the goals, context and technology of the computer and all the
other technology crowding into our lives. Calmness is a fundamental challenge for
all technological design of the next fifty years [7].
Informing without Overburdening
Technology attracts our attention at different levels of awareness. It is either at the center or the
periphery of our attention.
Weiser and Seely Brown suggest that we attune to the "periphery" without attending to it
explicitly. When driving a car, for instance, our attention is centered on the road, the radio or our
passenger, but not on the noise of the engine. But an unusual noise is noticed immediately,
showing that we are attuned to the noise in the periphery, and can quickly to attend to it. What is in
the periphery at one moment may in the next moment be at the center of our attention. The same
physical form may have elements in both the center and periphery.
A calm technology will move easily from the periphery of our attention, to the center, and back.
This is fundamentally calming, for two reasons. First, by placing things in the periphery we can
attune to many more things than we could if everything is at the center. Thus the periphery is
informing without overburdening. Second, by recentering something formerly in the periphery we
take control of it. Peripherally we may become aware that something is not quite right, as when
awkward sentences leave a reader tired and discomforted without knowing why.
Technology is closely linked to the concept of affordance which is "a relationship between an
object in the world and the intentions, perceptions, and capabilities of a person."[7]
Characteristics of a Calm Technology
Calm technology has three basic characteristics.
1. Calm technologies shift the focus of our attention to the periphery. This technological
orientation can be achieved either by smoothly and easily shifting from the center to the
periphery and back, or by transferring more details to the periphery. An example is a video
conference that, by comparison to a telephone conference, enables us to attune to nuances
of body posture and facial expression that would otherwise be inaccessible.
2. A technology is calm when it increases peripheral perceptions with direct implications
on our knowledge, which increases abilities to act adequately in various circumstances
without being overburdened with information. Thus, the use of calm technology develops a
pleasant environment.
3. Technological connectivity enables a quick anchoring in certain circumstances against the
background of a quick shifting from the center to the periphery of our attention, which
determines a quick perception of the past, present and future of the subject. This
characteristic leads to what Weiser and Seely Brown call "locatedness".
These characteristics are important features when enforcing calm data processing technologies.
One example of increasing technological calmness is the use of liquid crystal display (LCD)
instead of cathode-ray tube (CRT). Using such technology has influences our attention, which
leads to an increase of our ability to easily adjust to the environment.
What would happen in our minds if we had to read a book with no table of contents? How attracted
would we be to a book without pictures/figures compared to one having pictures/figures? How
upset would we be if we had to read a paper without being able to visualize certain objects inserted
in it? These questions/problems put our central and peripheral attention to the test, and lead to the
following conclusions:
a. The field of computer science tackles more and more types of data (text, sound, static
images, dynamic images etc.). That is, it works with many different media with a minimum effort.
This leads to a super-computer-assisted world where computers are ubiquitous in people's lives.
b. Data processing technologies should calm down and induce calm, in other words be calm
technologies. This is easily achieved if we take into account the multimedia aspect of data
processing equipment and applications.
We conclude with the conviction that in a super-computer-assisted world we feel better when
special emphasis is placed on the visual side of the means of communication or
information/knowledge transfer, which is a multi-media presentation of the world we relate to.
Moreover, if this makes using technologies less tiresome, then we will have the satisfaction of a
"child playing at his work place".
[1] Weiser, M., The Computer for the 21st Century, Scientific American Ubicomp paper,
September 1991, (
[2] Weiser, M., Seely Brown, J., Designing Calm Technology, Xerox PARC, December 21, 1995,
[3] Denning, J.P., Metcalfe, M.R., Beyond Calculation: The Next Fifty Years in Computing,
Springer-Verlag, New York, 1997
4] Hermans, B., Desperately Seeking: Helping Hands and Human Touch, Zeist, The Netherlands,
May 1998 (
[5] Norman, D.A., The Psychology of Everyday Things, New York: Basic Books, 1988.
[6] Rijken, Dick, The Future is a Direction, Not a Place, Netherlands Design Institute, Sandberg
Institute, the Netherlands, 1994.
[7] Weiser, M., Seely Brown, J., The Coming Age of Calm Technology", Xerox PARC October 5,
Alexandru Tugui, Ph. D. is senior lecturer, faculty of Economy and Business Administration, at
Al. I. Cuza , University of Iasi, Romania. He is the author and co-author of 25 books and more
than 70 journal articles. His career has focused on expert systems, multimedia systems, and
management informatics resources.
Source: Ubiquity, Volume 5, Issue 4, March 16 - March 23, 2004
[1] Weiser, M., The Computer for the 21st Century, Scientific American Ubicomp paper,
September 1991, (
[2] Weiser, M., Seely Brown, J., Designing Calm Technology, Xerox PARC, December 21, 1995,
[3] Denning, J.P., Metcalfe, M.R., Beyond Calculation: The Next Fifty Years in Computing,
Springer-Verlag, New York, 1997
4] Hermans, B., Desperately Seeking: Helping Hands and Human Touch, Zeist, The Netherlands,
May 1998 (
[5] Norman, D.A., The Psychology of Everyday Things, New York: Basic Books, 1988.
[6] Rijken, Dick, The Future is a Direction, Not a Place, Netherlands Design Institute, Sandberg
Institute, the Netherlands, 1994.
[7] Weiser, M., Seely Brown, J., The Coming Age of Calm Technology", Xerox PARC October 5,
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Weiser and Brown predicted the era of Ubiquitous Computing but what they called the most profound change has been almost completely abandoned, overlooked or misrepresented. Designing calm technology requires a deeper understanding of how we multi-task, but it has the potential to becalm human computer interaction; decreasing stress, and mitigating human error as a cause of accidents. I. SUMMARY In 1995, Mark Weiser and John Seeley Brown said that computers would enter society in 3 stages. The Mainframe Era was followed by the Personal Computer Era. They predicted that the internet and distributed computing would lead to an era of Ubiquitous Computing. Some say that it has, but what we now call UC is not what Weiser and Brown described. It is true that each person now uses many computers, instead of the other way around, but they did not just define UC by the human:computer ratio. "The most potentially interesting, challenging and profound change implied by the ubiquitous computing era is a focus on calm." Calm Technology is based on the two ways that humans process information. Trying to focus on more than one thing at once is stressful, but humans can take in much more information if it is presented peripherally; in a way that allows the individual to judge whether or not to give it more attention. Basic physiology and neuroanatomy show that we naturally examine things closely while at the same time using other senses to keep track of subtle changes in our environment, warning us when the peripheral becomes important. What's more, the process of plucking things from the periphery, examining them and then deciding how to re-sort them is a comforting activity. It makes us feel at home and in control. Ubiquitous Computing is everywhere now (if you'll pardon the pun) but Calm Technology has been all but abandoned because it is harder to design and implement than traditional multi-media interaction. So, instead of deliberate calm, we have constant text message alerts, ring tones and email pop-ups demanding the immediate attention of everyone within earshot. Imagine instead that your cell phone would subtly let you know who is trying to reach you without pulling your attention away from the task at hand. It could be as gentle as the sound of familiar footsteps drawing close or the semi-transparent hint of a familiar smile on your touchscreen. Hardware and software are now more than good enough, and rich multimedia can be customized, stored, accessed and processed quickly and cheaply. It is time for Human Computer Interaction based on rich and textured interfaces; interaction that is less like dealing with a series of screaming emergencies fighting for our attention, and more like taking a walk in the woods. It is time for Calm Technology.
A lot has been written about the Internet and where it is leading. We will say only a little. The Internet is deeply influencing the business and practice of technology. Millions of new people and their information have become interconnected. Late at night, around 6am while falling asleep after twenty hours at the keyboard, the sensitive technologist can sometimes hear those 35 million web pages, 300 thousand hosts, and 90 million users shouting "pay attention to me!" The important waves of technological change are those that fundamentally alter the place of technology in our lives. What matters is not technology itself, but its relationship to us.
Bits flowing through the wires of a computer network are ordinarily invisible. But a radically new tool shows those bits through motion, sound, and even touch. It communicates both light and heavy network traffic. Its output is so beautifully integrated with human information processing that one does not even need to be looking at it or near it to take advantage of its peripheral clues. It takes no space on your existing computer screen, and in fact does not use or contain a computer at all. It uses no software, only a few dollars in hardware, and can be shared by many people at the same time. It is called the "Dangling String". Created by artist Natalie Jeremijenko, the "Dangling String" is an 8 foot piece of plastic spaghetti that hangs from a small electric motor mounted in the ceiling. The motor is electrically connected to a nearby Ethernet cable, so that each bit of information that goes past causes a tiny twitch of the motor. A very busy network causes a madly whirling string with a characteristic noise; a quiet network causes only a small twitch every few seconds. Placed in an unused corner of a hallway, the long string is visible and audible from many offices without being obtrusive. It is fun and useful. The Dangling String meets a key challenge in technology design for the next decade: how to create calm technology. We have struggled for some time to understand the design of calm technology, and our thoughts are still incomplete and perhaps even a bit confused. Nonetheless, we believe that calm technology may be the most important design problem of the twenty-first century, and it is time to begin the dialogue.
We are living in a time of increasing information overload. Many solutions have been or are being drawn up to tackle this problem. However, today's most prominent solutions - such as Information Push and Search Engines - do not seem to be able to fully handle the problem. In this paper we will look at a number of solutions which may help us deal with information overload in the online marketplace. These solutions include "agency", agent-like applications, improvements in the information chain and - most importantly - information brokering. Some of these solutions require changes in the whole groundwork underlying the online marketplace; they are about whole new ways of interfacing with the online marketplace as well as the full employment of possibly intelligent software agents.
Reissued as The Design of Everyday Things in 1990. Author's website :
The Computer for the 21st Century, Scientific American Ubicomp paper
  • M Weiser
Weiser, M., The Computer for the 21st Century, Scientific American Ubicomp paper, September 1991, (
The Future is a Direction, Not a Place
  • Dick Rijken
Rijken, Dick, The Future is a Direction, Not a Place, Netherlands Design Institute, Sandberg Institute, the Netherlands, 1994.