In a Sea of Screens, Apps, and Gadgets, mui’s Smart Home Tech Offers Calm

The Japanese team’s silent wooden interface promotes a healthier relationship with technology.

The mui board simplifies your digital life with calm design.

This profile is part of Processing Power, a series about how tech creators are taking their Kickstarter projects to the next level.

Silicon Valley doesn’t know what to do about digital distractions. Facebook and Instagram have implemented “time well spent” features to help you track your use of those apps; Apple offers activity reports and even app limiting features. But the companies are still built around attracting your attention.

Meanwhile, the founders and engineers behind mui are heading into Japan’s rural forests, interviewing foresters and local residents about their relationship with wood, in order to learn how to build more natural, human-friendly tech.

They’re working on a smart home device — live on Kickstarter now — that streamlines all of your gadgets and digital notifications into a quiet, simple interface embedded in a wooden panel, hearkening back to simpler times in a high-tech way.

The product’s primary aim, explains cofounder and CEO Kaz Oki, is to offer a “calm design” device that better aligns with human behaviors. “Technology is convenient, but it forces us to make new habits — to isolate ourselves with our phones or to say, ‘OK Google,’ or, ‘Alexa!’ to turn on smart home assistants — that are not really our traditional human behavior.”

He wanted to create something that put all the conveniences of our digital devices in an interface that felt more organic. Inspired by the Japanese tradition of forest bathing, the English idiom “knock on wood,” and the universal affinity small children have for wooden blocks, he decided to make a smart device that you operate on a wooden panel instead of a screen.

The mui block pulls in information, updates, and controls from your phone as well as smart home devices like Nest thermostats, Sonos speakers, and Ring locks so families can interact with technology with less frequency and in a less isolated way.

“We hide the product into the home environment — make it ambient. We try to design the information interface into the space, so the interactions are more communal,” he says. “Devices like a phone demand your individual concentration. In the family environment, it means you’re not really sharing the experience with others. But in my house, if my wife interacts with mui, I can see what she’s doing. If I do something with mui, she can see what’s going on. It makes it easier for us to share our home and our time as a family. We want to make a smart home device that will help you turn off your phones when you get home.”

mui also addresses the fact that voice-controlled smart home tech doesn’t necessarily meet the needs of international audiences. In Japan, Oki explains, people value politeness and feel uncomfortable barking orders at appliances. Plus, many people who aren’t fluent in English struggle with their smart devices. “I have a friend who doesn’t want to say ‘OK Google’ in front of his nine-year-old daughter because sometimes it can’t understand his pronunciation and his daughter teases him. Smart speakers aren’t smart for everybody.”

Other corners of the tech industry are taking notice of this ambient, homier approach to interface design. As his team prepares to show mui at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2019, automotive partners have approached Oki about bringing the patented technology into car design. “People say that the vehicle interior will be an extension of the home soon, but nobody designs them like that. They usually look like a tech-driven environment with many displays and very white, bright light.

We think that the future of technology will be about fitting more naturally into human habits and spaces. We want to optimize the Internet of Things world for better user interfaces and user experiences, ones that fit naturally into the environments we’ve always felt comfortable in.”

mui is live on Kickstarter through December 8.

— Katheryn Thayer