Magical and mystical hardware: MIT’s laboratory

Professor David Rose is an entrepreneur, author and teaches a course on tangible user interfaces at MIT Media Lab. He also works on projects for innovative corporations like Salesforce. At Salesforce, Rose is building a conference room table that helps teams to collaborate better. Named the balance table, it uses a subtle illumination to indicate how much each person has contributed to the discussion. The aim is to prevent introverts being overshadowed by extroverts in discussion. Is this a necessary feature? No. Is it valuable? Yes. Is it remarkable? Most certainly. Professor Rose is an expert at building hardware products that are mysterious yet human at the same time. He discusses this in detail in his book Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire and the Internet of Things.

The journey of creating an enchanted object is much the same as typically associated with building a digital product. They are both through the process of consistent prototyping. Rose recounts the work he is doing on the balance table, where they ‘created 20 different iterations of the design. Among those prototypes was one simply using paper, the next one using paper and an overhead projector and then using a microphone and a real computer. At each stage we learned lots, informing us how to design the algorithm. It is even more important to be incremental with hardware as modifications are harder to make once they are in place when compared to software products’. Rose adds that building ‘enchanted objects are much more complex and nuanced than apps. There are so many more dimensions for design when services are embodied in physical form. The stakes are much higher and more costly for the inevitable manufacturing mistakes — over the air updates can’t help in the world of atoms’.

Aesthetics aside, Rose highlights that for those intending to build a business based on an enchanting object, need to appreciate one essential characteristic that differentiates an enchanting object from just another piece of hardware. Likening his work to that of a magician he holds workshops with, Professor Rose highlights that the key to be successful in creating an enchanting object is for the users to not understand the technology, just like an audience rarely understands the work of a magician.

Business models around enchanting objects are not just restricted to the sale of the physical product itself. Professor Rose highlights a company called Beam, who although they manufacture toothbrushes, make money through selling dental insurance. Rose comments that ‘there are 120 million people in the US without dental insurance but if they have an internet connected toothbrush, you can assess their oral hygiene habits and automatically reduce the cost of insurance based on habits’. Rose believes that the business model for the Internet of Things will be based on cost savings, especially around health.

What Professor Rose’s work highlights is not only that algorithms can deliver functionality and solutions to problems but that it is also worthwhile to use algorithms to infuse everyday life with mystery and magic. And, although the debate of whether we should create more physical products remain goes on, embracing the ethos that enchanted objects embody will help us ensure that we create products and services that are more accommodating, funnier, smarter and more surprising, helping us improve how we experience everyday life.

Here is a taste of Professor Rose’s magic at MIT:

The Ambient Orb: An orb that glows any colour to reflect the data inputs like the weather and stock market conditions. Enchanted salt shaker: A salt shaker that provides you dietary information on the food that you are eating. The Goodnight home: Helps remote family members feel connected. When a person in one location turns the large light on or off, the little light at the second location also changes state. It’s a simple signal to create a natural and comforting gesture.

Originally published at on October 27, 2015.

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