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Shhhh… Quieten your world with Ambient Notifications

March 19, 2019

ProdPad Labs

I first heard about the concept of ‘Ambient Notifications’ during a talk by Amber Case at MTP2017 on calm technologies.

She discussed a light she had in her kitchen that changed color depending on the weather that day. I loved the concept so much I spent the weekend putting together my own weather light (which now functions proudly every morning in the corner of my bedroom and has saved me many an hour looking up the weather on my phone!).

Ambient Notifications

🌞Sunny day! 🌧Rainy day.

So what are Ambient Notifications?

Ambient Notifications are notifications that work in the background to subtly provide you with necessary information, while simultaneously being unobtrusive. Their underlying concept is to notify without requiring instant and direct attention from the user at hand.

Why would we want this?

There are so many things in our world demanding our attention. We’re bombarded by information all day every day. In most cases this causes elevated levels of stress, and we suffer from it immensely (though some wouldn’t care to admit it). If we can abstract a little of that noise into a concept that is more subtle and less intrusive in our lives to reduce stress without reducing information intake, than why not?

How do they work?

Most notifications are served to the user via a screen, and initially prompted via a short buzz that we feel or a well designed sound that we hear resonate from our laptops/pockets/bags. We are prompted via a feeling or sound, though our attention is always brought to a screen where we receive the information the notification is pushing upon us.

Ambient Notifications aim to abstract information into the background of our lives, so that we engage with them only if and when we are ready to. Their main aim is to provide information while not requiring direct attention/engagement from the user. As a great example, Amber’s (and my) weather light download a weather report every morning and illuminate part of the room with a different color depending on the weather that day. The user wakes up and inherently knows whether to take sunglasses or a raincoat depending on the subtle change in lighting that day.

What is so special about them?

Ambient Notifications are special because of their subtlety and their abstraction into the real world. Screens are everywhere now, and the average American spends most of their waking hours looking at them. The moments we have not looking at them are precious and we should encourage more of this. By bringing more of our attention back into the real world and providing us with the control over when we are notified, we may become less stressed and live more fulfilled lives.

How can we design Ambient Notifications?

Take advantage of all senses! We have five senses (though some say more). We should be utilising them all when being notified. Stress builds when one sense is being overloaded with information, and the more we can spread this across the senses, the more we can take in without being overwhelmed.

While visual makes the most sense, with audible coming a close second, we also have touch in our lives with cell phones vibrating. However, new research is suggesting smell make be a great way to subtly notify users and provide extra information in an already overwhelming situation such as driving a car.

What are we doing here at ProdPad?

Here at ProdPad we’ve already brought someone in to help abstract some of our deployment notifications into the real world, Neko! However, recently we’ve been experimenting with taking it a step further and giving smells a try. We now have a mechanism sitting on our developer desk bank that distributes a subtle aroma of grapefruit whenever a new build is ready for testing.

Our development team are bombarded with notifications all day ranging from chat messages to continuous integration notifications. Many of these do not require our direct attention though tend to grab it anyway due to the nature of the way they are dispensed. A subtle waft of grapefruit is just one less notification removed from our screens and brought into the real world, allowing us more brain power on the important stuff, while still providing the information we might need at that moment.

How can this be achieved in your office?

Once again this hack project has been built using a Raspberry Pi to drive the main logic, while the other hardware costs less than $20! You’ll need an oil diffuser to produce the smell and a small USB fan pointing down to distribute it around the desk. A quick google will find you a script to control the power to your Raspberry Pi’s USB ports, and the logic to trigger this script is up to you!

The applications for an ambient notification like this are endless and I’m sure you’ll quickly come up with ideas that apply to your situation or job role.

I urge you to consider adding ambient notifications into your life where you can, and commend any that have done so already or that will do so in the near future. This is an exciting time for the development of real-world based notifications such as ambient notifications!

Brighton based creative technical developer, speed skater, boulderer, symphonic gothic metal lover.

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