Switched On: Change in the air for thin data

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column that covers everything related to digital convergence, the connected home, and all those other multimedia buzzwords that marketers are tossing out these days. Last week he looked at the iPod Photo's slippery slope towards video, today he writes about "thin data":

Ambient Orb

Nowadays, most of Microsoft's competitors have reached détente with the company. TiVo has apparently tuned out Media Center and PalmOne has tossed its Pocket PC baiting into the charging cradle; both companies need to focus more of their attention on service providers. About twice a year, someone at that iPod company in Cupertino will quip about Longhorn, but mostly Microsoft has been on the defensive in the digital music space.

How curious it was, then, to find a small band of flyer-wielding protesters outside Bill Gates's 2003 Consumer Electronics Show keynote from an MIT spinout called Ambient Devices. Their beef was Microsoft's SPOT initiative – since commercialized as MSN Direct - which uses FM subcarrier technology to beam thin data to fat watches. Ambient was turning as red as one of its stock orbs in a downturn over Microsoft co-opting its "glanceable" technology; basically, the devices respond to pager-like broadcasts of factoids such as sports scores, stock and weather updates, and (useless as this may be for a watch) the correct time.. Really, though, the idea of using FM subcarrier predated Ambient's revenge and reached back to the days of Yar's Revenge.

Besides, while Ambient�s products are certainly easy to use, it�s questionable how useful their right-brained, Mathmos-inspired design has left them. Those interested enough in their stock portfolios to drop $150 on a 21st Century lava lamp (particularly one that can�t even make fog) for their desks are probably going to go the extra few feet to a PC or Blackberry and find out how much their net worth shifts with the colors.

Enabling ordinary objects to be more intelligent is a fine idea, but the stimuli should be context-relevant and usually local. You may want your refrigerator to change color depending on your milk�s freshness, but there are better sources for monitoring exit polls. The main problem MSN Direct has is that the cell phone is increasingly the subscription-powered mobile device for updates on stocks and weather; these handsets will become increasingly adept once someone puts a decent integrated RSS reader onto one to replace that aging WAP browser.

Ambient, then, has made one smart move by focusing on fixed devices instead of mobile ones. And now, it is effecting change instead of just monitoring it by developing the blandly named wireless weather forecaster that will be sold in Radio Shack. At $100, it�s a bit pricey, but consider that most of the alternative weather stations from companies like Oregon Scientific. The Ambient model will accurately forecast for five days via the AccuWeather service and requires no installation outside, so it�s more practical for apartment dwellers. You can even travel with it and it should just work in most major U.S. cities. If consumers understand it this holiday season, it could be a surprise hit around the Festivus pole.

But, of course, there�s always room for improvement. This technology should be built into every alarm clock (they already have FM tuners), which could read you the weather and maybe a few reminders every morning. Ambient has shown a philosophical preference for passive devices, but why not give consumers information when it is convenient and not just available? Ultimately, this kind of functionality may be delivered through the home network via emerging standards such as Zigbee; such was the SimpleClock concept that was shown by SimpleDevices, now owned by remote control developer Universal Electronics. For now, though, Ambient has provided the most appealing application of wirelessly broadcast thin data in recent memory, and perhaps one of the best manifestations ever of the information appliance.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at