Switched On: The Ambient Dashboard moves the needles

Ambient Dashboard

Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

The first Switched On that discussed Ambient Devices - the company that was heretofore known for its luminous Orb and Beacon monitoring devices - focused on the potential of wireless data around the home rather than on one's wrist. The company's 5-day weather forecasting device, being rolled out by Radio Shack, offered a better value than its radiant radios that were described by one reader as "a one-pixel monitor."

Now, Ambient has released its most ambitious information appliances with the Dashboard, which uses three VU meter-like displays to show the status of a wide variety of information. Its three slots are configurable by putting in any of 30 clear plastic FaceCards that ship with the product that reflect changes in basic data such as temperature forecasts, precipitation, and stock indices.

If you have the spare desk space, the the elegant Dashboard fixture is a good deal classier than the gaudy distractions you�ll find at The Sharper Image. The device lacks even a power button. The product�s facade includes a few icons that glow dimly in its lower left corner and the company logo in the lower right corner. Most of its front surface is dedicated to three large brown status needles that can move within a 90-degree field to indicate the status of whatever FaceCard you�ve inserted. Two storage bins on top of the unit�s rear can accommodate up to 14 additional FaceCards.

Meat Loaf might bemoan that there is no paradise by this Dashboard light as it lacks any kind of illumination, making it hard to see in the dark. An undocumented connector on its back will, like most undocumented connectors, likely remain unused.

The Dashboard comes nicely packaged with minimal but helpful and somewhat surprisingly necessary documentation. If the product is confined to just its basic cards, it�s a breeze to set up. Plug it in or install batteries, wait a few minutes for it to acquire a radio signal containing the data, and pop in the cards. Of the 10 cards that don�t require an additional charge, five are used to configure the weather forecast you receive. A companion booklet reveals which card to use depending on where you live. All in all, the free content offerings bundled with the Dashboard seemed a bit thin, but still make for a more versatile offering than Ambient�s other products.

Changing cards is simple. In a sign that Ambient has sweat the details, their backs are textured while their fronts are smooth, helping you know without looking which side is the front. Their insertion yields a a soft snapping sound and feel that�s reminiscent of inserting a videogame cartridge. Unlike cartridges, though, FaceCards have no silicon in them. Instead, they use a row of 10 punch card-like holes and grooves that uniquely identify them to the system, offering more than 1,000 card possibilities. Removing cards was sometimes tricky, though; the finger wells are a bit narrow.

True to Ambient�s philosophy of �glanceable� clock-like technology, the Dashboard could not be less intrusive. Its needles move silently in response to gradual changes in the information it receives. The one hardware glitch occurs if the device can�t access a premium channel. The needle that should be measuring it flops around like a fish out of water, making a clicking sound that is guaranteed to drive one mad within three minutes. Ambient should have simply assured that errors were confined to its red error status light.

However, without content, the Dashboard is merely a $150 paperweight. Next week�s column will focus on the content available for the product, its subscriptions, Web configuration, and implications of its wireless delivery system.