Amber Case Speaker Spotlight

Finding the future of technology (and humanity) out on the fringe

If you want to see into the future of design and technology, you might start by talking with Amber Case, cyborg anthropologist, serial entrepreneur, and self-described rebel who likes “hanging out on the fringes where people are doing interesting stuff.”

Amber co-founded and is former CEO of Geoloqi, which was acquired by Esri in 2012, and recently joined Healthways to help build a wellness app called Compass. We’re thrilled to have Amber joining us as a keynote speaker at Delight 2015*, where her talk will focus on Calm Technology, an approach to designing technology that requires the least amount of our attention—so that we can focus not on computing but on being human.

Amber first discovered Calm Technology when she was writing her thesis on mobile phones for her degree in Cyborg Anthropology.

“The iPhone had come out, and I was really interested in the future of the interface. If the first interfaces were solid, and full of difficult buttons, and the next generation of interfaces was liquid, and you could put the buttons anywhere on the screen, then the next generation might be something that was invisible that you would walk into and something would happen. And I wondered if anybody has built this before….”

“One of my friends said if you really want to learn about things, find the people who influence the people who influence the people; go back as far as you can and then you will find the original idea in a more pure form. I found this paper called Designing Calm Technology by Mark Weiser, (a CTO at Xerox PARC in the mid 1990s and pioneer in ubiquitous computing), and I loved the quotes. He said, ‘The scarce resource of the 21st century will not be technology; it will be attention.’”

Unfortunately, Weiser died in 1999, just as this era was dawning. Feeling it was unfair that he’s not here to tell his story, Amber resolved to carry the torch. She created a website dedicated to Calm Technology, and her book Designing Calm Technology is scheduled for release this fall by O’Reilly Books. Here’s a preview of the work and thinking that she’ll be sharing with us at Delight.

Technology should use the least amount of your attention

In this era of ubiquitous computing, when we are constantly interrupted by buzzes, beeps and bells, Calm Technology gives us only the information we need, when we need it, in the least obtrusive way possible.

“If good design is about using the least amount of steps to get to the goal—removing steps until there are no steps to take away—then Calm Technology is about getting you to your goal with the least amount of attention.”

Technology should make use of the periphery

Amber says a tea kettle is a perfect example of Calm Technology, because you set it and forget it (until it calls you). It uses your peripheral attention to tell you when it’s done.

“You don’t want all your devices to talk to you. The problem is everybody makes talking devices and devices that need constant updates. And you just get people upset. You don’t have people living their lives. The world is not a desktop. What we’re building is inherently human, so we need to make sure that we respect ourselves when we design technology.”

Technology should respect social cues

Part of being human is understanding what behavior is socially acceptable. Google Glass failed, Amber says, because it didn’t respect social norms. The transition from dumbphones to smartphones pushed social norms, but it took long enough to develop that people had time to adapt.

“Remember when camera phones first came out and everyone was horrified that everyone’s privacy would be violated? And now everybody has a camera in their pocket. But there are social norms that have been created around it and we aren’t terrified about it anymore, whereas with Google Glass there were too many new paradigms to absorb at once. It takes a while for technology to metabolize into the human ecosystem.”

Pioneering technology in an age of ‘me-too’ apps

Although some designers are following these concepts, Amber says a lot companies just want to copy products they see in the market—without understanding the decisions, processes and methods that it took to get there.

“They’re not taking risks because the things that are getting funded are just copies of other things that have been successful. There’s not an incentive to do weird stuff. When the economy is down there’s incentive to do weird stuff because often people don’t have jobs.”

As more money is poured into tech, Amber says a lot of people are making technology for technology’s sake, selling on features people don’t even need.

“My only hope is that Calm Technology can save people millions of dollars and also be a tool to help people convince their managers to stop putting in tons and tons of features and to really understand the human experience.”

Amber says the most creative ideas and products come from people who are just having fun, not trying to make money.

“I’m always looking for the scrappy people that don’t draw any attention to themselves, because that’s where all the next stuff comes from. I’m just trying to find those little weird spaces where people are doing original things and taking risks. That’s where I’ve always belonged, because I’m on a different time scale from everybody else. I’m usually a little bit in the future or a little bit in the past. And I just have to plod along and wait a few years for everyone to catch up.”

 

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About Amber Case

Amber is an entrepreneur and researcher helping Fortune 500 companies design, build, and think about connected devices. She is the former co-founder and CEO of Geoloqi, a location-based software company acquired by Esri in 2012. She spoke about the future of the interface for SXSW 2012’s keynote address, and her TED talk, “We are all cyborgs now,” has been viewed over a million times. Named one of National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers, she’s been listed among Inc. Magazine’s 30 under 30 and featured among Fast Company’s Most Influential Women in Technology.

Amber is also the author of An Illustrated Dictionary of Cyborg Anthropology and Designing Calm Technology from O’Reilly Books (fall 2015). She is a passionate advocate of privacy and the future of data ownership, and is interested in furthering the ideas of Calm Technology, wearable computing, and the future of the interface. Her current work as Managing Director of Existence at Healthways involves predictive analysis and wellness. Amber lives and works in Portland, Oregon; you can follow her on Twitter @caseorganic and learn more at caseorganic.com.