MIT start-up has wireless glow

Ambient Devices, a start-up hatched at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, specializes in gadgets that subtly convey information.

A start-up hatched at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology thinks it has the answer to information overload: More information.

Ambient Devices, a company former MIT students created to commercialize technology derived from MIT-backed research, is looking to popularize a new category of wireless device that subtly adds information to an environment.

The company's first product, the Ambient Orb, is an illuminated globe that slowly changes color based on movement of the Dow Jones industrial average or user-selected stock data. The new Beacon similarly uses color shifts to reflect the weather forecast. Each of the devices retrieves data automatically from information channels Ambient runs via a nationwide pager network.

The company also announced plans at last week's Consumer Electronics Show for the Ambient Dashboard, a device with three meters and needles that move to reflect changes in user-selected data points, ranging from the surf forecast to a credit card balance.

The company's goal, President David Rose said, is to add meaningful information to a person's environment in a way that doesn't distract or require intervention.

"It's a way to take advantage of wireless, Web services and information overload," Rose said. "We're combining those trends with information that can be consumed in your peripheral vision."

"We have big brains for processing multiple information streams at the same time," he added. "We're using technology to take advantage of that."

While other technologies--most notably Microsoft's Smart Personal Object Technology watches--have promised to provide useful information that can be digested in a glance, truly glance-ready technology requires careful thinking about the user interface, Rose said. Numbers or bits of text on a small display require too much attention.

"If you're going to take advantage of peripheral perception, it has to be sound, color, angle or pattern," he said.

Those formats won't convey as much information as text and numbers, but they don't need to, Rose said. "The real purpose (of Ambient devices) is to help you understand things are trending in way you need to pay attention to," he said. "It's enough to prioritize taking action, which usually means getting more detailed information."

While Ambient's initial devices focus on weather and stock data, Rose said the approach applies to any "one-dimensional" information that can be retrieved from the Web. Customers who pay for a subscription to the company's premium services can customize data for numerous values, and new channels are being added all the time.

"We've found (that) a lot of people want to track homeland security alert status, which we didn't expect," Rose said.