Everyday objects that improve lives thanks to the Internet
David Rose reinvents common objects and turns them into gadgets with increased capabilities, thanks to technology and the Internet of Things
David Rose is a magical inventor. Where the rest of us only see an object, he thinks about how it could be bewitched. A mirror, a lamp, a doorbell, an umbrella or a bottle of pills. Anything, no matter how simple, opens a world of possibilities for his imagination, stimulated by the tales of the Brothers Grimm, the stories of J.R.R. Tolkien and popular fables of witches and charms.
As a researcher at the MIT Media Lab, the laboratory of ideas and new technology creation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rose examines and expands the possibilities of everyday objects. His work involves “making ordinary things have extraordinary abilities”, he explains during an interview at EmTech Toulouse 2018.
The Internet of Things is his main field, but understood as the ability to transform common objects to offer new services, rather than creating new devices. A recurring nightmare that haunts him consists of a world in which all interaction is carried out through screens. His aim is that interaction be carried out using everyday objects, without them losing their essence and beauty: “We want to create more elegant technology that is integrated into the day-to-day environment”.
From this combination of everyday things, technology and interaction comes his magic and what he calls enchanted objects, the same as the title of his latest popular book: Enchanted Objects: design, human desire and the Internet of Things. In it he reflects on the possibilities of transforming any object into a more useful device thanks to a combination of cutting-edge technology, information from the Internet and an analysis of user needs.
Rose’s inspiration comes from many places, but mainly from fables and tales. Reading about the crystal balls of fortune tellers in stories, he designed a lamp that changes colour to show environmental changes. If a person likes sailing, they can programme the device so that the colour of the lamp varies depending on the strength of the wind – from a pure blue to indicate that the sea is calm to a hot red to indicate heavy seas, passing through a green that is considered to represent ideal conditions. It can also be programmed to show weather forecasts, pollen counts, or to know whether the amount of rain that has fallen is enough to not have to water the garden.
Orcs have also served as inspiration for this inventor. Specifically, the sword of Bilbo Baggins in The Lord Of The Rings saga that lit up to warn that one of these creatures was getting dangerously close. In the real world there are no orcs, but it rains just as much as in Middle Earth. For this reason, Rose has designed an umbrella whose handle lights up when the weather forecast is for rain, meaning that the owner won’t leave it in the umbrella stand when leaving home.
Snow White, Harry Potter and pill bottles
“Mirror, mirror, who is the most beautiful in the land?”, asked Snow White’s stepmother in the story. The changing mirror that Rose has designed does not say who is the most beautiful, but it does record the outfits that you try on in a shop so that you can later compare which one suits you better.
For Rose, objects should also serve to provide useful information and to encourage interaction between people. After reading the book Quiet by Susan Cain, he was impressed by the fact that both shy people and extroverts have the same amount of good ideas, it is just that the first group does not communicate them because they feel intimidated. To solve this he designed the Balance Table, which lights up the surface of those who are hogging the conversation. In this way, participants in a debate will realise who is talking too much and can better allocate the time.
This interest in human interaction is also reflected in his Google Latitude Doorbell, which emits a characteristic sound when a family member is arriving home. Another of his applications is based on the Marauder’s Map from the Harry Potter books. J.K. Rowling invented this map, which shows where each character is at any given time. In the same way, using cities’ public data, Rose designs interfaces at bus stops that indicate where public vehicles are at all times, so that the user can decide which option best suits them. Locating this information at the stops is one of the keys of his philosophy of technology in objects: “Information must be provided in the right place”.
His projects also have many applications in healthcare, as evidenced by the pill bottle that has been designed to make sure that chronic patients stick to their treatment. When a person need to take a pill, the bottle emits a signal or alerts their carer or a family member. In this way, he has succeeded in improving the adherence ratio from 71% to 98%.
David Rose does not perform magic, but the things that he designs are very close to enchanted objects. Thanks to technology and his curiosity and inspiration, he can transform any home into a bewitched kingdom and make the lives of its inhabitants easier, more fun and more comfortable.