Monday, December 13, 2004

Smart and Dumb Furniture

I'm not even sure how I got here, but I was intrigued by the need Adam Greenfield had to rant that dumb furniture might be a better idea than "smart" furniture. In the dumb furniture manifesto, he recaps previous folks saying that "smart furniture" is "that which uses information processing to significantly change its properties and affordances: objects that react and adapt in real time to the demands of their environments and users."

This is what's generally meant by "smart" in AI/agent/ubicomp circles, sure. And as he suggests, smart is usually way dumber than the average yeast cell, so it never is "smart" enough to be useful.

What I wonder is why we don't have just slow-learner furniture, or even "educationally challenged" furniture that nevertheless takes direction well. I'd prefer to tell it what to do than have it try to guess and get it wrong or irritate me with misplaced self-confidence. Or else I just want very small, quite low IQ improvements in current furniture behavior. I want my chair to pull itself out from under the table when I pause by it with a plate and glass in my hand; I want the couch to straighten its own rumpled cover when I get up; I want a window that turns one-way reflecting outward when it gets dark and I haven't pulled the curtains, so people on the street can't see me inside.

Everything I own could be just a smidge brighter without actually being "smart."


adamgreenfield said...

For someone so very attuned to language and the precise details of its use to characterize my piece as a "rant" driven by "need" raises immediate questions for me. I guess I wonder why it's necessary to frame your discussion so dismissively, when after all you seem to be by and large in agreement with the points I raised.

Can I get past that to engage your point about "low-IQ" domestic equipment? Sure I can.

For my money, none of the "minor" interventions you're talking about actually resolve to be less challenging than any other example.

Say you want your chair to pull itself out from the table when your hands are full. You've been immersed in the culture of technology a lot longer than I have, so I'm imagining you know full well how complicated this situation is when decomposed:

How is the chair to know when your hands are full? Or maybe you're encumbered without your hands technically being occupied? What should the chair to do if the table is in some position other than the ordinary, or if other chairs block its path? What should it do if there's something or -one seated in or on it?

Does it only respond to your presence? How about guests? (How does it recognize them as guests?) Is there a dwell time built in to the system, so it's not sweeping chairs back and forth every time you walk by?

It's easy to go all ad-absurdum on this, but I rather feel that the necessary degree of subtlety, attunement and (algortihmic? heuristic?) situational awareness for even a "simple" intervention like this would utterly tax contemporary design practice and most of the methodological tools it's built on. So, yeah, until someone can convincingly demonstrate otherwise, I'd rather suffer the occasional inconveniences of simple, nonaugmented furniture. The value proposition of the smart variety is simply nowhere near compelling enough.

Lynn said...

Dude. Of course I'm agreeing with you. I think the agenda of "smart" furniture is kind of ludicrous.

I'm sorry you thought I was being dismissive of your post; I wasn't intending to be. I was being dismissive of the goals of smart furniture, and maybe my examples were not well-chosen -- but what I'd like, in the absence of really "smart" high tech stuff, something that just improves my life in very minor ways. I was joking about the chair pulling itself out, in part; but my main complaint with "smart" stuff is that's it's all overthought. The designers of ubicomp stuff aren't hitting the very basic stuff, they're over-designing and over-thinking to find problems most of us don't even know we have.

So, whoa, dude. I'm with you! I'm sorry you took offense.

adamgreenfield said...


: . )