The Future Is Enchanted Objects, Not Glass Slabs

On Saturday, I read the final draft of a magnificent book by David Rose. The book is titled Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire and the Internet of Things.

I’ve known David for many years. I was a huge fan and an early customer, but not an investor, in one of his companies (Ambient Devices) and we share a lot of friends and colleagues from MIT and the Media Lab. I was happy to be asked to blurb his book and then absolutely delighted with the book. It captured so many things that I’ve been thinking about and working on in a brilliantly done 300 page manuscript.

The basic premise of the book is that ultimately we want “enchanted objects”, not “glass slabs” to interact with. Our current state of the art (iMacs, iPhones, Android stuff, Windows tablets, increasing large TV screens) are all glass slabs. The concept of the “Internet of Things” introduces the idea of any device being internet connected, which is powerful, but enchanted objects take it one step further.

Now, the irony of it is that I read David’s book on a glass slab (my Kindle Fire, which is currently my favorite reading device.) But page after page jumped out at me with assertions that I agreed with, examples that were right, or puzzle pieces that I hadn’t quite put together yet.

And then on Saturday night it all hit home for me with a real life example. I was lying on the couch reading another book on my Kindle Fire at about 10pm. I heard a chirp. I tried to suppress it at first, but after I heard the second one I knew it was the dreaded chirp of my smoke detector. I continued to try to deny reality, but a few chirps later Amy walked into the room (she had already gone to bed) and said “do you hear what I hear?” Brooks the Wonder Dog was already having a spaz attack.

I got up on a chair and pulled the smoke alarm off the ceiling. I took out the 9V battery and was subject to a very loud beep. We scavenged around for 9V batteries in our condo. We found about 200 AAs and 100 AAAs but no 9Vs. Chirp chirp. We bundled up (it was 2 degrees out) and walked down the street to the Circle K to buy a 9V battery. They only had AAs. We walked back home, got in the car (with Brooks, who was now a complete mess from all the beeping) and drove to King Soopers. This time we got about 20 9Vs. We got home and I got back on the chair and wrestled with the battery holder. After the new battery was in the beeping continued. Out of frustration, I hit the “Test” button, heard a very loud extended beep, and then silence. At least from that smoke alarm.

Chirp. It turns out that I changed the battery in the wrong one. The one that was chirping was in another room. This one was too high for a chair, which resulted in us having to go into our storage cage in the condo basement and get a ladder. There was a padlock on our cage – fortunately the four digit code was one of the ones that everyone in the world who knows us knows. Eventually, with the ladder, the new batteries, and some effort I got the chirping to stop.

We have those fancy white smoke alarms that are wired directly into the power of the house. I have no idea why they even need a battery. The first thing they do when they want your attention is to make an unbelievably obnoxious noise. Then, they are about as hard as humanly possible to silence. They generate one emotion – anger.

Not an enchanted object.

In comparison, Nest is trying to make an enchanted object our of their new smoke detector product. After reading the Amazon reviews, I realize this is an all or nothing proposition and after spending $30 on 9V batteries and then changing all of the ones in the existing smoke detectors I don’t feel like spending $550 to replace the four smoke detectors in my condo. Plus, the one I want – the wired one – isn’t in stock. So I’ll wait one product cycle, or at least until the beeping crushes my soul again.

We’ve got a bunch of investments in our human computer interaction them that aspire to be enchanted objects including Fitbit, Modular Robotics, LittleBits, Orbotix, and Sifteo. I’m going to start using David’s great phrase “enchanted objects” to describe what I’m looking for in this area. And while I’ll continue to invest in many things that improve our glass slab world, I believe that the future is enchanted objects.

  • carousel of progress

  • Love this concept that there’s more than just glass slabs to creating compelling interactions. Reminds me of a Bret Victor post from a few years ago where he discusses breaking through the prevailing ‘pictures under glass’ metaphor.

  • Darin Hagre

    Innovations don’t always have to change the world, just make small parts of it better.

  • Paul Pitttman

    A smoke detector is one of those things where you don’t want to be enchanted – we need a slap up a side the head to make sure we do something about it – I suspect they are designed that way. Being enchanted would mean being able to put it off. What’s an enchanted slap aside the head?

    • StevenHB

      Too many of these things are subject to false positives – in this case it led to Brad’s anger. There needs to be a better balance. Had this been in my home (where I have interconnected smoke detectors powered through my central alarm system), I would have removed the battery and dealt with it in the morning. This isn’t a particularly great response, either.

    • What are the odds of a fire happening on any particular night? What are the odds that that particular smoke detector (one of several in Brad’s home I assume) would play a significant role in preventing that fire from spreading? Over the course of my admittedly short life, I have never seen a fire that was not purposefully set and attended to. In other words, if my apartment burns down tomorrow, my chance of being in a house with a fire on any particular day over my lifetime will have been <0.1%. I think that under these circumstances, going without a smoke alarm for a day or two is not a big deal.

      • Yeah just take the smoke alarm out, you can fix it tomorrow, just put in up in this cupboard, oh tomorrow theres an important meeting, and yadda yadda yadda, two months later faulty wiring causes a fire while you are sleeping and your smoke detector for that area is up in the cupboard.

  • If you had an electrical fire that tripped the breakers, you’d still want the smoke alarm to make noise.

    • True.

      • There is another AC powered type that wires back to a security alarm. Security alarm has big, rechargeable lead acid battery so there is no need for 9V batteries. But you need wires in place from the location of the smoke alarm back to the security system panel. This also lets the smoke system be remotely monitored.

  • I had this happen to me once many years ago. I just disabled the detector completely. That thing averaged a false positive a day. When I cook, I make smoke. It’s not a fire, it’s just seared meat. What is really needed is a smoke detector with a remote control to disable it for X hours while you’re cooking. I would spend money on that product.

  • alek_komarnitsky

    Even though the smoke detectors are hard-wired into house power, the battery backup provides two fail-safe mechanisms. If the power wire get severed (ex: squirrel … or maybe the start of a fire!), it will still work … and ditto if the power goes out on that circuit or the whole house – again, could be a precursor to a fire.

    Now sure, those are low frequency events … but for a “mission critical” device like a fire/smoke alarm, you want to be handle those corner cases … so that is provided by the onboard battery backup and annoying chirp.

    Also, if those detectors were installed with the house, there is almost certainly a signaling wire between ’em – the idea is that if one alarms, then they all alarm. Of course, when you have the low battery signal, that happens too. Plus yea, those damn chirps are actually pretty difficult to precisely locate.

    Finally, you were lucky to have the low battery go off at 10:00PM … my experience is that is usually is like 4:00AM and typically after a cold spell … since that is when battery life is at its lowest.

    Or in your case, a week after your birthday – happy 48th … I hit 50 this year! 😉


    P.S. And yes, a “disable for one hour” feature would be nice as I certainly have set ’em off while cooking too!

    • JaeHLee

      Probability of your house catching fire x probability of losing electricity = probability of the need for a back up battery (i.e. minuscule)

      Probability of battery dying x probability of the chirping annoying the sh*t out of you = probability this is a not-so-very-good idea (i.e. hunormous)

  • FYI
    They need a battery in case the power fails.
    Don’t want to die of smoke inhalation when there’s a power outage do we?

  • Williamsacks

    I’ve been thinking about what makes a successful enchanted object, and two things pop out:

    First: Connecting an object to the internet adds overhead as well as opportunity. For the object to be a hit, the user experience needs to minimize the overhead (ex. futzing around with the UI) and maximize the value delivered. Ex. I bought a Wakemate sleep monitor in early 2011 and after spending 15 minutes a day trying to sync it with my iPhone each day, I never used it again. In contrast my Nike Fuel Band is nearly invisible in terms of the UI. It makes it onto my wrist most days. I think the Beam toothbrush failed because the makers didn’t appreciate this fact.

    Second: Each type of object calls for a different optimal user experience. Ex. Some objects should be more active (ex. a Tesla roadster) and some more passive (a simple activity monitor). And there are dozens of other experiential qualities to consider with each object. The products that win will be ones that nail the user experience for their specific type of object. It’s going to be interesting to see the innovative user experiences that get designed in the next few years as we connect heretofore unconnected things.

  • This reminds me of the Cisco commercial where the bike helmet is talking to the ambulance is talking to the hospital, etc. Rather than wonder, my first impression was one of horror. I was just talking with a friend the other day about how I miss the days before cell phones. I luv’d the idea of leaving the house in the morning and not be constantly immediately available to people. The last thing I want is everything I see talking to everything else I see about me.

    As an aside, I really miss how people used to sit at dinner with you in a restaurant and actually talk to you instead of surfing FB, Twitter, Snapchat, etc.

  • Can’t you just put rechargeable 9V’s into your smoke detector?

  • Enchanted objects we can touch and feel, but glass slabs will always be around for consuming media.