Google’s Seed Studio, which develops concepts for the company’s consumer electronics, has teamed up with British design studio Map Project Office to come up with quirky alternatives. The six experimental devices you see here are called Little Signals. Resembling playful smart speakers, they use subtle cues – a light tap on the table, a sonorous melody, even a puff of air – to notify users of important information without triggering a frantic startle reflex. “Each concept draws attention, but gently and transiently,” says Zoe Schladow, design strategist at Google Seed Studio.
The project was inspired by Calm Technology, an idea expressed in an influential 1995 paper by Xerox PARC researchers Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown, which called for the seamless integration of technology into users’ lives. Weiser and Brown believed that technology is not inherently distracting; it’s just poorly designed. “There is no less technology in a comfortable pair of shoes, in a fine pen or in the delivery of the product New York Times on a Sunday morning than in a home PC,” they wrote. “Why is one often angry, the other often reassuring? We believe the difference is how they grab our attention.”
Little Signals employs its users in unusual, often clever, ways. The Shadow device casts shadows on a surface, shaking, stretching, and rotating to convey various messages. The Air device, on the other hand, turns household items into custom push notifications while pulses of air rustle your surroundings like the leaves of a plant. “Objects and devices usually draw attention to themselves, so we wanted to play with the idea of drawing attention to the environment instead,” says Schladow. “Getting a person’s attention can take them out of the moment, but with the Air concept we’re trying to find a balance and explore the gentlest ways of signaling.”
Rustling leaves might be too subtle a signal for some (and what if there’s nothing around to rustle?). But it does point to one of the biggest problems Little Signals has struggled with: how to mediate differently types of information. Notifications are stupid. They bombard you the same way, whether it’s an emergency message from your spouse or a spammed offer to lower your car insurance. Then you are forced to expend valuable mental energy to sort them all.
Clues that help you understand different levels of urgency can reduce mental stress. For example, the Rhythm device uses an evolving melody to convey qualitative information. A rich, solemn melody suggests urgent information; A light melody reassures you that everything is ok and you don’t need to check your messages. “Rather than treating notifications as present or absent, it’s an opportunity to put them on a scale and add a little more meaning,” says Schladow.
Will any of these interactions find their way into Google’s products? The designers declined to say so (“for now, this is just an experiment,” says a Map spokesperson), but Google hasn’t been shy about its ambitions to infiltrate nearly every aspect of your life through ambient computing. The company has a vested interest in keeping users connected without alienating them. That could mean radically overhauling notifications and making them feel like a breath of fresh air, literally.