Home Computer Science Calm Technology. Principles and Patterns for Non-Intrusive Design
Why Car Radios Still Have Knobs
I was told anecdotally at a technology conference about an in-vehicle touchscreen that was tested in a lab setting, but never with a driver on the road. This system was completely distracting and almost impossible to use. In a vehicle, having simple tactile controls (physical buttons, sliders, rotating knobs) allows your brain to remember where they are without forcing you to look at them. You can turn the radio on and off without taking your eyes off of the road. You can feel for where a radio or CD player button is. But bright touchscreens in vehicle dashboards can distract drivers from the road while driving at night. Being able to quickly turn down the brightness of the screen with a physical dial is critical, not just to comfort but to safety as well.
You may be familiar with some electronic toothbrushes that stay on for the recommended two minutes and then buzz to let you know you’re finished, but what about a toothbrush that lets you know when you’ve forgotten to brush your teeth entirely? Imagine a toothbrush with a handle or small indicator that lights up when you haven’t brushed your teeth that morning or evening . The light stays on until you’ve used it for the recommended period of time, then resets to light up at the next scheduled time .
The Virtual Aquarium, a variant of this idea, was created by a team of researchers at Waseda University, Bell Labs, and Lancaster University. It uses a mirror-based display depicting swimming fish, and a toothbrush equipped with an accelerometer to determine if a user has brushed their teeth properly. The health of the fish is linked to the user’s toothbrushing activity, keeping them strong with regular brushing, but weakening them if neglected . The motivation it produces is well documented, and it appears to be highly effective at incentivizing regular brushing, even among adults d 
This is an excellent example of a calm interaction because it uses a light-based or visual graphic notification instead of an annoying beeping sound, an email, a text message, or anything else excessively intrusive to remind you to brush your teeth Much like a notification icon on a phone or a desktop, the device draws attention to itself in a quiet way. The fact that you’ll only see it in the room where you would actually use the toothbrush is an example of smart contextual notification
The color of the light is important here: red feels anxious, while a blue light is more of a gentle reminder. It’s also a self-sufficient device . Because it uses an internal timed sensor, the toothbrush doesn’t need to connect to an external network or application, or over Bluetooth . No application needs to be installed or updated, and no external device is necessary The toothbrush works as a self-contained object that improves your behavior. Simple, right? It’s also a good example of Principle VII: The right amount of technology is the minimum needed to solve the problem.
For a different sort of visual indicator, consider the inhaler designed to be treated as a mechanical “pet” for kids requiring daily asthma medication . The inhaler puffs itself up with air so it is plump and full by morning, and the child is instructed to take care of their “pet” by deflating it, creating a gentle reminder to take their medication each morning The relationship fostered is much like those between nano-pets and their owners
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