Passive Tech on the Ocean

Last week I spent a much needed vacation in The Outer Banks. If you ever see a sticker with OBX in a circle on it, that's the Outer Banks. Beautiful and isolated barrier islands off of the coast of North Carolina, they provide great rest and relaxation. And also the opportunity to think about how technology fits in our lives. I've got lots of new ideas to discuss in my coming entries, but one in particular struck me: Passive technology.

Passive technology is, or at least I'm using it to mean this until I find a better word, technology that acts silently on your behalf. It doesn't require your active attention. It only makes itself known when you ask it to or when something unexpected happens. We have some of this philosophy in our technology now, but we need more.

I came to this realization when my friends and I rode on a boat out to the gulfstream for some tuna fishing. You see it's very quiet out in the ocean. Actually it's very loud. There's the lapping of waves and the roar of a disel engine. Always there and very repetitive. But that's it. Just the two constant noises with the occasional sound from a human.

While there is plenty of audible noise the information density is low. I'm not bombarded with hundreds of different systems vying for my attention like I am in normal non-vacation life. It's informationally quiet and simple on the ocean. That's why it's relaxing!

The boat isn't simple though. It was a 65 foot ship with a huge engine, beds, bathroom, kitchen, and a deck specially outfitted with chairs and mount points for more fishing rods than I could count, but everything has it's place. All features of the boat are either designed to be flush with the boat itself or carefully hidden in a specific place. Rods are placed in special fittings built into the hull. All furniture is attached to the floor. All corners are rounded. They even have special cabinet knobs that recess into the smooth door, only popping out when you need to use them.

But back to technology. What we have is a system designed to be unobtrusive because the user can't have any distractions. They always need to be focused on the task at hand: sailing and fishing. Anything else is just overhead. I can only assume that this design is the result of hundreds of years of ocean fishing experience. In a world before GPS and combustion engines these considerations had to be made or people could die. Now that's some human centered design!

So why don't we see more of this in our everyday lives? Technology that just fades into the background, letting the user get on with the real task. Probably because it's expensive and takes time. Quality products always cost more. Better materials and better design simply cost more money and resources. But it also takes time for a solution to evolve. No matter how much money you throw at building the first version of a product it won't be perfect. It has to be refined as people use it in the real world. The first cars were expensive and hard to drive. It wasn't until the standardization of the steering wheel and the invention of the automatic transmission that driving became truly accessible. It takes time for a product to mature into something easy to use. Most of our gadgets are too new to be easy to use.

But what if they weren't? I'd like you all to choose an application you use today and imagine what it will be like with 10 years more development. Don't think about new features but more on how the existing features can become more passive and fade into the background. I'm going to choose email. Please post your ideas and I'll collect them in another column a week from now.

Have fun dreaming on the beach!

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Posted September 9th, 2003

Tagged: design