The ways in which technology grabs our attention to deliver important (and less important) information has barely changed since the early days of mobile phones: beeps and vibrations. Sure, these have matured into passive notifications, but the alert remains the same, and it makes it hard to switch off and disconnect from technology even for a moment.
Google is experimenting with a more gentle way of delivering alerts with an experimental project called Little Signals. This has resulted in the company revealing six curious smart home gadgets that grab your attention in a more relaxing way, using things like the movement of shadow, gentle taps and even a puff of air to alert you to something.
There are six gadgets in all — the products of a collaboration between Google and the London based design studio Map Project Office, which can all be downloaded and made at home. “They keep us in the loop, but softly, moving from the background to the foreground as needed,” explains Google in the video description. You can see all six in action below.
‘Air’ is probably the most interesting of these. A cylindrical device that can spin around and blast out little puffs of air. The idea isn’t that you’ll feel the artificial breeze yourself, but that you’ll catch the gentle movement of plant’s leaves in your peripheral vision.
‘Shadow’ is similarly subtle: a small dome that lifts up to cast a shadow. If that’s not attention grabbing enough, it can be programmed to pulse with a breathing-style pattern.
‘Tap’ takes a leaf out of human methods of grabbing attention, by tapping a physical stick against a surface to make a gentle noise. If it’s important, the device can tap louder, giving you an idea of how urgent the alert is.
‘Button’, meanwhile, slowly rises up and plays a tone if it reaches its full height without being pressed.
‘Movement’ is similar, but here seven pegs can pop out of the structure, either one at a time like a game of peek-a-boo, or all at once to convey a different message. It can, according to Google, “graphically represent information like a calendar or timer” via the motion.
Finally, there’s ‘Rhythm’, which is more your classic notification. It will play a programmable melody, and can be muted either by waving your hand above it or turning it upside down.
“These little signals are thought starters of how we can foster new behaviors and relationships with our technology, working in harmony with the objects we already love in a little way,” Google explains in the video.
It’s certainly a more calming vision of what smart home notifications can look like, but how far Google will go with the project remains to be seen. While it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a future Nest Hub could grab your attention by a light gust of air, or a Nest Hello doorbell could tap the wall to warn you of imminent guests, it might be a bit too subtle for those who have already welcomed multiple screens into their home as part of the cost of smart-home living.
In the meantime, all of the files you need to build these for yourself can be downloaded from the official website.
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Freelance contributor Alan has been writing about tech for over a decade, covering phones, drones and everything in between. Previously Deputy Editor of tech site Alphr, his words are found all over the web and in the occasional magazine too. When not weighing up the pros and cons of the latest smartwatch, you'll probably find him tackling his ever-growing games backlog. Or, more likely, playing Spelunky for the millionth time.