Enchanted Objects

date Mar 2, 2017
authors David Rose
reading time 27 mins

I highly recommend this book to any IoT engineers, product managers and designers. We should be evolving from the current world of screens to a world where everyday ordinary objects are transformed by wireless connectivity, low power consumption and quiet glanceable presence.

Challenges in today’s technology

I remain disappointed that so few products succeed in enchanting us. Instead, they are difficult to understand, frustrating to use, overwrought with features. They diminish rather than empower us.

Technological futures and human drives

In Part I of the book, I describe the four likely technological futures: Terminal World, prosthetics, animism, and enchanted objects. In Part II, I explore the six human drives — omniscience, telepathy, safekeeping, immortality, teleportation, and expression—and the dialectic interplay of the fictions and inventions associated with those drives.

Interaction with screens

We interact with screens 90 percent of our waking hours. The result is a colder, more isolated, less humane world. Perhaps it is more efficient, but we are less happy.

Tools and many of them is never a problem

I don’t recall my grandfather ever complaining about having too many tools. Or dreaming of tool convergence—wishing some singular mother-of-all-tools would come along to replace them. Redundancy abounded.

What should technology reduce?

I want the computer-human interface to be an empowering and positive experience—to minimize the interruption, annoyance, and distraction of our so-called smartphones and glass-faced tablets.

2 challenges: connect legacy things and convert softcopy designs to hardcopy

For one, we need to connect the billions of legacy objects that already make up our infrastructure—thermostats, doorknobs and locks, buses and bridges and electric power meters. We also need devices that can manipulate real material, such as 3-D printers that can translate electronic designs into physical objects, into food, and, eventually, into aromas.

Advantages of older machines

The old-fashioned barometer has come to represent for me a new and radically simpler way to think about our relationship with technology interfaces. The information the barometer had to offer could be ascertained with a quick look — it was glanceable. The device was polite, Zen-simple, and never intimidating. The object was dedicated to a single task of information delivery, located in one never-changing place in the house, quietly waiting to do its job. And it did so without the need for updates or upgrades or maintenance or a service plan.

Science and Arts

In college, computing opened my eyes to a new world of possibilities for what objects could already do and what they might eventually be able to do. A double major, I found that both physics and fine art had their own thrilling languages for characterizing the physical world, each with revelations and enlightenments.

Why is the smartphone so good?

The smartphone is a confusing and feature-crammed techno-version of the Swiss Army knife, impressive only because it is so compact. It is awkward to use, impolite, interruptive, and doesn’t offer a good interface for much of anything.

Start with human desires

To prioritize what new technologies to explore and which new devices to develop, companies and product makers must fundamentally start with human desire in its most basic forms. In doing so they can focus on creating products that can have a meaningful and positive impact in the world.

Things around us

transform the way people use, enjoy, and benefit from the next wave of the Internet—through embedding small amounts of computation, connectivity, and interaction into hundreds of everyday things that surround us, that we’re accustomed to, and that have a welcome place in our homes and lives and rituals.

Enchanted objects

The idea of enchanted objects has deep roots in our childhoods, in our adulation of superheroes and fascination with fantasy and science fiction, and in the fables, myths, and fairy tales that go back centuries

Advantages of enchanted objects

Notice how many of these objects are transferable from one person to another. They don’t provide any single person a superpower. These objects can be acquired, shared, gifted, traded, and passed down through generations.

New technologies that does not require new learnings?

The most pressing question underlying these competing trajectories is this: What is the most natural and desirable—even invisible—way for human beings to interact with technology without requiring a new set of skills or constantly needing to learn new languages, gestures, icons, color codes, or button combinations?

Ordinary things with magic

I simply believe that the most promising and pleasing future is one where technology infuses ordinary things with a bit of magic to create a more satisfying interaction and evoke an emotional response.

More focus on screens

As Harvard Business School legend Clayton Christensen explains in The Innovator’s Dilemma, disruption is rarely funded by incumbents… I see how challenging it is for them to shift their mind-set and pivot away from the Terminal World. When you sell pixels, it’s hard to imagine anything that’s not a screen. For these companies, the future of computing is not even worth debating: screens and more screens.

Prosthetics technology

Unlike Terminal World, the prosthetics future for technology does take into account our humanity. Prosthetics amplify our bodies, the power of all of our senses, and the dexterity of our hands. It’s appealing to develop technology that keeps us more or less who we are, only more so.

Bionics future of humanity

This is the fantasy of the bionic person. We remain fundamentally human, but technology-hacked. We look and behave normally, but we are better able to see, hear, remember, communicate, and defend ourselves than the standard all-human model. No wonder bionic people in fantasy and popular culture typically manifest in such roles as secret agent, explorer, or soldier.

Augmented reality vs diminished reality

We don’t want augmented reality, we want diminished reality. That is the modern version of the ancient wish to have superability to subdue the things that threaten us.

Disadvantages of wearing a glass

So what’s the problem with projecting information onto everyone’s glasses to provide a personal lens on the world? At least three factors—beyond the obvious one, cost (outside the military)—have prevented wearable, personal HUDs from taking off. First, the devices have been too large and uncomfortable to wear continuously. Second, they are still so ugly that any reasonably self-respecting person wouldn’t choose to wear them. Third, the information they present isn’t useful enough to outweigh their potential for distraction.

Challenges in wearables

I understand the trade-offs the designers are grappling with. They’re working to find the optimal configuration of function and fashion, computational power and battery life, size and weight. They are favoring lithe and small, which is the right choice given that all wearable displays have so far been too large and too ugly to wear continuously the way you wear regular eyeglasses.

Living in isolation with technology

If I am living in a bubble that is filtered differently from the one you see, it is as if you and I are living in two separate worlds. Wearing the iPod has the same effect in the auditory domain. We can’t talk about the music because you can’t hear what I hear. Relativistic visual views will be even more isolating.

3 laws of robotics

The science fiction writer Isaac Asimov tried to come to grips with these issues by defining, in his 1942 story “Runaround,” the Three Laws of Robotics: 1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Do we need personality posessing robots?

Robots like Kismet raise an essential question: What does social interaction with personality-possessing technology do to us? The social psychology concept (and commonsense understanding) of reciprocity holds that the way we behave toward others influences the way others behave in return. This principle underlies human conduct. One good deed begets another. But does the rule of reciprocity apply to how we interact with robots?

Human like robots and their implications

Although we’ve always wanted a replicant, a doppelgänger, a robot made in our image, the closer we get to reaching that goal, the less pleasing it becomes. …In 1970, robot researcher Masahiro Mori coined the term uncanny valley. His insight is that as a machine gets closer and closer to humanness, the likeness becomes so good that any imperfection becomes unacceptable, even creepy.

Testing edge cases

When evaluating a new car design, test drivers will veer sharply from the guardrail on one side of the track to the opposite guardrail to test how quick and responsive the steering is. Designers of all kinds need to consider this “guardrail experience”—what are the outer limits of the product’s performance? The designers at Apple anticipated that people would want to test Siri in this way. When you say, “Siri, I love you,” she replies, “I value you.”

What are enchanted objects?

Enchanted objects start as ordinary things — a pen, a wallet, a shoe, a lightbulb, a table. The ordinary thing is then augmented and enhanced through the use of emerging technologies — sensors, actuators, wireless connection, and embedded processing—so that it becomes extraordinary.

Fabled desires

The replenishing purse that constantly pours forth money, the horn that can summon help across vast distances, boots that enable you to run without tiring, the carpet that can fly. Such objects continue to animate our movies, games, comics, and popular fictions. Enchanted objects are the real-world manifestation of these fabled desires.

Example of ordinary and enchanted objects

An ordinary-looking wallet holds cash and credit cards, yes, but an enchanted wallet also has a wireless link to your online bank account so it becomes harder to open when you’re going over your budget, overusing credit, or making purchases on impulse.

Still retains it’s original feature

The Livescribe pen achieves a nice fusion between analog and digital while preserving all the familiar characteristics that make a pen such a pleasing tool. It looks like a pen, works like a pen, but is much more than just a pen. Although you love it for its extra capabilities, its essential “pen-ness” isn’t compromised.

Interfacing with senses

Each semester we work together to develop prototypes of enchanted objects or services with tangible interfaces. By tangible I mean that the interaction between human being and object does not require a screen. Instead, interfaces rely on gesture, tactility, wearables, audio, light and pattern, and haptics—the use of touch.

How can objects around us be enchanted?

To help students open up their thinking, I lead an improvisational activity early in the semester. I give each student a piece of ordinary masking tape. Their task is to stick it to any object that might provide an enchanted service and to imagine any kind of interface, sensor, or display that might be embedded in the material of the object. It’s a generative, expansive exercise, and it sparks an outpouring of interesting questions about the object, the imagined service, and the potential interface,

Questions to ask:

  • Would the display be public or private?
  • Could anybody see the information the object provides, or only me, the user?
  • How dynamic is the data?
  • Would the data change and update constantly in real time or at some longer interval?
  • What is the trade-off between distraction and value?
  • How intrusive is the object, and is that intrusion acceptable, given the value the object delivers to me?
  • Is the display encoded or camouflaged or easily learnable?
  • How much effort does this object demand of me in the interaction?
  • Does the interface mimic (or biomimic) the natural world in some way, such as wilting?
  • Does it pick up on something I already do, such as a gesture or an action?
  • What’s the agency and personality of the service?
  • How does the object represent me? Is it cute?
  • How do I feel about it as a presence in my life?
  • Is the information mirrored or can it jump to other touch points such as mobile, Web, or large public displays?
  • Can I get the information it provides in other ways and places or is it confined to that one object?
  • What’s the learning curve?
  • How quickly would I be able to use it effectively?

Trends: smaller, wireless and cheaper

We can embed silicon and sensors in any object—shoes, pill bottles, lightbulbs, wallets, and furniture—virtually without noticing the incremental costs. Is there an object that can’t or won’t be enchanted? You could suppose that the enchantment of real-world objects today, unlike in our fantasies and folklore, has its limits. But if you look at the trends in miniaturization, wireless networks, and costs, you will quickly see otherwise.

Cheaper tomorrow

I doubt these doubts. Technologists have already shown that the price thresholds of today will be history tomorrow. So long as people delight in enchantment—in its utility, simplicity, and wonder—the cost of technology will vanish as a barrier to enchanting things.

How to keep something updated?

does it make sense to embed a rapidly changing technology in things that hardly ever change? Wouldn’t that be a route to disenchantment? Who wants a ten-year-old piece of furniture encumbered with a technology that became obsolete three years after purchase? The auto industry has been dealing with this issue for years.

Keeping update

A solution to the life-span problem—and for many kinds of enchanted objects—is a modular architecture. That is, architecture in which individual components can be updated, upgraded, and swapped in as needed.

OTA will become very important

Furthermore, a connection to the cloud allows “upsourcing” of computationally complex tasks such as speech recognition and route planning that take into account weather and traffic congestion. The cloud will play an essential role in upgrading the features and functionality of the car through a technology called over-the-air updating (OTA).

OTA and Tesla

The OTA capability has a tremendous impact on Tesla’s business model because it affects how people think about their car purchase. If I can download new features and behaviors through software updates from the cloud, I should be able to keep the hardware version longer than I might otherwise have.

Thinking of designers

The designers creating enchanted objects must, therefore, think of themselves as something more than manipulators of materials and masters of form. They must think beyond pixels, connectivity, miniaturization, and the cloud.

Engineers and scientists and wizards

Our training may be as engineers and scientists, but we must also see ourselves as wizards and artists, enchanters and storytellers, psychologists and behaviorists.


An enchanted object must strike a balance between practicality and pleasure, form and function. It must not be purely practical so as to be boring or so pleasurable that it only satisfies the hedonic desires.

Safety or self-actualize?

Maslow’s hierarchy is useful for technologists and designers to keep in mind, so they can be clear about what need their invention addresses. Are you satisfying the need for safety or helping people self-actualize?

6 human desires:

  • Omniscience: This is the desire to have great knowledge
  • Telepathy: We have a powerful desire to connect to the thoughts and feelings of others, and to be able to communicate with ease, richness, and transparency
  • Safekeeping: We fervently wish to be protected from harm
  • Immortality: We want to be healthy, strong, fully capable
  • Teleportation.: We crave movement, to be transported easily and swiftly
  • Expression: We all wish to be generative, to fully express ourselves in many forms and media

Quantities and overwhelming

We spew it out in streams of Tweets, news feeds, blog posts, and other media. But much of that information is bland and of little value. It masquerades as news, but in its form and delivery, it lacks enchantment. It’s just there—in overwhelming quantities.


I love old clocks. And, as I’ve confessed, I am hooked on old weather stations and barometers. They are always there, politely waiting for you to notice them. Unlike phones and computers, clocks respect your attention. They aren’t interruptive. They have a calm presence.


Why do we want so much information? Why do we have this great urge to know what we cannot know directly from our senses? Sometimes we are driven by curiosity and the sheer delight of learning, but mostly we want to know more so we can make better decisions and take appropriate actions. Often making information ambient and pervasive is the most effective way to create behavior change for yourself and for others.

Information and action

Furthermore, information that arrived with the monthly bill wasn’t actionable. It was hard to make the connection between the things you had done or hadn’t done—like turning off the computer or leaving lights on all day—and an energy bill. The feedback loop was too long.

How should we be gathering information instead?

What we do want is to have a better understanding of hidden thoughts and emotions that are relevant to us and would be important for us to know, and to be able to tune in to them—not through eavesdropping or mind invasion, but through a consensual, opt-in, mutually beneficial, benign telepathy.

From fact to knowledge

The brilliance of the Weasley clock design is the way in which it prioritizes and displays information. Rather than showing the family members’ physical locations on a map, it provides something much more important: knowledge about where they are, in general, as well as their state of being.

Positive effect of technology

I believe that enchanted objects—with their persistent presence and lightweight background communication—will have a different and positive effect. We will be more connected to the mood states, behavioral changes, and communication styles of those we live and work with, the people we care about, think about, and love.

When is forced opting ok?

In The Dark Knight, Batman deploys the superadvanced technology of Wayne Enterprises to connect the cell phones of all the citizens of the great city of Gotham into a massive surveillance system with the goal of capturing his nemesis, the Joker. Gothamites are given no choice about opting in. Batman, a public servant who has devoted his life to the safekeeping of the people of his beloved city, is quite willing to invade a little privacy to gain an advantage on evil.

Road to hell is paved with good intentions?

Adam Greenfield, author of Everyware, describes how technologies developed with positive intentions can be exploited in unexpected and sinister ways.

Placebo, medicine and price

One moral of the story, which applies today, is that price influences the perception of value. The more we pay for our medications, the more we believe they are doing us the good we desire. The placebo effect is increased and the potion is more effective.

Elimination of dieseases

He predicts that, within fifteen years, life expectancy will be increasing by one year every year. This will largely be accomplished by steadily eliminating the most common causes of death, such as heart disease and diabetes.

Here are the essential elements of my enchanted-object recipe:

  • An ordinary familiar object, augmented and connected to the cloud.
  • Passive sensing, so you don’t have to manually record anything.
  • Unavoidable, ambient information display for constant feedback.
  • Emotional engagement and/ or social incentives.


  • Should we alone see the patterns? If others, who?
  • How much of the data? Over what time period?
  • Should they have the ability to recombine the data and compare it to that of others? To share it with others?
  • Can we require that data be destroyed at a certain point?

Who does the data belong to?

Usually it’s an insurance company or your employer, and because they are paying, they typically assert their right to analyze the data, usually before you do, and sometimes exclusively. This is an asymmetrical power dynamic that I abhor. Your data should be yours and yours first. You should be given tools to understand the accuracy of the information and analyze what it means.

Acclimatisation of observation

The inhabitants know they are being observed, but cannot see the observers, so their power and effect are greatly amplified—rather like the Oz effect. The durability of this effect declines as people acclimate to the building.

Improvements in quantified self

I believe the quantified-self movement is in desperate need of more enchanted tools, including self-logging, spreadsheets, and scientific information visualization. These tools must include two critical elements: passive data capture and unavoidable display.

Power consumption

The downside of these wearables is they require recharging every few days, or they have no display on the device itself. We need new display materials like E Ink, and new parasitic charging strategies, such as motion and solar, to make these quantified-self tools into truly enchanted objects.

Getting your attention

Think of the ways that objects communicate with you on a spectrum from subtle to more insistent. Ideally, enchanted objects shouldn’t ever beep, buzz, or alarm. Instead they should respect your attention like a polite butler cleaning his throat to get your attention.

Safety and driverless car

Then there is the safety issue. Today, in the United States, about thirty-five thousand people die in car accidents each year. Driverless cars will dramatically reduce this number because speed limits will be dynamic and lane changes and other road maneuvers will be controlled, based on traffic flow, weather, road conditions, and perhaps the price of energy futures.

Aware cars

They will always be aware of the cars around them, the surface of the road, and will adhere to speed limits and road regulations. Accidents will be rare and the number of injuries and deaths will drop. We will spend less on emergency and health-care services, less on insurance policies and claims.

Standing on top of abstractions

Often people envision artists starting from scratch with a blank canvas, but most artistic professionals have some form of guidance: clothing designers use patterns, screenwriters follow proven formulas, software coders use routines and libraries.

What is learning?

Rather, as Mitch Resnick, LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research and head of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, puts it, “Learning is an active process in which people construct new understandings of the world around them through active exploration, experimentation, discussion, and reflection. In short: people don’t get ideas; they make them.”

Spare audio capacity…

Most information workers have plenty of spare audio capacity, because they spend their days dealing with information through reading and writing—composing and responding to email, tuning financial models, editing documents and presentations. What further information could they absorb via the audio channel, before it became a distraction or the focus of their attention?

Enchanted objects all around

We have also imagined a phone that gets heavier as your voice-mail messages stack up, a shoe that nudges your feet to walk in a desired direction, a door handle that heats up to signal that people are in conflict inside the room, and a wallet that gets harder to open as you approach a spending limit you have set for yourself.

Senses around us

What can computers sense? The short answer is, a lot more than we can. They can sense sound, light, touch, many kinds of movement, biometric data such as heart rate and fingerprints, liquid flow, barometric pressure, radiation, temperature, proximity, and location.

Wireless network

A wireless network in the perfect world would have six important characteristics — reliability, scalability, range, power, data rate, security — but the laws of physics and information science limit perfection. As a network designer you inevitably must trade performance in one area for performance in another.

Respectful things

This translates into how we learn them and they learn us. Their ability to engender trust, for them to act as respectful agents of our time and attention. The most important: glanceability, gestureability, affordability, wearability, indestructibility, usability, and loveability.

Faster perception

Ambient information displays don’t require any effort or cognitive load. They can be perceived in less than a quarter of a second out of the corner of your eye. These displays help you prioritize your attention and are the only antidote to information overload.

System 1 thinking

System 1 is “fast” thinking: subconscious, immediate, involuntary, and essentially automatic, emotional in nature. System 1 thinking responds to certain kinds of information, such as colors, shapes, and smells, and is almost instantaneous—it takes about eleven milliseconds for our brains to register a bit of such information.

Glanceable objects?

What types of data are good fits for glanceable enchanted objects? An obvious one is energy usage, for which we have exquisite information, readily available, in tremendous quantity. As a society, we need to solve our energy-management problem, and part of the solution lies in getting people to change their consumption habits so we can smooth out the difference between the supply curve and the demand curve.

Enchanted objects as wearable

Enchanted objects can be almost laughably inexpensive and remarkably durable, much more so than an iThing, which is optimized for portability. Like woodworking or metalsmithing tools, they can be made almost impervious to wear and last for decades.

Creation of enchanted objects

This repeatable process demystifies the creation of enchanted objects or, at least, helps teams ask the right questions as they go. The higher the object climbs on the ladder, the more sophisticated or enchanting it becomes. Not every object need reach the top, but value can be added at each step:

  1. Connection: adding sensing/ sensor capabilities by connecting to the cloud.
  2. Personalization: adding and leveraging personal information.
  3. Socialization: adding connections to friends, loved ones, and colleagues.
  4. Gamification: adding the fun and motivational elements of video games.
  5. Story-ification: adding a human narrative for the product, service, or user.

Why go cellular?

Cellular connections hold the most promise because they eliminate the fiddling needed for Bluetooth pairing. They also allow users to avoid dealing with Wi-Fi networks, which, run in secure mode, require a password, a display to log on, or a USB cable or other tether, and setup time.

Goals and tweaking

By revealing your goals to your enchanted object, you allow the object to help tell your story—and help to make it come out with a happy ending.

Self regulation and feedback loops

Two elements of systems thinking are important to the idea of enchantment: systems are self-regulating through feedback loops and are complex, with multiple components that interact with and affect one other, and that—to some degree—have the ability to learn and change and adapt. The human body is a self-regulating, complex system, as is nature as a whole. A rock, however, is not a system.

Vision of tomorrow

My vision is not of the all-knowing, creepy (and ultimately devious) HAL computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I see something closer to a high-level version of the termite mounds and beehives that MIT’s Mitch Resnick describes in Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams: Explorations in Massively Parallel Microworlds. These are complex, self-regulating systems that operate with no central brain at all. They respond to simple rules of organization (along with chemical and electrical signals) that all members of the community know and instinctively follow. The result is a resilient system.

System rather than one all knowing

The sensors and signaling will not respond to one fragile, totalitarian computer controlling billions of minion objects. Rather, an enchanted system will operate according to principles that will look more like a natural ecosystem than a computer network: self-regulation through feedback loops, resilience, adaptability, and—the great difference from natural ecosystems, which don’t take human beings into account—respect for human desires and human concerns at their core.


The many models of shared living spaces offer individuals sufficient private space but shared common areas to reap the benefits of a community. Models of microspaces, too, are everywhere: college dorms, trains, boats, planes, campers, tents, yurts, and the “tiny house” movement—entire homes, with most of the traditional amenities, cleverly designed into a couple hundred square feet or portable abodes as small as seventy-three square feet.

House activities

  1. Generate (work)
  2. Chop and chew (food prep and eating)
  3. Shred it (exercise)
  4. Lean back and lounge (casual socializing with others)
  5. Entertain me (immersive movie experience)
  6. Ease in and out of sleep (the essential afternoon catnap)

Bang & Olufsen

The critical point here is that Bang & Olufsen, in the creation of its products—which include audio systems and loudspeakers, televisions, phones, and other products—thinks in terms of systems and of human interactions. The company defines its ideal this way: “Bang & Olufsen exists to move you with enduring magical experiences.”

Enchanted cities?

So as we design enchanted objects, we must remember this lesson: a walkable city is critical to promote street life, a feeling of community, the web of public safety, networks of peer-to-peer interaction that constitute everyday interaction, and a feeling that you are seen.