I had a great time touring the huge CES 2023 showroom last week in search of products that align with the principles of Calm Technology. It’s been gratifying to see tech giants like Samsung, Microsoft, and Google adopt them in recent years, and exciting to see how these principles play out in new themes for the new year.
Here’s a look at three that prominently stand out to me in new products featured at CES:
Resilient products are important to build, but making everything in the real world first is slow, costly, and inefficient. One of the keys to designing Calm Technologies is anticipating outcomes to a product before they happen.
Simulation is a superpower! In 1973, SPICE (Simulation Program with Integrated Circuit Emphasis) was released at a conference on Circuit Theory. SPICE became the predominant simulation tool used to model the behavior of electronic circuits. It fundamentally changed how electronic circuits were designed. Simulating a circuit and its behavior allowed designers to test and optimize the circuit’s performance in a virtual environment. This created a far faster feedback loop between development and deployment.
Digital twins take the simulation model further. In 1991 the idea of digital twins was proposed in a book called Mirror Worlds by computer scientist David Gelernter. In 2010, NASA’s John Vickers introduced digital twin as a new term for the industry. But NASA had already been using digital twins for years, starting with the space exploration missions in the 1960s, as this article explains, “when each voyaging spacecraft was exactly replicated in an earthbound version that was used for study and simulation purposes by NASA personnel serving on flight crews.”
Today, we can find digital twins behind many complex processes where physical assets are being built or modeled, such as machines, buildings, or even whole cities. Software like CityEngine can be used to model out building code changes for urban planning, or model out how new transit options might influence suburban sprawl.
A digital twin can be used to monitor and control the performance of a whole system in real time, such as complex machinery in a factory, and can even be used to predict far in advance which components might fail on an assembly line. Storing a digital twin in a simulation environment and applying physics to it makes all of this possible.
Digital twins and simulation software are going to become more even important as our products become more complex and have interdependencies with other systems.
“The Metaverse is not where you hang out,” I wrote in a message to a group chat about CES — “it’s where you do your simulation training.”
I first learned about digital twins when I worked at Esri, and later PTC, a leading simulation and digital twin company. PTC’s physics provider Ansys, was at the showroom floor at CES. Seeing how all of these systems interoperate to help people create a larger picture is important.
Simulation is also key to knowing when components will break — ahead of time—and even provision a component or repair before it is too late.
Perception validation is another crucial concept related to simulation. In order to create smart cars that successfully and safely drive, you need to ensure that what the car saw is verifiably correct, so that you don’t run into compliance issues (and harm human life).
Another simulation superpower is the use of large datasets and historical data to learn improve system efficiencies and use far less resources.
Light! Or, How to Better Decorate Your Cave
I’m seeing new consumer products experiment with light in interesting, unexpected ways. As I’ve written before, light has significant Calm Tech implications, specifically if it keeps people awake. At the same time, a product designed with warmer illumination options does not in itself become encalming.
Take LG’s MoodUp fridge: While this particular fridge marketed itself as exciting, upon further inspection it seemed a bit overbuilt. Configuring a fridge from a smartphone vs. a panel directly on the fridge means that apps must be constantly updated and paired.
MoodUP is more about enabling you to change the colors on your fridge than it is about super useful technology. What’s the advantage of this? Appealing aesthetics? Or is it just another configurable app you need to fiddle with and update on your phone? LG plays music via a built-in speaker, adding to the myriad of “smart” speakers already in the home. Does your fridge really need to be able to start a rave?
A more Calm Tech approach would be to have the fridge actually be smart about its power levels. It could send alert to your phone (or even just an email) upon a power failure, effectively turning the fridge into a sensor for your home.
A “smarter” fridge would let you know if the power was out, and then include some kind of backup cooling situation to keep your food okay, or hook into the battery of your house (or your car’s battery) and draw from those reserves. Or maybe the fridge itself could become a backup battery for the home in case of an outage. There are many cool ways for a fridge to be useful as a smart technology other than something already well-provided by a Hue Lightbulb.
Light has become a bit of a party trick, and smart companies should look more deeply for ways to harmonize with the home and its polyphony of devices, but bonus points to LG for being inventive and fun! While I do applaud them for trying something new, it could definitely be extended into something more.
Harmonizing Technology: A Japanese company built on Calm Technology
mui is a device built with natural wood that serves as a smart home control hub. It has a very calm and minimal design with a piece of wood plank, created by mui Lab, an award-winning Japanese start-up, founded by Kaz Oki, Nobu Hirobe and Mark Nomura. They aim to solve one of the biggest issues in today’s society, in which most of us tend to excessively use our phones at home.
“In today’s digital society, technology constantly draws our attention away from family and tasks at hand. We aim to calm not only individual digital devices but also our whole living environment, and the interoperability of matter devices helps us do just that”, explains CEO Kaz Oki.
Mui Lab built their entire startup based on the concepts of Calm Technology, they also translated my book into Japanese and made me an advisor. The Kyoto-based startup has really developed an impressive implementation of light and technology, blending traditional woodworking techniques with new technology.
Wood is inherently calm and easy to overlook, but putting wood and light together is brilliant.
The use of wood is appearing in many places now, as a way to bring warmth back into industry. I’ve recently seen wood used in new restaurants and coffeeshops that would’ve otherwise been made of industrial materials. This year, Kohler’s beautiful booth featured natural materials with a real focus on sensory experience. They’re also a fan of the principles of Calm Technology, and I got to speak at one of their conferences a few years ago.
Next theme: POWER & Grid Resiliency
The electricity grid, with its complex network of power generation, transmission and distribution, is an intricate system that is often taken for granted. Yet, it is one of the most important technological systems that powers our daily lives
Power from the grid is so calm that we don’t notice it until it fails. Yet we’ve all experienced power outages, and we’re increasingly aware of the issues affecting electric grid, from direct attacks on grids during wartime, grid failures during natural disasters, and difficulties in bootstrapping grids in new cities.
Grid resiliency is a subtle but key competent of Calm Technology, enabling us to have products we rarely have to think about, as electric current keeps them humming along.
I saw battery backup systems and microgrid solutions emerge as part of the product mix at CES. I am a big fan of microgrids. Microgrids can improve the reliability and resiliency of the overall grid by isolating and continuing to serve critical loads during centralized grid outages. They also can help integrate renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, into the energy mix.
The Greenworks booth demonstrated a whole slew of connected devices. Most notable was their Life Power Hub Home Energy Storage System. The system takes excess solar energy from customer solar panels and stores it for later use.
While dozens of booths showcased new charging stations for electric vehicles, I think one of the most promising new technologies is in line with what Greenworks is doing.
The Greenworks booth showed how a single family home could disconnect from the centralized grid during a power outage and use batteries inside the home to self power.
This system above, for example, allows you to “island mode” your house after a grid power outage. Electricity comes from the Greenworks Power Hub and both Greenworks 24v and 80v batteries.
Being able to store energy in batteries and use these systems to power the home creates more resilient living and commercial structures. Tesla’s Powerwall offering is one of these promising new technologies. It’s great to see more and more companies follow suit!
Simulation, Light, and Power are exciting themes to me. It means that companies are starting to take complexity more seriously, and also look at making up for weaknesses in centralized systems. On the whole, we need to be looking at systems more deeply and we need to take pride in building resilient structures.
My next post will be about the history of an idea in the complexity space called Cybernetics. What can we learn from this initial effort, and how can we apply ideas from Cybernetics today? I look forward to sharing more with you next time! In the meantime, feel free to reach out on Twitter @caseorganic!