Google is researching hidden ambient interfaces

Google is researching the ability to mask interfaces to control ambient computing devices by making them blend in with materials like wood and cloth. Everyday materials around your house may hold and hide future smart devices so that they blend in better when you’re not using them. This has been a dream for quite some time, and you can even find smart mirror projects on YouTube, but Google is now putting its best foot forward to bring this vision to life at scale.

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A graceful integration of devices requires adaptation to existing aesthetics and user styles rather than simply adding screens, which can easily disrupt a visual space, especially when they become monolithic surfaces or black screens when powered down or not actively used.

Google AI Blog

To be clear, the Google AI Blog explores this simply as an idea and has no current plans to transition Nest or Google products in this direction, but it’s clear that if this succeeds, we could finally be looking at getting a break from screens in the traditional sense. Imagine brushing your teeth and checking the weather in your reflection or looking at the lit up wood grain timer on the dishwasher to see how much time is remaining as seen in the examples below.

Technology should “get out of the way”, and do its job while operating in the background of your life, effectively disappearing while never taking over in the way that phones have for most people, so this new direction is refreshing in my opinion. Check out the examples of Nest thermostats below blending into the wooden wall design or hiding in cloth. Other ideas include using Acrylic, PETG, wood veneer, mirror, basswood, and textile surfaces and displaying a font sufficiently visible on them as seen below.

To do this, Google is using something called passive-matrix OLEDs which are based on a simple design that significantly reduces cost and complexity. Unfortunately, these displays normally use scanline rendering, meaning they have limited brightness and flickering. In essence, we’re going back to the good old days of digital clocks for displaying information, even if the devices are more complex in their functionality.

The team behind this is proposing a parallel rendering approach instead, which could solve some of these issues by using visual tricks. In the end, they hope that this new approach to display technology will encourage alternative scenarios where technology can be more harmful and better coexist with us in our environments, and I couldn’t agree more!

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