Ambient objects

According to a study by Gartner and Idate, in 2020 the number of connected objects in circulation around the world is between 50 and 80 billion. This dizzying number includes smartphones and connected watches, among others. Among these objects, we can gradually see the appearance of connected objects of a new generation, ambient objects.

What’s an ambient object?

An ambient object is part of the family of ambient information systems (ambient displays). It is an object that disseminates information, in an indirect, unsolicited manner to the person. By indirect, we mean that the information will be on the periphery of our attention. We are therefore sensitive to it implicitly, without processing the information directly in an explicit manner. This is the central tenet of calm technology described by Weiser and Brown in 1997 (Designing Calm Technology) which suggests that the display of information should move easily from the periphery of our attention to the center, and vice versa. As an example, we can cite the illuminated sign with the inscription “on air” which lights up above the door of the recording studios when a recording is in progress and goes out when it is finished. Information is transmitted without distracting or interfering with what we were doing.

Additionally, ambient information systems are connected objects that transmit information through subtle changes in a person’s environment (for example, decorative objects, ambient sound or light). These displays aim to blend seamlessly into a physical environment, where various everyday objects are transformed into an interface between people and digital information. For example, in some smart homes, switching on lightening and light intensity vary depending on the natural light. The fact that the lights switch on tells us that it is getting late without distracting us.

Why use an ambient object?

This method of disseminating information makes it possible to less distract the person, by not disrupting their attention. It then requires minimal effort on the part of the user while still providing knowledge. So instead of imposing information on the person with disturbing notifications, like a smartphone or a connected watch could do, it is the user who will grab it when they needs it.

When the information being disseminated is a breathing guidance (peripheral rhythmic breathing device), it has been shown that people will gradually synchronize with the guide and eventually breathe at the same rate as the guide. This occurs even when people are focused on another task, that requires their full attention (Morajevi et al 2011).

Where does it come from?

On the one hand, ambient objects come from the concept of ubiquitous computing (UbiComp, ubiquitous computing) imagined by Weiser in 1991. Ubiquitous computing aims to make all kinds of services accessible, anywhere, while “hiding” the computing units. In this human-computer interface paradigm computers run in the background. Thus, the user, no longer having the constraints of using a computer (being seated in front of a keyboard, a screen, etc.) regains their freedom of action, their freedom of movement.

On the other hand, this concept of displaying peripheral information, blended in the environment, also has to do with to the notion of ecological device. Indeed, ambient objects are less likely to alter the environment if which people operate, enabling thus smoother integration of the technology in their surroundings.


Moraveji, N., Olson, B. et al. Peripheral paced respiration : influencing user physiology during information work.
UIST ’11: Proceedings of the 24th annual ACM symposium on User interface software and technology October 2011 Pages 423–428 

Weiser, M., Seely Brown, J. Designing Calm Technology. PowerGrid Journal, 1996.

Yu, B., Hu, J., Funk, M. et al. DeLight: biofeedback through ambient light for stress intervention and relaxation assistance. Pers Ubiquit Comput 22, 787–805 (2018).

Vogel, D. Balakrishnan. Interactive public ambient displays : transitioning from implicit to explicit, public to personal, interaction with multiple users.
UIST ’04: Proceedings of the 17th annual ACM symposium on User interface software and technology October 2004 Pages 137–146