An Orb with a Galaxy of Uses

"Nothing we swallow is without side effects. Neither is anything we invent or design," mused Ralph Caplan in his recent essay, "Noah's Archive: In Defense of Side Effects," written for Voice, the journal published by the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Caplan, a designer and author, cited numerous cases of unintended consequences, some good, some bad. Although he didn't mention it, there are few better examples than the Ambient Orb, the glowing ball of frosted glass whose color changes as the Dow Jones industrial average rises or falls.

The orb was introduced three years ago by Ambient Devices, a Cambridge (Mass.) startup. It was an inauspicious time for investing toys: The market was mostly tanking. Moreover, the same information was available in a more useful format -- hard numbers -- from multiple sources. Yet people bought the orb because, to point out the obvious, it looked cool. Hailed as "the lava lamp for the Information Age," it was sexier than CNNfn in every way.

You might think the cool factor would have worn off by now, but sales, while still moderate, are rising. Ambient has sold 50,000 devices, counting the two new products introduced last year: a digital weather vane called the Beacon and the speedometer-like Dashboard that can track any three data streams -- stocks, sports, the traffic on your route home, you name it.


  But Ambient's growth can't be explained by cool-factor alone. It turns out that behind the infodelic appearance of the orb and its cousins, is a surprisingly usable, flexible tool. And part of what makes it so useful is its side effects, which is why orbs are showing up at companies like Microsoft (MSFT) and Google (GOOG).

The orb is essentially a glass sphere housing three light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and a wireless receiver that gets signals from Ambient's nationwide pager network, one of the largest data-casting networks in the U.S. Take the orb out of the box, plug it into a wall socket, and it automatically starts tracking the stock market.

By calling Ambient's 800 number or visiting its Web site, owners can register their orb's serial number and set it to receive data from any one of the company's channels, dozens of feeds including local weather, pollen counts, and traffic. Or for $6.95 a month, users can create a personal channel by specifying any data source that's available on the Web.


  The chief technology officer of Arkansas Children's Hospital, for instance, set up an orb to track the number of patients in the facility at any given moment. The so-called patient census figures are posted to the hospital's intranet, but the orb sitting on the CEO's desk makes that information available at a glance.

Ambient's founders didn't realize the potential effect of "glanceable" information until after it introduced the orb. "Buyers told us that they check their portfolios five times a day rather than five times a week, and that they make three times as many stock transactions," says Nabeel Hyatt, vice-president for business development. Inside the company, the realization that the Ambient Orb could become an Anxiety Orb prompted reflection and debate. Meanwhile, orb users were beginning to leverage those side effects.

"The orb has become an essential part of our development process," says Gerry Miller, Global Program Manager at Microsoft. Two years ago, while working on a project for an insurance company in the Midwest, Miller set up an orb to track the status of the software they were developing: When the code was running well, the ball glowed green. If a programmer submitted buggy code, the orb flashed red.


  Miller put one ball in his team's room and another in the office of the insurance company's CEO. The result: cleaner code in record time. "I use them on every project I work on now," he says. "I probably have 13 out with customers, and the executives love it -- they always know how the projects going."

Miller has even built a "virtual orb," an icon that sits on the Windows XP tool bar of every person working on a project. Miller isn't the only one. Developers at Google, eBay (EBAY), and other companies are using the orb to similar effect.

Still other companies are interested in the orb as a tool to influence consumer behavior. Last year, Southern California Edison, one of the state's three utilities, launched a pilot program to test dynamic pricing. Half of the customers in the project were given an orb, programmed to track electricity costs. It glowed turquoise during off-peak hours and lime green when the price of electricity was at its peak.

"The customers with the orbs conserved twice as much electricity as the customers in the control group," says Mark Martinez, the project manager who conceived and implemented the program. The energy orb project has since been expanded to all three California utilities, and 15,000 to 18,000 orbs will be distributed this summer.


  Now that Ambient is aware of the orb's behavioral effects, the company is taking advantage of it. "Blockbuster (BBI) is interested in an ambient device that will encourage people to return rentals on time," says Hyatt. And Nextbus, a San Francisco company that aims to increase the use of public transit by giving riders precise information on when the next bus will arrive at any given stop, is interested in an Ambient channel that would broadcast its data to your kitchen.

"The more innovative the product, the further removed from previous experience, the more difficult it is to predict side effects," wrote Caplan, and the orb probably falls into that category. But as Ambient's technology becomes more ubiquitous -- the company now licenses it for use in other consumer products -- side effects there will be.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.