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A computer that glows

There’s an interesting piece by John Markoff in the New York Times today about a new Apple patent — for a computer with a glowing, external, LED-covered case.

The company’s United States patent application, No. 20030002246, entitled “active enclosure for a computing device,” describes a machine that contains an array of rainbow-hued light-emitting diodes. It seems that the quirky computer maker is considering the manufacture of a machine that acts something like a mood ring — a computer whose shells change colors at the owner’s whim.

Though Markoff doesn’t make this connection, it sounds to me like Apple is creating an “ambient device.” I wrote about this last month in the New York Times Magazine, when I profiled Ambient Devices, a incredibly cool Cambridge-based company, who are pioneering the idea of “ambient information.” They’ve created a small glass Orb that changes color to match information you want to monitor:

The orb sits on your office desk and glows a quiet yellow. To a visitor, it might appear to be a slightly fey designer lamp, or perhaps a mutant night light. In reality, it’s a financial tool: the orb changes colors to track the performance of your stocks. When the market is stable, it glows yellow; when stocks are soaring, it becomes increasingly green. And if it begins to fade into a deep scarlet? Better call your broker.

This is ”ambient information” — the newest concept in how to monitor everyday data. Normally, our digital tools are intrusive, constantly barging in to demand our attention with e-mail alerts, beeping instant messages and phone calls. The Ambient Orb, released this year by Ambient Devices, takes a different approach. It displays information that you take in subconsciously. Instead of blasting the news at you directly, it radiates it in the background.

”The point is, you don’t need to keep checking into CNNfn all day long like a neurotic freak,” says David Rose, the C.E.O. of Ambient Devices. ”You know implicitly what’s going on, because the information is all around you.”

If Apple is creating an Orb-like enclosure for the computer itself, that would be an extremely cool thing. On the other hand, it wouldn’t shock me if it infringes on the patents of Ambient Devices — so there we may be in for a big patent battle here.

(Note: I went to the U.S. patent web site but couldn’t find the listing of the patent itself, to point to the pictures. Can anyone find it?)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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