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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 February, 2004, 11:39 GMT
Traditional take on data clutter
Alfred Hermida
By Alfred Hermida
BBC News Online technology editor

US researchers have gone back to the future to deal with the problem of information overload.

Ambient Device's Executive Dashboard
The display can be changed with swappable cards
The former students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have come up with a gadget which looks like a traditional analogue meter but masks a complexity of digital information.

The device, called the Executive Dashboard, has three meters and needles that move to reflect changes in the price of stocks, the temperature outside or even the pollen count.

"We offer all types of information on the internet and turn it into glanceable information," said Nabeel Hyatt of the MIT spin-off company, Ambient Devices.

"Everyone is talking about the connected home of the future.

"We are really worried about how overwhelming all that type of information can be unless we think about the way that information is going to be used and displayed."

"There is long history of information displays that people are used to, like a speedometer in car. We are translating that old idea into new types of digital displays," he told BBC News Online.

'Simple and intuitive'

Ambient Devices are looking to build on research done at MIT on how to reduce data clutter and present information in a clear fashion.

Ambient Device's Executive Dashboard
Aim to embed digital data in everyday objects
The company's first product was an illuminated globe that slowly changed colour depending on the ups and downs of the stock market.

It is also behind a weather beacon that again changes colour to reflect the forecast.

Both devices pick up the information automatically via Ambient's own radio network.

The Executive Dashboard works on the same principle. It constantly listens to the network, updating the information on the gadget. People can choose which channel to "listen" to by using swappable cards.

"People interested in these devices are very interested in information, but are overwhelmed with the types of information displays you have, say a PC or a complicated stock ticker on the bottom of a TV channel," said Mr Hyatt.

"They want something that is much simpler and intuitive."

"Some information you are willing to spend 30 or 60 seconds getting that information, such as reading an article on the BBC," explained Mr Hyatt.

A dial that simply says the stock market is either up or down isn't very insightful, especially if you've got a portfolio of shares you want to keep an eye on
Carl Franklin, technology analyst
"But for other information like the time of day or sales metrics for your company, you just want to glance at it and that is what we offer."

The Executive Dashboard costs US$130 and there is no subscription fee for basic data feeds.

Currently the network is only available in the US but the company says it will be setting one up in the UK soon.

"The idea of simplifying information displays is very laudable and necessary nowadays," said Carl Franklin, technology analyst and author of the book Why Innovation Fails.

"Simple images like this are usually an easier way to take in information than numbers, which is why most of us wear analogue watches instead of digital - you can just glance at them and you don't have to think about the figures.

"But a dial that simply says the stock market is either up or down isn't very insightful, especially if you've got a portfolio of shares you want to keep an eye on.

"If you're that curious about it, you probably want a higher degree of information," he told BBC News Online.

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