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Calm Technology & Design

Apr 1, 2021

Computers used to have little to do with our personal lives. Developed to process information quickly and accurately, “automatic computing machines,” or computers of the last century, mostly served as tools to support industrial, commercial and academic activities. As the use of “personal” computers grew commonplace more recently, however, computers became an increasingly integral part of our everyday lives. Nonetheless, computers are still machines that are meant only for logical input and output of information. They are not created with the emotional aspect of human communication — or its importance to our well-being — in mind. Digital technology has now advanced to the point where society won’t function without it, and this has prompted the ongoing movement to re-examine digital ethics (the relationship among digital information and devices, humans and society). We believe this trend is a natural response to humans’ inherent desire to achieve more optimal well-being. It also goes to show digital technology still has much to be improved. 

Back in the 1990s, the late American computer scientist Mark Weiser envisioned “ubiquitous computing” – the term he coined – to be the future of computing. He imagined small computers would weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it,” as he wrote in his article published in the September 1991 issue of Scientific American

Unlike virtual reality that takes people away from the physical world, the ubiquitous computing that Weiser envisaged would enable people to experience true reality at a deeper level. Computers will be omnipresent and invisible, quietly supporting human communications. 

It turns out Weiser’s vision partially came true in the sense that we communicate with each other every day without giving the slightest thought to how technology makes it possible. Social media may be a good example of it. 
This omnipresence of digital technology is taking us into a much different direction from how Weiser had imagined it, however, thanks to the rise of the “attention economy.” Digital technology is now being used as a tool to promote the attention economy, rather than as a means for us to stay connected with one another in a meaningful manner. Even when we are with someone, our minds aren’t there. This social phenomenon concerns us all. 

Engendering a healthy relationship between humans and computers is one of the most important objectives to work toward when designing and implementing digital technologies. No technology should cause any harm to users, emotional or physical. 
“Most important, ubiquitous computers will help overcome the problem of information overload,” Weiser wrote in his Scientific American article. “There is more information available at our fingertips during a walk in the woods than in any computer system, yet people find a walk among trees relaxing and computers frustrating. Machines that fit the human environment instead of forcing humans to enter theirs will make using a computer as refreshing as taking a walk in the woods.”  

”Calm Technology” is a technology design concept based on Weiser’s vision. mui Lab tapps into this concept, in combination with the Japanese sense of beauty – the “essence” of traditions and the spiritual way of life that we see every day in Kyoto – to design user interfaces (UIs) and user experiences (UX) that make technology disappear from our consciousness and become part of you and your environment. The technology that enables humans to make the most of their abilities is what we are aiming to create. 

We don’t measure the value of digital technology based solely on how much more efficiently and productively it can perform automated tasks, because the faster automation gets, the less human touches it will have. We look for an ability in technology to make up for the lost humanity — the lost warmth of human communication — and that’s how we judge digital technology’s worth. Humans seek comfort and peace, and the environment that allows them to be themselves, in their everyday lives. “Yohaku no Design (Designs that incorporate empty space),” our design approach that brings together all the key factors for making such digital living possible, serves as the foundation for our UI/UX designing. 

Nonverbal information, such as gestures and facial expressions that reveal our feelings, as well as somatic sensations, textures and temperatures that our bodies detect when we touch something, are all important for human survival and our enjoyment of life. Yet, computers are near-incapable of conveying such information. At mui Lab, we work to create the digital technology that can communicate all and any information that is important in human living. 

For example, we use wood to make our flagship product, “mui Board,” because touching wood – the natural material that was part of human lives throughout human history – can provide soothing sensation to users. This fits right in with our design approach that gives serious consideration to the effects our devices have on users’ five senses. The mui Board also lets people use their fingers to handwrite messages on the wood surface. This not only creates a physical sensation for those who send their messages, but also enables the recipients to see the senders’ handwritings and feel emotional connections with them. In addition, the mui Board can work with smart lighting to gradually adjust its brightness to help you wake up in the morning. Designed based on humans’ circadian rhythm, the lighting grows brighter in increments – instead of switching between on/off modes – letting your body sense the subtle changes in the environment. And we believe that is a good example of the “mui shizen” design. 

In the meantime, “muihaus” (the house that lets you be you) incorporates “Height Marking in Wood,” the digital system that stores handwritten messages scribbled on the wooden column and displays them from time to time. As a past message glows from within the column, gently emerging on its surface, it can create an illusion of it floating in the air. The display would bring back all the memory associated with the message for the user, including the tender emotions they may have felt the first time they read it. And that would give the user an opportunity to learn something new from the past experience and take some kind of action in response to it.  
At mui Lab, we strive to create “Calm UIs” that connect people and digital technology in a peaceful manner, so we all can enjoy living in the way humans are meant to.  
Our technologies are created to help people appreciate the imperfections of humans and nature. In designing the user experience, we make it a point to include some “margins” that allow for imagination and emotional engagement. The Japanese sense of “mujo” (impermanence) and “wabi-sabi” (the quiet simplicity and subdued refinement) are part of what we value. 
We want digital technology to become something that people see as essential to joyous living – something that they accept and grow to love, as if it were a member of their family. To make our vision reality, we work with our clients to create new products and services that pay attention to all of the three key factors: idea, design and engineering. 
We hope everyone will benefit from our products created around the Calm Technology & Design approach and will be able to enjoy the calm and peace that they deliver.