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Medicine and the Ambient Orb

For years, I've had a small glass orb in my kitchen with multicolored LEDs inside, capable of displaying dozens of colors. One early morning this week, it was pulsing dark blue.

This meant it was going to be 20 degrees outside, according to the orb, and snowing. And it was.

The Ambient Orb is a "glanceable internet appliance." It's based on a simple idea: complex information should be translated into simple forms that can be understood at a glance.

The orb can be configured to display more than colors representing the weather report. It can display the movement of the stock market (green for up and red for down), the Homeland Security color code, or even information on the number of people waiting in an Emergency Department.

Paul Levy, the CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, has done just that. He writes in his blog ("Running a Hospital") that he's installed an Ambient Orb on his desk to monitor the ED.
Being an MIT grad (and apparently sharing one of John's geekiness genes), I couldn't resist, and he was kind enough to get one for me and install it. You see it on my desk [below]. It gives me a signal of how many people are actually in the waiting room in our Emergency Department. The Orb supports 35 different colors and glows blue if no patients are waiting, greens for 1 to 5, yellows for 6 to 10, reds for 11 to 20 and flashing red for over 20....

Ambient's website discusses the philosophy behind the orb:
Ambient devices elegantly embed digital information into the objects and environments that surround us. These displays are in the form of sound, air pressure, motion, light, smell, and other media that complement the full range of our human sensory modalities. They exist in the periphery of our senses, where they provide continuous information without being distracting.
Maintaining "situational awareness" in complex healthcare environments is a struggle, and technologies like the Ambient Orb -- and the philosophies behind it -- might make this easier. (A simple manifestation of this concept is in laboratory reports which display values outside the normal range in red.)

More on the Ambient Orb in this article in Businessweek.
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About the Author


Dr. Schwimmer's blog explores the intersection of medicine, new technologies, and the Internet.