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The Grill: NYU's Rob Faludi wants your toaster to befriend your smoke alarm

The networking visionary talks about introducing your toaster to your smoke alarm, bonding with your plants and bringing the outside in.

By Sara Forrest
May 4, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Rob Faludi is a specialist in physical computing and networked objects. As a researcher in New York University's psychology department and Center for Neural Science, he has investigated the connections between visual perception, motor action and the physical environment.

You had your own company for 10 years in San Francisco. Why did you move back to New York and go into teaching? Couldn't get a decent slice of pizza. And I really missed winter. Mostly, though, I came back to New York to better understand people. My consulting company had been doing some cutting-edge work. In team meetings, we'd get embroiled in lengthy debates about how [a Web] interaction should proceed.


Name: Robert Faludi
Title: Adjunct professor
Organization: New York University
Location: Manhattan
Most interesting technology: "The world is full of gadgets, but what I'm really impressed with is tomato seeds. Press one seed into wet soil, and up pops a contraption that turns sunlight into food. It's humbling."
Philosophy in a nutshell: "Technology succeeds when it lets humans be more human."
People he most admires: "The Inuit, for respecting their environment while pressing the boundaries of survival."
Favorite New York restaurant: Jimmy's No. 43
Favorite plant: Lithops, the "living stone"

When we finally put our creations in front of real users, they'd frequently breeze through the parts that we thought would be hard and then screech to a halt, completely bewildered by some choice that everyone on the development team had assumed would be obvious. I wanted to know what was going on. The answers would span science and design, so I returned to school for two master's degrees, one in cognitive psychology and one from NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program. When it was all done, ITP asked me to do some teaching. That's turned out to be a terrific way to keep on learning.

Can you define "sociable objects" and describe how you became interested in creating them? Sociable objects are simply devices that share information with each other and with people. The well-socialized object knows when and how to share. It doesn't bother you with questions it could answer on its own. It's happy to socialize with the other devices nearby, requesting information and lending a hand when it can.

When I push [my toaster] lever down, if there's a crumb stuck in the coils, it isn't long before my fragile pre-coffee state is shattered by the piercing siren of my smoke detector. It doesn't know about the toast, but really it should. If it were sociable, as soon as it detected particulate matter in the air, it would query the toaster to see if it had been activated. That would tell it that in all likelihood, it wasn't detecting an unattended, middle-of-the-night fire but instead a benign morning meal. The price of low-power radio networking and the just-minted funding for smart home energy networks makes this sociable smoke-detector scenario entirely within our reach. I want one.

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