free your darlings

Published: 2022-09-07

Slow notifications

I used to be quite extreme wanting to be notified at once when I got emails and other messages. I even got a call from my email provider saying that the frequency with which I was checking my email was too extreme. Every 30 seconds as I recall. This was in 1998 and a lot has changed since then. Nowadays every vacuum cleaner, refrigerator, app or website you ever visited wants to push notifications to you on every channel available. It is out of control. I have become the very opposite of who I used to be. I want as little disturbance as possible in my life. As you might have guessed from reading this blog my thoughts are all over the place all the time. Having computers and devices beeping and blinking everywhere does not help. The smallest little red dot indicating a notification makes me to loose my focus. I have to click and get rid of it. If it happens too often and the information I get is just nonsense I have to uninstall the app. I have uninstalled Linkedin, Slack and a few other apps so far. Slack's bot messages is like getting spam from the paper clip in Microsoft office 2000.

Not everyone is like me. My friend Gustav can still work with the whole toolbar on his MacBook jumping up and down like some kind of notification circus. He also has some 15 000 unread emails in his inbox. But for everyone who is not as resilient as Gustav notifications are becoming a problem. Maybe even a health issue. The question is, how can we stay in the loop without being constantly interrupted?

I started thinking about this project about 10 years ago when I lived in an apartment next to the freeway. There was a constant buzz in the background. A noise I got used to. The buzz would change over the day and I could tell roughly what time it was by the characteristics of the buzz. This meant that if I woke up at night I could tell the time without having to look at my phone. I could just go back to sleep if the freeway was not too busy.

I'm thinking something similar could be used for notifications. An indicator that slowly changes over time. Sound? Music? Light? Everyone and every location is different of course. For a place like my office I'm thinking color shifting spotlights or chill out music that slowly changes over the day.

This is a Philips Hue led strip lighting up the room. It could be used to very slowly transition the color of ...

This is a Philips Hue led strip lighting up the room. It could be used to very slowly transition the color of the light according to what notifications one has pending. Messenger is purple, email is red etc.

Visual notifications

I am imagining spotlights lighting up the corners of my office or my living room in different colors representing different messaging channels. Let's say Facebook is blue, email is red etc. Some sort of user admin to set this up would be useful. Colors could have other meaning as well. Maybe the sender or the type of sender. Is this a group message, is it from my organisation etc. I think notification management and filters could be a huge niche for the tech giants. More on that in another article.

The device controlling the spotlights would have to be logged in using one's credentials to catch the notifications before they hit every active device. I'm not sure what is the best way to accomplish this but I don't see it as a big issue for a developer to set up. When a notification is received the spotlights start shifting color very slowly, maybe 30 minutes to reach full target color. This will hopefully subconsciously make one realize there is a new message waiting without interrupting. If not, at least one will know when looking up from the computer.

One of my favorite artists is James Turrell. He is a visual perception artist. Check out his installations if you get a chance. I was visiting one of his exhibitions in London. As instructed I spent 15 minutes in front of one of the installations. It was a screen of randomly placed color puddles mixed into each other. The colors and the soft pattern was slowly shifting. After a while the color I was focusing on had shifted into another color without my brain registering it. Pink was now turquoise. The fact that my brain did not register the very slow color shift indicates it could be applicable on notifications as well.

Sound based notifications

I usually turn sound off everywhere I can and just play music when I work. One approach to still receive notifications by sound would be to change the music according to what notifications have been received. I think that some genres of music would be better suited than other for this. To cram new sounds into your metal classics would be a tough sell. That would require an extremely intelligent and fine-tuned AI. I don't think we are there yet. However electronic music is manipulated and remixed all the time. Maybe there is something here? I’m no musician, so I have booked a lunch with a good friend who is a both a developer and a music producer to see what he has to say about the idea. Hopefully our lunch will result in updates for this article.

Project plan

Slow notifications

Creating a functioning proof of concept for the spotlight should not be to complicated with some Raspberry Pi hacking and the Philips Hue API.

5% Done
  • Present the idea (this article)
  • Reach out to James Turrell and try to get his input
  • Create Raspberry Pi spotlight mockup
  • Compose notifications background music and sounds
  • Create software mixing music and notifications
  • Release software
  • Publish code and documentation for composers and developers to join project
  • Pitch idea to Philips (Hue) or any company selling a home assistant

Links related to the article

In my opinion, James Turrell's work needs to be experienced in the real world. You cannot grasp the whole experience by looking at pictures online.