Almost a decade ago, the French studio Violet released an Internet-connected rabbit called Nabaztag. It could blink or move its ears when you had an email, or read your RSS feed out loud. Today, that sounds gimmicky, but at the time, Nabaztag was revolutionary: It was the Internet manifested in an object. Fast Company even featured its designer, Rafi Haladjian, in an incredible spread.
Now at CES 2014, Haladjian has released a follow-up to his rabbit. It’s called Mother, and it’s either a charming or spooky riff on a Russian doll, depending how you look at this bulb of white plastic with glowing LEDs for eyes. Mother's function is as an Internet-connected base station for four Twine-like sensors that can track 15 different parts of your life. It can fit in your pocket to track your steps, affix to your door to act as a security alarm, and stick to your coffee maker to track how much you’re drinking and when you need more beans. "A mother is neither a nurse, a cop, nor a gardener," Haladjian tells Co.Design. "She’s all of these things at the same time."
As silly and self-important as the name "Mother" may sound—and a throwback to Alien perchance?—its stance is central to Haladjian’s thesis about the future of the Internet of Things. Today, our smart, sensor-laden gadgets have mostly manifested as wellness accessories—Nike+ Fuelbands, Jawbone Ups, and Fitbits that strap on our bodies and track a fairly superficial level of our activity. "Is this the Internet of Things, or the Internet of Pedometers?" Haladjian jokes, pointing out that their proposed infrastructure, in which each highly specialized device necessitates its own app, can’t possibly scale to a world in which 50 things we own are tracking our lives.
"Lots of things that were manageable when the number of smart devices was scarce, become unbearable when you push the limit past 10," Haladjian says. "You won’t be willing to change 50 batteries every couple of weeks. You won’t be willing to push the sync button every day. And you can’t bear to have 50 devices sending you notifications when something happens to them!"
In response, Mother serves as a buffer between you and the universal, stick-on-anything sensors tracking you (sensors that run an entire year on a battery, incidentally). Sure, Mother can provide audio alerts, while her eyes can glow various colors, like green to remind you to water the plant. Her cloud-based backend can even email, text, or call you if something is awry, like you forgot your medication or someone entered your house at an odd time of day.
But it’s all of the things she doesn’t say or ask you to do that will define the Mother experience. First off, Mother requires no complicated sensor programming to perform very specific tasks. Programming Mother to keep an eye on the front door is as easy as selecting that option from a pre-scripted library. And over time, Mother learns to nag you less. Within a week, Mother may realize that the door opens a lot at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, when people leave and arrive from work. So while she’ll learn to ignore those times, she may make it a priority to alert you when someone uncharacteristically enters your house at 2 p.m. on a random Tuesday.
"This is why we call it a smart device. It has powerful algorithms to figure out what is happening without asking you," Haladjian explains. Everything about Mother makes a lot of sense—except, maybe, for its uniquely anthropomorphic industrial design I’ve heard described by colleagues as "creepy" and "weird." In reality, Mother was modeled as a cross between a Russian doll (because they wanted a feminine form, but giving her breasts was too vulgar), and a light bulb (because it's the universal symbol for good ideas). Even still, in an age when smart, safe, Apple-ish domestic products like Nest are receiving so many accolades, why give Mother a face at all?
"Eyes are important in design. You can make the most beautiful cube you like, but it’ll be less noticed than the eyes," Haladjian says. "When you’re in a crowded environment of gadgets, the first one you’ll notice is the one with eyes."
In other words, while Mother promises not to nag you about everything, she refuses to be ignored.
Mother will be available this spring for $222.