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David Rose draws ideas from spy films, literature

david wilson for the boston globe

On the cover of David Rose's book, "Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things," is an umbrella that's trying to tell its owner something. In a modern twist on the magical cakes and bottles in "Alice in Wonderland," LED lights along the umbrella's edge glow, spelling out, "IT WILL RAIN TODAY. CARRY ME."

The ambient umbrella — a real item, invented by Rose himself — is among the galaxy of objects he describes as "enchanted," a term he uses to talk about ways human beings interact with technology. Unlike apps on our smartphones or wearable devices like Google Glass, enchanted objects are "ordinary things, enhanced by just a little bit of technology" to vastly expand their usefulness and interactivity. This kind of object — another example is a pill-bottle cap that tells you when you've missed a dose (or tells your spouse) — hints at one future relationship with technology, in which the things around us "collude on our behalf," Rose says.


An inventor and instructor at the MIT Media Lab, Rose is bullish on science and technology. But he's also keenly interested in the human element. Enchanted objects, he says, are "based on the same psychological needs or drives that we've always had," including the desire for connection, safety, and personal expression. And then there's pure wonder. The ambient umbrella, Rose says, was "inspired by Frodo's sword," from the Lord of the Rings trilogy; other ideas come via pop culture, spy movies, comic books, and literature.

The question arose at a recent seminar of whether inventors, like magicians, should conceal or reveal their secret mechanisms. "I think I'm on the side of concealing the mechanism in order to just celebrate the functionality," Rose says. "As inventors we should take a lesson from the magicians of the world."


David Rose reads from his new book at 7 p.m. Thursday at Harvard Book Store in Cambridge.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.