Beyond Realtime Search: The Dawning Of Ambient Streams

It was 1993 and I had just decided to drop out of college. I was a graphic design major in a great art school but decided I want to start my second company. Knowing this would mark the conclusion of my studies there I set out to create my final project. I would write a short story, design and produce it in print. I put out an edition of 300 and gave it to my friends and people who inspired me like author William Gibson.

Cut to November, 2009, when I returned from sitting on a panel at the second Realtime CrunchUp. I had urged the audience and participants that when thinking about the realtime web we should not consider the challenge through the lens of how consumers behave today. I argued that the future potential of the realtime web is not in the misnomer “realtime search,” as the consumption of this signal will predominantly be in what I call ambient streams. These are streams of information bubbling up in realtime, which seek us out, surround us, and inform us. They are like a fireplace bathing us in ambient infoheat. I believe that users will not go to a page and type in a search in a search box. Rather the information will appear to them in an ambient way on a range of devices and through different experiences.

A few days after I got back from the CrunchUp, I was organizing some old documents when I stumbled on I Was Just Dead< , a cyberpunk short story I wrote 16 years ago. A story about a world of augmented reality. A world where at birth a chip is embedded in people’s brains creating a reality where they no longer discern what is “real” and what is augmented in their surroundings (Hear the audio-book or download the free eBook below). It was strange to hear my former self calling out about the importance of augmented reality from across the span of almost two decades of experiences in the digital world, half of which were spent solving the problem of how to filter the massive realtime stream.

When trying to understand something potentially transformative, knowing what questions to ask is more than half the challenge. We are still in the early stages of these changes and don’t yet have the necessary metaphors to make the leap into the future. It is for that purpose that I want to suggest what I consider to be the building blocks of our next big evolutionary leap in how we use technology. The four main building blocks are:

  1. Realtime Web (Twitter, news flows, world events, and other information which relates to changes in the world)
  2. Published Information (sites, blogs, Wikipedia, etc.)
  3. Geolocation Data (your location and information layers related to it, including your past locations and that of your friends, as well as geo-tagged media)
  4. Social Communications (social graph updates, IMs, emails, text messages, and other forms of signal from your friends).

Before these building blocks can create an ambient stream which is not overwhelming, all of this data needs to pass through a filter. The Holy Grail is a filter which only serves up information which is relevant based on who you are, your social graph, what you or your friends are doing now, what you or friends have done before, and in context of other information you are consuming. It needs to be delivered wherever you are and on whatever device or display can deliver the ambient stream: mobile phone, laptop computer, TV, heads-up display in vehicle or inside your glasses. The future of how ambient streams might enter our world is illustrated with the following simplistic diagram:

Putting all of these building blocks together will be an industry-wide task. There are a relatively small number of people who have already managed to spend a lifetime thinking about this problem. It has bred several academic disciplines and many sci fi novels and films. These related fields include pervasive computing, everyware and the buzzword du jour augmented reality (AR). All of these technologies produce ambient streams. AR, in particular, (which is focused mostly on methods of how to render information visually) is capturing the imagination of innovators around the globe. The underling technologies that allow devices to marry data to physical locations continue to evolve at a fast pace, and with other disciplines jumping into the mix the magic is finally starting to happen.

One only needs look at a teenager today as they do their homework, watch TV, play a game, and chat while watching their Facebook stream to get a sense for humanity’s expanding affinity to consume ambient streams. Their young minds are constanty tuning and adapting to an age of hypertasking .A very useful metaphor is that humanity is constructing its own synthetic sixth sense. An ambient sense that perceives the context of your activity and augments your reality with related information and experiences. Increasingly, we will be sensing the world with this sixth sense and that will change the way we collectively experience the world. Going back to the point made earlier, the watershed event is when we will be experiencing this “ambient sense” without being in a retrieval mode (i.e. not when we go to the computer or our mobile device to find information but rather as a product of our activity, location, and profile in context with the events and information available to us in a wired world).

We will be seeing the first swells of this coming tsunami in the years to come, but for our children the ambient sense will play a bigger and bigger role as it slowly evolves and weaves itself into their consciousness much like Google search weaved itself into their memory functions. The challenges we face in terms of making real progress stems from the fact that the overarching goal is one that requires a multi-disciplinary approach across a myriad of data sets. While there are many companies executing in each of the quadrants few are in a position to access the full scope of data and therefore the ability to create the Holy Grail of filters is limited. This is where the world of walled gardens and deals with major search providers presents a challenge for progress. Many iterations and mistakes need to be made before we arrive at the right way to collate and filter all these different streams of data into an ambient sense. If only one or two companies are in a position to iterate, progress will be very slow and the probability of success diminished. For success, it is necessary to create an ambient sense that will manage to balance the level of interruption with insight and arrive at the true goal of any sufficiently advanced technology, which is to be transparent and taken for granted as part of the human experience. It may sound like science fiction, but there are engineers and entrepreneurs out there already trying to make it fact.

Is it possible in the age of Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Apple for a startup to innovate across the entire stack to come up with this sixth sense? Chime in at #ambientstreams

I Was Just Dead By Edo Segal

Guest author Edo Segal (@edosegal) has launched and sold several companies. In 2000 he founded eNow, which he sold to AOL in 2006 (after it was renamed Relegence). Today, he runs his Incubator/Investment vehicle Futurity Ventures, which recently launched a new search engine for wisdom.

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48 Responses to “Beyond Realtime Search: The Dawning Of Ambient Streams”

  1. Mark Drapeau: What If Government Were On-The-Record 24/7? | Obama Biden White House says:

    [...] why would someone want to create an “ambient stream” of Senator Nelson or anyone else’s life? (Besides it being fascinating in a lowbrow, Gossip [...]

  2. Edo Segal says:

    Thanks for the insightfull comment Filippo,

    It would be great if you can post another one elaborating a bit more on your experience in the security space possibly with some links.


  3. Esahc says:


    It's about the quest, not the goal


  4. Artemi Krymski says:

    Please please please – keep things simple. No need for yet another term to hype.

    One thing is obvious – information is becoming increasingly *accessible*. Radio, TV, Email, Google, Facebook, Twitter – these are all examples of making the information in our real-world more easily accessible. There's nothing wrong with that, and that trend will continue.

    Then there's a field called "information retrieval" – which studies ways of querying this information to answer user needs.

    Google does it with a set of keywords. Facebook asks for your social graph. Twitter asks for your friends/interests (you tune in into what you like to hear – just like radio), Pandora asks for your music taste, Amazon asks for books you've bought, Yelp asks for places you visit, etc, etc.

    All software provides a human interface to specify a *query* and an interface to view results.

    A query doesn't have to be as simple as a list of words. Google will take into account websites you visit, build up a profile of your interests, etc in order to serve up results that are more relevant. Facebook & Twitter may do the same when there'll be too many users.

    And that's because there's a limit at which humans can process information – that's why relevancy matters.

    But ultimately, it's still about asking a machine a question, and getting a response. Nobody, not even your secretary, can decide what the *question* is for you.

    So, my point is – there's nothing new here. More and more information is online, and we need a way to search it and rank it by relevancy. Google and many others have been working on this for ages.

  5. Filippo says:

    Kind of you to reply, and sorry for the poor spelling and grammar – working on overdrive. To be more specific, my experience with crisis command centers and protective intel operations attempting to define what is relevant and worthy of 'immediate attention' reflected very much the typical, personal struggle to reduce the ever-growing volume of feeds, info-bites, news alerts, email, etc.. If the individual struggles with the number and diversity of sources of potentially interesting/relevant news, large organizations suffer a hundredfold. We quickly realized that: (a) the c-level executive who would have benefited from actionable intelligence was receiving an average of 40 to 80 'legitimate' messages per day that needed at least a few seconds to digest and (b) when we combined the open a proprietary sources filtered by seemingly 'relevant' terms such as the company name, the location of home+business, large incidents/disasters, legal/regulatory issues, etc., we ultimately came up with a 'custom' feed that just about reflected the CNN top stories, but bigger! Bottom line: they would never read it, and if they did, why not let them read/listen to CNN? They do a good job at it.

    As suggested earlier, it could be easily argued that there is an inverse relation between likelihood of relevance (value of filtered information) and size of 'domain' (knowledge, information, topic, etc.). I will stick to the vertical application/subject I know well – with the thought that a parallel may be true elsewhere. If one tries to isolate severe weather events and other natural hazards/disasters, given one or more selected locations, chances are a very relevant stream can be built (consider the reliability of primary sources, geo-referenced feeds, etc.). The moment you start adding social unrest, crime, or major logistical disruptions things start getting more 'fuzzy'. And once you venture into regulatory issues or reputation concerns you really get the fire hose going. For as long as one can work with language conventions (i.e. ontologies), selected/specialized sources (i.e. NWS, State Dept Bulletins, etc.), and widely accepted norms/rules (life and safety + current time = very important) the chances of building the Holy Grail filter are real. So turns out the alternative to the current obsession of piling up as many sources as possible and 'normalizing' streams, is to actually narrow the subject matter, handpick sources and channels, and enrich/extract metadata. Isn't this after all what Pandora seems to be really excelling at? Narrow 'domain' (music), enriched metadata, common rules (tempo, pitch, etc.) specialized algorithm, dedicated channel/platform. It's brilliant. Other knowledge and information domains need to be treated similarly. We tried a similar approach in our 'sphere' and this is an intro to it (by the way, this is not intended as promotion – ran out of money during the Beta, we are not accepting new users, and are now focusing instead on a patent of the associated algorithm for Early Warning intel)

    Would love to explore the subject further but I have already hijacked enough space. I can always be reached at market[at]

  6. Fred Nikgohar says:

    We made prototypes of a Physical Ambient Device called OptoGroover. Its a simple USB device with RGB LEDs (millions of colors/patterns can be displayed)… as it connects to the network. For example, you can pull weather info from a weather service and display it as a color… or you can have it blink a certain color when you get a tweet on a specific topic… or have it display a certain color/pattern depending on who is sending you a message via email, twitter, fb… OR do ALL OF these things simultaneously.

    Though we never commercialized it, we still have a bunch of these around and I'd be happy to send you one to play with if interested.

    You can find out more here: or see it synched up to music here:

  7. TOM SMART says:

    twitter is

  8. TOM SMART says:

    right two words i got last time so hopefully heres the rest
    twitter is todyas ambient stream
    does nayone know wehre i can get these glasess that display like a computer monitor as in this vidoe

  9. place to learn the good info college - » Beyond Realtime Search: The Dawning Of Ambient Streams says:

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  10. Michael Davis says:

    There is some sense of inevitability here, huh?

    I think this ambient 'search' is all about not only 'not making users think', but 'not making them have to do anything' as well

    There is still room for 'pull' information gathering, where people are not subjected to data not of their own choosing, while making them have to do less than they have to do now. This is what we try to do at

    The future is in the celebration of personally relevant information – all this collating and delivery technology provides access – but not excitement.

  11. Ahmad Barirani says:

    Very interesting post about where semantic web and web 3.0 are heading. Thanks.

  12. Edo Segal says:

    Thanks for sharing some of your experiences.
    As i suggested it is a multi-disciplinary challenge and your field has allot to offer as it has been a "mission critical" problem for you for MANY years.

  13. Edo Segal says:

    sorry man, it's complicated.. :) You have to live with the stream for a while to feel it…

  14. Edo Segal says:

    Follow your bliss and don't be afraid to fail…

  15. Edo Segal says:

    I used the "cloud computing" version of Kidpix aka Google Docs :)

  16. ???? ????? 21.12.09 | ????? ???? says:

    [...] ????? ?-Real Time Search. ?? ?????? ?????? ?? ????, Ambient Streams ?? ???? [...]

  17. Mark Lipowicz says:

    Thank you Edo I am still digesting this 3 days later, it's my favorite post of the year (so far).

    I come from publishing, print then web and email and also events, and for 20+ years I've been working to help people get the authoritative information they need and no more and no less so they can do what they need to do with it and save time and move on.

    And it's hard. Industry analysts (and social media critics) say people spend more time than ever on useless information… maybe some of it came out of network TV time but I think they are right, basically.

    So when you say ambient stream, I think of one-stop-shop Web 1.0 era, and what editors have done for generations before that, and I'm really hoping that this time with tech tools 1E6 times as powerful the idea of being automatically connected with the information and people you are interested can start actually to happen.

    Maybe the digital media experience needs a new metaphor, like "social garment." Clothes are made of not so many different things, but each person manages to have an individual experience of them, and is easily taught at a young age to choose and use them. My "social garment" now includes Twitter, Google search til something better happens, 15 newsletters, 5 RSS feeds, 4 email accounts, 1 smartphone, 2 dumb phones and Facebook on the inside.

    If some software or some device would organize that so it "looked right" and "fit" and saved me time that would be great.

    Thanks again for a highly thought-provoking post.

  18. you want to start something? » from Virtual Reality to Augmented Reality says:

    [...] this week, Edo Segal, write a guest post on Techcrunch describing a cyberpunk story he wrote 16 years ago which involved augmented reality and I’d [...]

  19. Imran Dhanji says:

    Hello Ed


    This topic has been my interest for the last few years, and i am currently developing a platform that will act as a human gateway into re-organizing our collective intelligence. I want to speak (write) a little bit from a spiritual context, which seems to be slightly lacking here. We are moving, as a universe, towards greater degree's of complexity; how human beings share information through waves is becoming increasingly integrated due to our global mind. Just like our physical brains evolved, our metaphysical brain will follow a similar process (except alot 'faster).

    If we see technology as an externalization of our consciousness, we can understand why there is such an overabundance of information on the internet. For every post, every piece of text, every video created, there has been a motive. A reason why that individual decided to put a piece of their knowledge on the net, a piece of they stupidity, personality. Everybody gets a voice, everybody gets to express themselves.. and people want to shout at the top of their lungs! They want to be known! they wan't recognition. People want to speak their opinions, say how THEY see the world depending on their subjective lenses, their values, their viewpoints.. they want to make people laugh, cry, sing and dance.. and to make their livings.

    On the other side of the fence, we have an old economic paradigm which functions off self interest, ownership, supply and demand and scarcity. Currently, the internet is an amorphous bubble of advertising, allowing for the idea of 'free' to still be permeated, and misleading the masses into the original intent of the creation of these services.

    Once the level of consciousness, motive, intent of those creating high-levels of technology shifts, so will the technology. If the technology is built to make its executives millions of dollars, to 'aggregate eyeballs', and use fractional proporption of peoples time vs buying power to create the underpinnings of our technological revolution, then it will be a scary day. Knowledge, for example, works in Abundance not scarcity, and will need a completely new economic model to re pattern our societal collective agreement around it's distribution, in my model, this takes the form of a currency.

    The internet represents opportunity, more than anything else. It is a place where an idea can be translated into something tangible the world can use. There is no separation between you and your laptop, infact, it is the 'portal' that has been spoken off in science fiction novels! Once we tap into our understanding of holographic movement, we will have an 'aha' period, because the separation between ourselves and our technology will disappear.

    The internet IS us. Yes, social relations are changing, but thats only because the context we create for society and culture isn't bridging paradigms. Our Cultural Meme's are evolving and changing, fast, globally. Right now their are chaotic, disparate, ad-hok. Soon, we will have ambient streams to facilitate cohesive Meme building.

    In short, ambient streams are without value judgments, but are still an externalization whatever consciousness went into creating them. We are in a time of great environmental crises, and human beings need distilled, multi-faceted, contextualized knowledge from credible experts to be easily accessible, with conversation forming around them! If i want to find out about the Federal reserve, how do i research on the internet? The ambient streams i see are going to be repositories of credible knowledge that will allow individuals to parse through our current abundance of knowledge on the internet, and construct a stream based on their worldview and values systems. The future of the internet is not going to be about the INFORMATION but about the PEOPLE!

    Our political arena is going to change once we have online systems implemented to parse through value systems, understand individual context, and get the wide net of society interacting intelligently through a knowledge platform.

    Just to contextualize, I am not creating this system for money, i really couldn't care less. I am doing it because we are in the center of a massive evolution of human consciousness, and we need a large-scale restructing of the human brain from a place of LOVE, peace, harmony, mutual equanimity, and living systems theory and thinking. THIS is what will allow for major shifts and changes, when its not about 'monetizing' your user base, its about harmonizing our global brain and allowing EVERYONE who uses it to benefit directly, monetarily, and otherwise. This technology will be a cooperative.

    Sorry for the exhaustive discourse. Peace and love to you all.

    I will be launching my Alpha platform in 2 weeks. Be prepared :)

  20. WulfCry says:

    Edo do realize that it is not a ready yet concept but something like this could not been done five to ten years ago. But a certain maturety has to been reach enough to come to something like A.S.
    I alway's thought that something like Computed Intelligence would be matured by the year 2010.

    If C.I would be used to create the sense for let say an ''ambient'' way to interact with services to even to commute ''Media,data,medium stream'' .
    Where you talk about ''Filters'' I think certainly portray's some service figuring out the multi-acces channels to datasets from services.

    Let say if it where possible for some startup to do it. Would need more then a deal with ISP or blend in with search engines.

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  22. Turning social media into a sixth sense « FCEdge Powerful Marketing Communications says:

    [...] Turning social media into a sixth sense The “Holy Grail” of social media isn’t real-time search, but “ambient streaming,” argues Edo Segal. Over time, Segal argues, social media will evolve into a virtual sixth sense — a constant, seamlessly immersive flow of information, passively filtered to meet our needs without overwhelming us. “It may sound like science fiction, but there are engineers and entrepreneurs out there already trying to make it fact,” Segal adds. “We will be seeing the first swells of this coming tsunami in the years to come.” TechCrunch [...]

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