Last year, I accepted membership in a buzz marketing experiment called the Silicon Valley 100, in which people like me who are deemed to be “influencers” are offered various free products to test. I accepted with some misgivings — was I selling out? — but accepted after being assured that there was absolutely no expectation of endorsement of any of the products.
In the year or so since, I’ve received a fair share of products to test out. But I’ve never been inclined to say anything about any of them until I got my TrafficGauge. I was initially skeptical: one more special-purpose device to tote around. But I was immediately won over.
How stupid does this thing look? A small handheld device about the size of a Treo or a Blackberry. On its face a low-res map of Bay Area freeways (other cities also available). Turn it on, and it stays on. When there’s no traffic, the map shows nothing. If traffic is slow, heavy dashed lines appear on the freeways affected. If it’s stop and go, the dashed lines flash. That’s it.
Now I know I could get this information on my phone, or even get real time traffic fed to my Garmin Streetpilot GPS. But having a dedicated device is surprisingly useful. I keep it in my glove compartment, and pull it out when I’m in doubt about which route to take. It’s always on, and so there’s no user interface to fiddle with, just a quick glance. I find it particularly useful at times when you wouldn’t normally expect traffic — for example, when I was heading home from Startup School (Palo Alto to Sebastopol) on a Saturday afternoon. It saved me from going home through Berkeley (my usual preferred route to the North Bay) by warning me of a slowdown (most likely due to an accident) at a point where traffic is normally light.
What’s also interesting about this device is the very fact of its single purpose design, and the fact that its low-power display and sensors stay always on, running for months on a couple of AA batteries. It’s a sign that special purpose hardware providing access to internet data services may eventually be commonplace. (I remember a nice presentation years ago by someone from IBM in which he compared pervasive computing to the spread of clocks: the clock tower was equivalent to the mainframe, the grandfather clock to the minicomputer, the clock-radio to the PC, and the embedded clocks you see everywhere to the future of computing.)