02nd September 2014

Don’t forget the design: The next challenge in Internet of Things

[caption id="attachment_7091" align="alignright" width="300"]Ciaran Harris Ciaran Harris[/caption]

Last week, I sat down with our Director of Innovation to talk about what everyone else is talking about: The Internet of Things (in Ireland, it’s called the Internet of Tings). Never one to bite his tongue, Ciaran had a lot to say about some of the failings of Internet of Things and how good old fashioned design thinking can fix them.

Q: First thing’s first: what is the Internet of Things? A: It’s when everything is connected to the internet. Everything can talk to, take input from and do something with any and every other thing. In fact, Cisco is calling it the Internet of Everything.

Q: What are some Internet of Things that you admire? A: The ship computer in Star Trek TNG. Its tone changed when it was listening and when it gave its answers. A lot of people thought Star Trek was fanciful, but reality is coming pretty close to it.

Q: What about in real life? A: A product that I really like because of its simplicity is Goodnight Lamp. It’s technically very simple without many components: you can connect your lamp to anyone else’s; you know when they’ve turned it on because yours comes on too. It’s an elegant and creative method of communication. They're calling it the first physical social network. Other than the on/off switch, there’s no interface.

Q: What might our everyday experience look like, in an Internet of Things world?

Cubesensor

A: Right now we have a lot of interfaces: "pictures under glass". But here, for example, this is a Cube Sensor. It has sensors that measure your indoor environment - temperature, movement, etc. There is no apparent interface.

In the future, we're going to have a lot of computers around us without interfaces, like pressure pads underneath floors that recognise when you’re walking in and out of rooms. Or gesture based projections, like Leap Motion. Google Glass may even start to recognise movement in our retinas. There will be more voice controlled interactions, like Siri, the most famous example. In the future, there will be far more multimodal interfaces. The challenge for our industry is to make interface-less devices usable. More than usable. Desirable.

Q: A lot of people are talking about this and the possibilities of it all. But how do we make this into a reality? A: The biggest challenge is to design where there’s a need. We shouldn't just design something because we can; because the technology is available.

Q: Just like Jurassic Park. A: Yes, just like that. We have to ask what the problems are, then design the solutions using the technology. For example, the Philips connected light bulb is not solving a problem. Why would I use my phone to turn off the lights when I can just flip a switch? It’s actually much more cumbersome to get out my phone, find the app, let it load, than it is to just get out of my chair and turn off the light. Philips have actually had to go and build a physical switch, because the experience with just the app was so crumby.

A good example is the Berg washing machine. The need was human: washing machine interfaces are notoriously confusing. So they made it human-friendly. Using the same physical hardware, they augmented it with far more functionality than was previously available in the original interface. Rather than lead with technology, they led with the problem that needed solving.

[caption id="attachment_7057" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Berg cloud connected washing machine Berg cloud connected washing machine[/caption]

Q: What, do you think, are the biggest challenges; and can we learn from the mistakes we made during the first conception of the Internet? A: There are two big challenges. The first is connectivity. Imagine your typical home automation: you have an alarm system by Smart Things, a thermostat by Nest a media centre hooked up to your TV. Those things will all have an individual control (via individual interfaces) and none of them will be connected to each other, despite being connected to the internet.

That’s because of the marketplace. Everyone designs their own Internet of Things Island. We need to create some standards so these mini ecosystems can talk to each other. These are the same problems we have now.

The other issue is, of course, security. LG have these smart TVs; they are collecting loads of analytics from all of those TVs and sending them, unencrypted, to Korea. This poses a huge security risk: what if you signed into the Internet using your browser on your TV? Besides some standards and guidelines, I’m not sure of the solution to the security problem. It's a big issue. There are security experts out there, and my advice is to get them involved early in the concepts and the design, so things are built with security in mind; it’s not tacked on after the fact, crippling the user experience in the process.

Q: You mentioned the marketplace. How will the Internet of Things be monetised? A: A model I can see working in the future is something along the lines of content providers. For example, Forecast.io provide a weather forecasting service, using an API that you call for specific information.  They bill you based on the amount of calls you make. That's the way I think the IoT will go. But right now it won't work. Most systems need to have the user locked in, that is, you pay up front for physical object and quite often after that there's a subscription model.

Q: A lot of the internet is information - how does Internet of Things affect information and communication? A: Paul Adams had a good talk a while ago about how the Internet is not organised into pages, but into cards. These cards come into play when we move away from the pictures under glass interfaces. For example, how is the top line information about this article going to be served up by your coffee cup of the future?

Q: What excites you personally about the Internet of Things? A: I’m excited by the little things - those magical interactions that take away a bit of hassle from people’s lives. I'm working on something for our office now called ‘Room Occupied’. It checks Google Calendar to see if a room’s booked, then checks motion sensors to see if anyone is in that room. We don’t have any glass walls, so this would make finding an empty room (without bursting into a meeting in progress) that much easier.

I’m also really interested in soundscapes, an auditory reflection of the world. The way to make it practical in our office, for example could be to monitor audio levels in the office, and add background noise that reacts to what’s going on.

Q: Like smooth jazz if we’re stressed? A: Or add sound alerts to certain things, like if someone download the Daddyo app I want to focus on bringing moments of delight to everyday life. Play.

Ciaran runs the Internet of Things Dublin meetup. Come along sometime. And check out our own Internet of Things / art installation, the Human Clock