Jul 15, 2014
The Internet of Everything: Ecosystems and the Disconnected User
The Internet of Things has arrived. We can see its initial fingerprints in our smartphones, in our cars, and in our homes. It’s helping us to be healthy, share photos, and keep our homes safe. The next few years will see a significant increase in connected devices, reaching into just about every aspect of our lives. Some of these devices will change the way that we live, and some will fade into obscurity.
Today garage-born companies will use technologies like Bluetooth, open APIs, and 3D printing to develop and connect hardware devices with speed and vision that seemed like a pipedream only 10 years ago. As the technology continues to develop, we will all learn from the pending future of successes and some failures along the way. The question is: what does the future of the Internet of Things hold for us? And, what does it all mean for our daily interactions in the growing technological wilderness?
The Ingredients of IoT
The Internet of Things (IoT) is an integration of hardware and software that involves communication between physical items in the world, rather than relying on humans for direct input. When executed properly, the whole can be truly greater than the sum of its parts. With IoT, a connected smoke alarm can send you notifications if there’s a fire in your home while you’re travelling, a connected car remembers where you parked, and a connected tag helps you find lost pets. Each of these capabilities exist today, and many more are on their way. In the future, you might use your tablet to select a recipe to make for dinner, allowing a smart refrigerator and pantry to check the ingredient list against what you have available, and add the missing ingredients to a shopping list on your phone. A single tap to confirm and a grocery delivery is on its way to your home in 30 minutes or less. There are endless possibilities.
Hardware is the New I/O
You can’t have a network of connected hardware without the hardware. It’s the most fundamental aspect of IoT and quite possibly the most exciting. For decades, the tech industry has focused almost exclusively on software. It’s as though we’ve all been living in our heads, creating use cases and strategies that rely on manipulation and presentation of data through screens of different sizes, like a game of The Sims. One of the reasons that IoT is exciting is that it lets us get out of our heads and perform things in the physical world. It can turn lights on or off, change the temperature in a room, and, literally, open doors. These are the kinds of things that would seem like magic to our ancestors. It’s exciting that we get to be the generation that creates that magic.
To create the magic, we have to understand the role that it plays in IoT. In IoT, connected hardware devices function as inputs and outputs (I/O) for a larger connected system. In traditional systems, inputs collect data through manual controls like keyboards, mice, and trackpads, while outputs present data or signals through displays like monitors, printers, and speakers. As a part of IoT, all connected hardware will function as an input device, an output device, or some combination of the two. For example, a Fitbit Flex collects constantbiometric data and a Kevo lock performs output functions by locking or unlocking the door to a house.
Through IoT, these devices provide significant advantages. They do not require input from a user in order to collect data or perform an output function. This allows persistent and ambient data collection to dramatically change our understanding of the world. They also allow connected devices to automatically perform actions that we would have had to perform manually under normal circumstances, such as lock the door when we leave the house. They allow us to allocate input and output functions to places that are not otherwise available for a computerized system.
As IoT matures, there will be a proliferation of connected hardware — some of it will succeed and some will fail. This is partly due to the sometimes questionable value of the hardware itself. When evaluating any new class of connected device, it’s useful to ask how the device provides value as an input or output device. Does it benefit from allocation to a device external to a computer or mobile device?
Ecosystems and the Controlled Connection
One of the mantras of developing hardware is that hardware is hard. New technologies and platforms like 3D printing have dramatically simplified prototyping, but there are still a myriad of challenges to overcome. For IoT, one significant challenge is the act of actually connecting these devices. That involves both connectivity hardware and software protocols for the connectivity itself, but also building software to manage and store the actual data coming from the device. The desire to meet these software needs while also tackling all of the headaches that normally come from a hardware product, everything from supply chain and manufacturing to distribution and retail placement, have already begun to spawn software platforms to make the process manageable.
One of the most prevalent examples of this is Android. As an open-source operating system, Android provides a cheap, flexible, and relatively easy way to drop an OS onto pretty much any device. This, coupled with Android’s wealth of hardware and software APIs and integration of additional services like Google+ Sign-in, can make the process significantly more manageable relative to developing an OS from scratch.
As each connected device is released and adopted, it creates another device to control. Now you’re not just managing settings and activity on your phone and laptop, but also your TV, your car, your home security system, your thermostat, and pretty much everything else. With so many things to control, there’s a danger of a confusing and disjointed experience. This problem has been referred to as the basket of remotes problem, because it is likened to the experience of having 5+ remote controls for interacting with a home entertainment system. Some companies, like AT&T, have begun leveraging APIs of individual hardware makers to package controls into consolidated apps that function as a universal remote. This universal remote concept can lock users into an ecosystem of devices as they tend to gravitate towards products that are compatible with their chosen universal remote.
The basket of remotes still remains a problem, even if you have a single universal remote to control everything. The user still has to allocate time and attention to actually interacting with each of those devices doing so through a consolidated interface, which provides a great deal of value by helping to keep things from feeling fragmented and confusing. But, it’s still a lot of time and effort to launch the control app, navigate to the appropriate place, and input the needed controls. As we said before, in order for IoT to really take off, we have to allow people to get their heads out of the digital world and back in the physical.
According to Astro Teller, head of Google [x], in order to get “technology out of the way” you need to “take away a user interface.” For IoT, this is exactly what will have to happen. Systems will have to be able to predict the needs of users and enact them without any direct input from the user.
For example, if a user accepts an early, in-person meeting, then the system as a whole should understand what that means for the user and update the connected hardware accordingly. This means that the system calculates the drive time to location and updates the alarm clock as well as the connected coffee maker, while the connected car already has the seats heated, and the directions to the location on screen – the user is ready to go. This all stems from the user’s simple act of accepting a meeting request.
This kind of system leverages technologies like affective computing and other means to accurately predict the needs and behavior of the user. Without this kind of predictive interaction, we could be drowning in user interfaces within a few years.
What it All Means
As systems mature, every piece of connected hardware will have to plug into an ecosystem. The competition for attention is too high and only through predictive interaction will the number of connected devices be able to increase beyond a certain threshold. In order to make these predictions, the system needs data. Humans can be tremendously predictable if you have enough data and you are able to make sense of it all. In order to successfully prepare for that morning meeting, the system has to access the user’s calendar and navigation system, know how long the user takes to wake up in the morning, how long it takes to get ready, how the user likes morning coffee, and how fast to drive.
Over the next few years, you’ll see a dramatic explosion of connected devices and see key players like Google, Apple, Facebook, etc. competing to establish their ecosystems. Anyone developing hardware will have to decide whether the device should be a part of IoT, what ecosystem or ecosystems the device fit into, and, perhaps most importantly, how the device should fit in.
When evaluating the device, think of the device in terms of its inputs and outputs. Will the device be able to gather data that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to gather? Will that data have value on its own or in combination with other data? Could the device have automated functions that would have significant value for a user? Does it eliminate difficult or unpleasant tasks like holding your place in line or finding your car in a crowded parking lot?
Next, you’ll have some ecosystem decisions to make. Currently, most IoT devices are controlled through mobile apps that are available for both iOS and Android. But the two platforms are not created equal. iOS apps are easier to develop due to less device fragmentation and very clear design and development guidelines and tools. iOS apps are also more frequently downloaded with a population that tend to be more frequent app consumers. On the other hand, there’s simply more that you are able to do with an Android app. With Intents, a more complete ecosystem supporting it, additional technologies available (NFC for example), and the fact that your device itself will very likely be running on Android, you may be able to deliver a richer feature set and more integrated experience through Android. Given that most devices will have both iOS and Android apps, should the Android app provide the same features as the iOS app or should it go above and beyond?
Finally, and most importantly, you’ll have to figure out how the device will interact with the user. Keep in mind that you’ll probably be competing with other devices for attention. Not only that, but you’ll have to compete with the other people, activities, events, and just the world in general. If your device requires the user to pull out their phone, open an app, and navigate within that app every time that he or she wants to do something, it’s entirely possible that your app and its associated device will end up in the corner collecting dust. Try to remove user interfaces as much as possible. Over time, it will become possible to integrate devices more fully into IoT ecosystems, leveraging behavior prediction models that will dramatically enrich the experience that you can provide with your device. Until then, think about ways that you can remove the User Interface as much as possible.
These are exciting times. As technology continues to evolve and our lives get more and more intertwined with software and hardware systems, it is important to look at these technologies and determine which ones get in our way and which ones help us achieve our goals and live a better life.
About the Authors
From the 3D software on your iPhone to a network of connected hardware on your computer – everything is experienced. Whatever the experience may be, it can be optimized for consistent excellence, driving a dramatic increase in influence over behavior change. Speck Design is a design and innovation consultancy. We integrate our pioneering methodology, Experience Engineering, with user insights, interaction design, engineering, graphics, and industrial design, to create impactful product, digital, and contextual experiences. In doing so, we focus on addressing the evolving science of user behavior and connectivity, in order to ultimately create lasting tangible value across the entire user journey. We are an innovation engine of the new economy.
Demetrius Madrigal is dedicated to enriching people’s lives through innovation and has played a key role in the development of numerous personas, user scenarios, and product concepts in order to assist companies like GoPro, Google, and Microsoft. He has authored dozens of articles on research and design and was featured in Bloomberg Businessweek and INC. magazine.
Bryan McClain is responsible for leading new product innovation to help clients take product ideas from concept to market and beyond. Bryan’s efforts have resulted in successful products that have attracted national attention from Bloomberg Businessweek, INC., Conde Naste Traveler, and Gizmodo.