What’s so smart about the Internet of Things?

Objects are becoming smart. Manufactured products have until now been relatively simple, isolated and non-communicative. But in the megatrend beginning with the phenomenal success of the smartphone, we are starting to expect new devices to be connected, cars to drive themselves and pretty much any object to interact with us via a screen.

The Internet of Things (IoT) has so far mainly been about desirable consumer tech, such as wearable fitness trackers and smart thermostats for the home. But interactive or autonomous tech is set to appear in workplaces, transport, public spaces and infrastructure – probably any place where people are active. Designers, who are at the forefront of making this tech human-friendly, are having to respond to tough questions about how smart tech will evolve, as revealed at PD+I 2016, the product design conference organised by Plastics News Europe in London in May.

“A turning point for me was last year”, said Peter Fullagar, head of innovation at UK design consultancy Kinneir Dufort, “when I had a project to design algorithms to understand the data, and not to design the product in any way at all.”

But just because a product is “smart” doesn’t mean it is “clever”, he said, and he showed examples of IoT products demonstrating “when smart goes wrong”.

Flower Power is a device incorporating a sensor that detects dehydration in house plants and alerts the user via a smartphone app to get out the watering can. Fullagar suggested this product – as well as some other IoT products – just pushes technology without any real point: “I think plants are already pretty good at telling you when they need to be watered.”

Some start-up tech firms try “running before walking”, often because of unrealistic timescales they set for product development. Vessyl, a cup designed to record data about every type of drink the user has during the day, smashed its crowd-funding targets. But the firm had to announce it was unready to meet the launch date because the technology was not mature enough. The cup it launched instead was only able to record water intake.

Transient technology is another instance of not-so-smart. When Google’s holding company Alphabet bought Revolv, a start-up making a smart home hub device, it incorporated it into its Nest subsidiary – which then stopped supporting the device, leaving owners stranded with useless tech.

Unnecessary complexity is common in IoT, with many examples in food devices and the smart kitchen. Fullagar showed a photo of a smart bin in use at a client site in Italy – the bin has a motion sensor for opening the lid, but in this case it was broken, and used paper towels were piling up next to it.

“It’s a classic example of using technology with the desire to make things simpler, but in this situation it made it a whole lot worse,” he said.

Fullagar then contrasted these smart failures with instances of “making things clever”. And a significant aspect of these smart successes is that many are not consumer products. Value is being created in connected commercial objects, but this is often overlooked because there is so much focus on consumer tech.

He showed the Bigbelly street bin and compactor, which alerts the urban authority when it is full. Because employees only visit the bin when it needs to be emptied, the authority can make up to 75% cost savings.

He said: “It’s a similar space to my earlier example of the smart bin, but it’s the context that makes the big difference and where you can see the real value.”

The bigger impact of IoT is coming in industrial and commercial settings that are very much under the radar. Fullagar pointed to the agricultural sector as having IoT potential. The CropX sensor device for crop irrigation is “a very similar idea to the bad example of smart, about monitoring your pot plants. But when you scale it up to agriculture and you monitor the hydration level of crops, and then have your system water only where and when it’s needed, this has the potential to have a massive impact on optimisation and solving food issues around the world.”

Driver-less tractors was another agricultural market application suggested by a later speaker, James Woudhuysen, who considered these to have more immediate growth prospects than autonomous cars.

Fullagar said IoT will evolve to become more seamless and meaningful. He said he liked the principle of the new Amazon Echo wifi speaker, which is controlled vocally and so becomes more seamless, as it “takes away that screen-based interaction, involving multi-steps, multi-clicks to get to what you need”.

Keynote speaker Gadi Amit also spoke of the emerging trend for simpler interfaces and seamless interaction. Amit’s company, New Deal Design, is one the leaders of tech design in California’s Silicon Valley, working on IoT products such as the popular FitBit tracker.

Dojo is a device for dealing with security alerts from the growing amount of IoT objects in the home. New Deal could have designed it as a white or black box typical of connected tech, but instead its shape is that of a soft pebble. A lot of work went into making the user experience relaxed, said Amit.

“The user interface is a new paradigm – it’s a chat, so the device is personified. It calls you as if it’s a text message or a chat room, interacting as if it’s a person,” he said.

Seamless interaction is also a key feature of Hibiki, a device “designed primarily for the elderly, with a different interface, a completely stripped down Android device, with an emergency button at the back.” The location of the user can be monitored remotely by friends and family.

Amit said: “We take the typical graphical user interface for granted, but for the elderly it’s confusing. There’s a new need for connecting a lot of people over the age of 70 or 80 with technology. Hibiki is one of the first attempts to do that.”

Amit, like Peter Fullagar at Kinneir Dufort, talked about improving smart technology by making it “wiser”. He particularly addressed difficult issues in the context of autonomous vehicles, which his company is working on with Otto, a US company developing self-driving trucks.

In a video, he showed the complexity of how humans mingle in a crowd, and cross between traffic without injury, because we understand the intent of car drivers and pedestrians. However, he said, “The technology of today doesn’t understand the intent of a kid trying to cross the road.”

So what works? Humans become competent at driving a car in a few months, but even after passing the driving test the person has to develop into a good driver.

“What makes us a good driver is we’re becoming wiser in how to apply the technology and how to apply the rules of the road to the context, to the current situation. That’s the main principle for addressing these autonomous things. If we ask what is it that will make that technology good, it’s about making it wiser,” said Amit.

“The challenge we have is: what is the right way to integrate technology into our society and culture, and how do we mix as humans with that beast called technology?”

Source: Plastic News Europe, by David Eldridge