An Animating Spark: Mundane Computing and the Web of Data

Network connectivity is reaching more and more into the physical world. This is potentially transformative – allowing every object and service in the world to talk to one other—and to their users—through any networked interface; where online services are the connective tissue of the physical world and where physical objects are avatars of online services. It’s a world where objects know who owns them and can tell the world where they are. A world where ‘things’ are services, and where their functions can be strung together in daisy chains across the planet. Now the only question is how we make it useful and comprehensible for normal people.

I’ve decided to come up with a hash tag for this talk, here it is! #besttalkever”

Aw, I love @tomcoates, too. #wds12

Interested in how connecting things makes new possibilities, how a network of data and services can transform what we produce.

The possibility space for new products is defined by how many data sets are connected, mashed together… take multiple data sources and elements and you multiply the product possibility space.

New product possibility space: (all technologies + all data data sources)n

(n being the number of ways you can put them together)

Talking about mundane things receiving the spark of creativity, the spark of animation, similar to the spark of electricity bringing Frankenstein’s monster to life. Of day to day objects receiving a small amount of intelligence and agency… and how you will feel about it? This is not a vision of the future – this is a vision of now.

How do we get things out of the labs and into the shops?

Tom has a theory that when people explore new technologies have one main goal… it’s to articulate why the technology is interesting. We’re trying to sell it and impress… which gets people excited but over-sells and sets up big expectation. Also while selling things the examples are exaggerated and crazy to get attention and prove the project should be funded. Especially as early technology can be relatively expensive – during development, Kinect-equivalent tech cost closer to $10,000 than something priced to attach to your television.

An uncharitable theory: the way we think about the future is betraying our present.

Tom wants us to think about tangible and real application of ubiquitous computing, what the “internet of things” – being the same internet after all – can really do. We can look at everyday devices in our homes and see what extra value we could add to them, considering how cheap it is to add network functionality to them.

LCD clocks were initially expensive but demand for them increased to such an extent they became cheap. Then LCD clocks were stuck all over the place, even in places they didn’t really add value.

“What was once expensive is now trivial. This opens up opportunities.”

Raspberry Pi is a fully functional computer that’s as powerful as the computer Tom used through university… and you can buy it for about $25.

Kindle with permanently-on free worldwide 3G – a few years ago would have seemed impossible and yet there it is.

“Hundred dollar devices” with the ability to connect to the internet – what doors does that open?

Mundane Computing – a term by Chris Heathcote – most of the time life is routine; and Chris was interested in how technology can make some of those daily moments better. It’s not bad, just think of it as not chasing a unicorn but instead doing something useful.

Example of the problem: washing machines that beep. Tom is “obsessed with machines that beep”. When the machine is done it beeps at you. It doesn’t respect the fact you’re doing something else, it just keeps on beeping. And that’s infuriating! It’s like GPS devices that are disappointed in you when you take a wrong turn.

These devices should chill out! The problem could be fixed with a network connection and an app – devices could talk to an app that you could tie in to your more-polite-than-beeping notification systems.

Muji – sells lovely minimal, elegant things. Why aren’t ubiquitous computing devices packaged so nicely? “Able to be invited into the home”… something which makes you want it in your life.

Mujicomp online taps into this idea.

Although “mundane computing” doesn’t make a sexy buzzword it allows us to think about daily things. How can you take a “boring problem” and push it to the limit. The “Nest” thermostat is one example; Twitter could be thought of as SMS pushed to its limits.

Fighting the futurists… (want to get really meta?)… you’d be surprised how many network-enabled fridges are being pitched and made right now. It doesn’t make sense to have Twitter on your fridge – who has an expensive fridge and DOESN’T have an iPad or some other more suitable device for reading twitter and playing music?

It’s a misunderstanding of what “connected to the internet” means – it doesn’t mean it has to have a browser. Don’t add cost by adding a screen, for $5 you can network it without a screen. Increasing the cost is not helping things become useful.

The average life cycle of a fridge is over fifteen years. Imagine if you’d got an internet enabled fridge fifteen years ago… it’d have windows 95 on it! So actually you really want as little as possible on the device. Otherwise your appliances become hopelessly out of date much faster than before.

(referring to the Corningware vision) Do we really want every surface around us to be a screen? How often do you refit your kitchen? Do you really want to be using your bathroom mirror to bash out email? Do you keep every surface that pristine clean? Actually it’s a bit gross!

Stewart Brand’s home shearing layers (from “How Buildings Learn”) shows us that the structure changes far too slowly to put technology directly into them.

Matt Rolandson, Ammunition Group, made the point – use the network to amplify the tool’s core purpose, not to be another web browser or Twitter client. The internet != web browser. A network enabled coffee machine should be better at being a coffee machine.

Ideas to make things more useful….

  1. Make it easy to set up
  2. Make sure it works when it’s offline (it just works better when it’s online)
  3. Put the bulk of the intelligence online, not in the device (helps the upgrade cycle)
  4. The interface for the device isn’t embedded in the device, it’s wherever you need it.
  5. The best way to enhance an object is to make it easer to control or understand.
  6. Devices should be polite (? not sure I got this point right)

Mundane computing: what if all devices over $100 had an API that said…

  • where are you
  • who do you belong to
  • what are you doing right now
  • how have you been used/usage and error log
  • how much power have you used/are you using
  • how well are you functioning

You should be able to…

  • control (safe) basic functions
  • receive alerts when there’s a problem
  • receive alerts when a job is completed

@houseofcoates is a feed of everything in Tom’s house.

Anthropomorphising things can make them fun. Race your Scooba against other peoples Scooba. When we engage with things this way we intuit motives – your device doesn’t need charging any more, it’s feeling tired.

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years, and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten years.” – Bill Gates

Having a history of a device changes purchasing, maintenance, even the way we buy or rent them in the first place. Being able to track ownership and location – what does that mean for ownership and theft?

The infrastructure is there, if devices are tapping into it, we’re already bootstrapped and the spark required is creativity. Ideas for things that can happen when things are brought into the domain of the internet. People who manufacture things often have no idea about the internet – this is where our responsibility comes in as designers and developers.

Raymond Loewy thought the goal of industrial design was MAYA: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. This is a good way to think of mundane computing.

We also have a responsibility to bring the general public with us into the future. Make it friendly to everyone.

(books at the end: Bruce Sterling’s “Shaping Things”, Adam Greenfield “Everyware”, Mike Kuniavsky “Smart Things”. John also calls out Aussie startup, Ninja Blocks.)