How the Internet of Things Changes How We Design

Designing a connected product requires strategic thinking that design professionals have not had to develop in an industrial context. It distrupts not only entire industries but the way professionals are shaped for those industries. I’ll talk about the process of developing and designing connected products and the sets of skills, semantics, and collaborative practitces that are essential in this context.

“Recalculating – how to design the internet of things from the user and up and from data down.”

We are still in the wild west phase of the internet of things – there is a lot of experimentation going on, but there are still mistakes being made. Both in a practical sense of accidentally revealing data and in the broader sense of anticipating the things people want from and do with connected devices.

Slide: James Bridle’s “the cloud is a lie”

With the advent of things like Arduino, it’s become fast and cheap to create a device that can bridge the physical and digital. In 20 minutes you can make a button in the world that talks to a web server; and vice versa.

The idea of an internet of things includes not only the exciting, bigger things but the boring everyday things. Sensors in your pot plants…

(Run through of lots of connected items, from the Nabaztag to Nest; connected umbrellas and bathroom scales…)

When you start collecting information from personal items in the home, you have to become aware and concerned with privacy. There can be strange results – a connected set of bathroom scales can reveal the fact you’re losing weight. It could market diet products to you; or could be used for nastier purposes – people might realise you are too light and slim to resist a home invasion. It’s simply a good idea to protect this data and know where it is.

If the data is less personal, coming from a public space, you will want some say in how the data is handled. It becomes a community issue rather than a specifically personal issue. For example in china there are connected devices monitoring air quality; and parents want to know the air quality in schools.

In Japan there is a group of people publishing radiation information from around Fukushima – they bought their own geiger counters and published the information. They forced the government to admit the official data was being inaccurately taken and improperly published. The access to technology has a major impact on politics and society.

When you have devices publishing information, you should have the right to remain anonymous; and to control the way it’s published (at all). There should be some granularity.

Open: accessible, transparent, findable. The internet of things has a lot of open aspects – communities, hardware, etc.

You can use chips, dev boards (eg. Arduino), cloud (eg. Ifttt), apps, existing products.

Why get involved? It’s accessible, particularly with crowd funding. You can go from proof concept to shipping a product in six months – which is short compared with years, as it was in the past.

Downsides? It is more expensive to build physical things than it is to build websites; it takes new skills; it takes longer and geography matters (it’s hard to deal with people in other countries).

However it is exciting. Making things is exciting; people get it; design is key and web thinking is essential – we need people who know how to handle data.


Q: what are the particular challenges in making a new product via kickstarter?

A: It’s a little hard in a way because there are the massive success stories. 90% of the projects funded on kickstarter are for lower costs – around $10k. However if you do well on kickstarter, bigger investors get more interested. They love it if you can demonstrate interest, willingness for people to actually pay for things. So kickstarter can be a marketing tool rather than the full funding source. Alex raised around 49k pounds in January (a difficult time to raise money) out of a 300k target. It has come up in every funding meeting since, but it did get some buzz.

Q: can you imagine us needing to have DRM (or some form of control) over our personal data?

A: there are some questions about potentially even selling or trading that data in a market. It hasn’t been solved yet but it will become increasingly relevant.

Q: have you come across ninja blocks? Any thoughts?

A: yes… (jokes that someone must be in the room). I don’t think anyone’s really competing, everyone’s going for something a little different. Some are very much educational and so on.

(mention of Melbourne-based Freetronics, working on building open-source hardware)

Q: a lot of Raspberry Pi projects seem to be thinking a little small… do you have any bigger examples, cooler examples?

A: Someone sent a Pi into space as a project with their daughter… There was a belt for pregnant women that tweets whenever the baby kicks (great as a way for their partner to share the experience in a new way). The Raspberry Pi is great even just for the attention is has gained… they are manufactured in Wales piggybacking on Sony’s manufacturing facilities. There is a slight barrier for kids to use them as they do require you to use linux; but that’s probably not going to be a barrier for long. Many people are using Pis as a media centre in the home, since that’s obvious if you know linux.

Q: throw to Microsoft to mention a competition for kids…

A: (Lachlan) last year’s winners were some RMIT students who built a stethoscope which plugged into the smartphone, so it would go on the phone rather than just being relayed. It ends up costing about $20 to make them, but a digital stethoscope costs about $800. They also did some awesome software stuff as well, so the app could then detect pneumonia – the UI walked the user through the procedure and tried to directly detect things.