The IoT is still in nappies


What should we call it?  "The internet of things" or "Connected devices" or maybe "Smart devices"?

From our personal devices through to our home appliances, our cars, cities and the infrastructure that supports them, connectivity is spreading.

It’s interesting that connectivity has been around for many years, particularly in the guise of machine-to-machine (M2M) applications. Ask any electronics engineer and they will gladly convey their experiences with telemetry, GSM and wide area networks of various guises - but these applications are likely to reside in the industrial sectors, hidden away from the general public. Nevertheless, these systems have been in place and exchanging data for decades, controlling and monitoring everything from streetlights to the water distribution network.

Without doubt, the advent of the internet and then the smartphone has raised public awareness of the potential of connectivity – not only for social interaction but also for connected services and of course, devices. It is the latter that has given rise to the latest, and highly fashionable Internet of Things (IoT).

But what is it?

Try this experiment: Type “M2M solutions” into Google and look at the images. You will see many examples including all of the above technologies.  Now try “man to machine interfaces” – again, you will see displays, buttons, gesture control and even mind control images and diagrams. But here is the rub. Try “IoT”…

What you see here is a plethora of kaleidoscopic mosaics – the graphical equivalents of wordels but without relative significance, and each one contains just about everything from a lightbulb to an aeroplane. To be fair, some do cross the boundary from illustration to infographic where at least some context is included. What is clear is that the IoT is all about connecting things to things, and things to people but representing it or conceptualising it is difficult.

Of course, the IoT looks like different things to different user groups.

If we ask young millennials, they would likely quickly list the internet, mobile ‘apps’ (probably each by name) and fitness bands. Home owners might be able to talk about smart meters or even home automation – expounding the virtues of their Nest controller or Hive active heating system. Business owners might talk about cloud services, SaaS solutions and social/team collaboration tools. Engineers, again, will have a different view by adding the technologies such as Bluetooth LE, Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Z-Wave and LoRa to the conversation. A manufacturer, of a car for example, may be contemplating tracking systems, remote diagnostics, service apps and personal productivity cost options. Importantly, let us not forget a large proportion of the population that doesn’t understand it, can’t comprehend it and could even be frightened by it.

The disconnect.

When you look at it, it’s striking that much of the IoT is actually a wide range of disparate systems doing their own thing, often with a supporting ‘app’ that only operates within and with the devices in its own ecosystem.

The problem is that the scope is virtually unlimited. Consumers are not sure about the benefits and much of it is the proverbial solution waiting for a problem. Every system has a unique interface offering a unique experience.

Compare this with other, now ubiquitous technologies such as the PC or the automobile. MS Office 2013 aside, when was the last time you sat down in front of a PC and needed a manual to use the OS or the mouse? You can get into any car, regardless of manufacturer or model and drive it. Not so with connected devices – I have a box full of instruction manuals and a data vault peppered with access codes and passwords! Granted, the iPhone introduced us to touch and gesture control – much of which has now been universally adopted and this, surely, is a great start to a unified interface to the IoT?

And on the subject of passwords, we should not forget that besides operating these connected devices, there is the issue of security and access to the very data that they produce.

Reconnect with people

So what can be done? What will ensure that consumers understand and embrace the IoT, connected devices and wearable technology?

At Kinneir Dufort we always apply a user-centric approach to our designs, regardless of the design challenge. It could be wearable technology, it could be a web application but at the heart is the user. From large multinationals to start-ups and individual entrepreneurs, the focus needs to be about delivering tangible, real world benefits in an accessible way.

Consider nappies for a moment. A wearable ‘entrepreneur’ is convinced that by embedding a sensor that alerts a parent to a wet nappy, they have a winning product. Having spent lots of time and effort developing a prototype there are two problems. Firstly, nappy manufacturers are not interested. They have already developed a simple colour change indicator for a tiny fraction of the cost and besides, their nappies can soak up liquid very effectively. Secondly, the consumer groups are also not interested in the cost premium – mum and dad can tell when the baby needs changing just by junior’s cries.

Think Big.

The problem is that there is no real benefit here. If, however, the wearable could sense even one diagnostic marker in the urine and alert the parent to, say, kidney infection - then the whole landscape changes. And what if that diagnostic information could be automatically sent to a GP’s surgery? This is where the handling of all this data, from all these devices becomes the focus. There is already so much data out there – big data that could be used in far more beneficial ways than just targeted advertising.

IBM has been looking at and developing platforms to enable the aggregation and access to data from the IoT for years. We have Quarks, for example, an open source development tool that’s all about accessing data streams from the IoT, integrating it with data at rest and then being able to analyse and present it – a convergence of data analytics and the IoT.

Kinneir Dufort often works in medical device development – a great opportunity for wearable technology. But as eluded to earlier, the data backbone to allow the aggregation, analysis and availability of an enormous amount of patient data from a sea of wearable or point-of-care devices is still in its infancy. IBM’s Watson Health aims to bring this data together - and even aggregate it with that from research - and then applying cognitive and analytic technologies. The aim is to filter out the noise and allow our businesses to understand where the important stuff lies.

Think beyond the device.

IBM is just one example but my point is that we need to think beyond the boundary of the device, wearable or otherwise, and into data collection, data security, analytical services and presentation platforms and toolsets. In a nutshell, the way the consumer perceives and interacts with the IoT.

It was interesting for me to listen to some conversations around the Amazon Dash button. Although generally perceived as something unique that at least had a function, our ‘consumers’ had many questions: what if I have a cupboard full of products – is there a button for each one? How do I know if the product has actually been ordered? What stops my child pressing all the buttons? Are my orders aggregated or am I damaging the environment with multiple small orders? What if the internet connection is down when I press the button? For me, this just demonstrates the real world considerations of consumers when faced with a new IoT device. At least it’s not a fitness band.

Let’s make life better.

So my challenge to the IoT and wearable technology industry is this: Let’s not keep producing ‘me too’ products. Let’s do what engineers do best and concentrate on solving real problems that benefit mankind. Solutions that make life easier, safer and less stressful.

I’m fortunate to work within one of the most integrated, diverse and creative environments I have come across in my career. The teams I work with cover innovation and user research, UX design, mechanical engineering, packaging, brand, prototyping and technology and every one brings a unique perspective. But every one, without exception, has the user at the centre of what they do and that’s the only way we can create real benefit.

The IoT is a child. Let’s ensure we address the challenges that will allow it to grow and survive. Let’s make using it as easy as driving a car… preferably one with a fuel cell. 

Paul Jennings, Head of Technology.