Last week I gave a talk to a collection of health professionals and social care providers, to give them some background to the Internet of Things and its possibilities. It was a prelude to group discussions to try to identify some challenges that they face, which the IoT might be able to help address.
There's a follow-up event where we'll be bringing the participants of the first roundtable together with some IoT practitioners, designers and developers, to dig into the challenges and sketch out some possible solutions. Get in touch if you'd like to come along to that.
Here are the slides and notes from my talk - as ever, the notes are what I intended to say rather than a transcription of what eventually came out of my mouth...
Good afternoon. Thanks to Nicola and Phil for asking me to speak today.
I've brought Things! I always think it's nice to have things to get hold of and see in the real world rather than just slides.
I do have some slides too though. Sorry about that.
Lots of people, when talking about the Internet of Things, will throw out slides like this, which blathers on about how many billion devices such-and-such an analyst firm claims will be connected to the Internet by 2020, or 2050, or whenever...
Or they'll throw buzzwords around to try to sound important, or show you sleek visions of the future like this piece of design fiction...
The problem with those videos is that they show some impossible world that's completely disconnected from what real life would be like.
People's homes aren't full of just the latest gadgets. When did you last change your washing machine? Do you have an old lamp somewhere? Would large expanses of flat surfaces survive long enough to be used as computer interfaces or would they, like mine, just collect today's post, or a pile of washing, or...
Such a vision also won't survive contact with actual users. I don't know if the manufacturers of these halloween lights made polished product videos, but if they did, they won't show them being used like this...
I'm hopefully not going to use lots of buzzwords (although I can't guarantee it. Please call me on it if I do, it's not intentional). I'm more interested in the messy realities of how we can use this new tech to help solve problems and make people's lives better.
While there are an ever growing number of IoT solutions (and I'll touch on some of them here), it's still early days in the development of this space. There's lots of scope for experimentation and exploring new possibilities, so I think it's useful to look at how the Internet of Things differs from just digital.
One big difference is what it can find out about the real world. There are all manner of sensors to detect environmental conditions, movement and - as you can see in this collection of health sensors from Libelium - a wide range of biometric signs.
And if you can't measure things directly, you can often find a proxy measurement instead.
This is the Glowcap, which is a smart pill bottle. It monitors whenever the lid is opened, and uses that to infer when the pill has been taken. If you forget to take your medicine the cap of the bottle will glow to remind you, and if you still forget it can text you a reminder or escalate the message up to a family member or your doctor.
You can also start to blend existing digital infrastructure with new capabilities. The service MapMe.At (developed here in Liverpool) lets you use your phone - via its GPS - to update others with where you are.
Other people - if you've given them permission - can then use the website to see where you are. If you give them a WhereDial (the device on the right) then they'll also have an ambient display of what you're up to, sat on their mantlepiece or desk.
Getting data from the digital realm and out into the physical one is the task of actuators. That's just a fancy name for lights, motors, and anything that can be controlled by a computer and cause action in the real world.
This is the Wemo, an Internet of Things product from Belkin. The thing on the left is an Internet-enabled plug socket, which means that you can turn whatever is plugged into it on or off when you get an email, or when someone buys something on your website, or anything else that your friendly web-developer can conjure up.
The item on the right is another, off-the-shelf, sensor. It detects motion and can then record that or trigger an action elsewhere.
This acting from afar is one of the other defining factors of the Internet of Things. Once you get the information into the digital domain, as we've seen with everything else the Internet has touched, it's easy to transport and remix.
Aside from the technical aspects of the Internet of Things, creating new devices gives us a chance to improve the industrial design of our things.
We should be designing items that we would want to wear, rather than items which advertise "I need help to live my life". There's also the opportunity to take advantage of the growing market in wearable technology to re-purpose items such as the Pebble smart watch shown on the right and use it to provide the same functionality as the fall alarm on the left.
The Pebble watch is still very much a gadget, but the Internet of Things allows us to imbue everyday objects with new behaviours or abilities without complicating the "interface".
The Good Night Lamp is a perfect example of this. The big lamp works just like any ordinary light, which everyone knows how touse. However, when it's operated it communicates its state to the little lamps, which are given to people you'd like to keep in touch with - anywhere in the world.
You don't have to learn any new functionality to gain the benefit, it's a technology product that's not about the technology.
Thinking about the design of objects when preparing this talk also led me to the aspect of personalisation. As we can see with the plethora of mobile phone covers, there's a strong desire to make our objects our own.
This is somewhere that smaller scale manufacture has an advantage, as it's easier - with new digital fabrication equipment such as laser-cutters and 3D printers - to provide personalisation as an option.
One slightly random thought that occurred to me too, is whether the sort of personalisation shown here - this is from a workshop we ran on Tuesday where kids could build their own robot (including building the computer) - is a way to help introduce technology in a friendlier manner. Is a robot-helper more acceptable if it's something that your grand-daughter built to help you?
As I alluded to in the previous slide, given that we had 9 and 10 year-olds building their own circuits the other day, prototyping this stuff is pretty accessible. And not excessively expensive either.
Even if you're just going to use it to have a better discussion with a design firm or manufacturer, a prototype will enable you to learn more about how the thing should work, and inform a much better specification.
There are also alternatives to the more traditional methods of funding. Not something I have time to cover in detail, but tools such as Kickstarter allow you to tap into a wider market to help bring the ideas to reality.
If there's a market for your idea, crowd-funding can help you tap into that to find enough people to make it viable, as well as providing a source of early enthusiasts to inform the design.