Whilst generally good for conversations, the 140-character limit in Twitter can make it hard to get across more nuanced ideas and thoughts. A recent discussion about the Internet of Things demonstrates that nicely. Thankfully we have blogs to hold such longer discourse, and this blog post should let me expand upon what wouldn't fit into those tweets.
The debate was sparked by a comment from Nat Torkington about the new sensor startup Greengoose, and how they seem part of a trend of IoT technology looking for an application.
Laura quite rightly pointed out that they are (on the verge of) shipping actual devices and that's a massive achievement (something she knows only too well, having pulled it off herself in the past), but my initial (re-)tweet wasn't really about Greengoose at all. I was echoing the sentiment that we should be tackling more worthy and important challenges.
Having a brief look at the examples on the Greengoose website doesn't reassure me. They feel like the gamification of walking the dog, and brushing your teeth. And gamification seems to be a way of wrapping up coercion and control in a veneer of fun, and not something we should be aspiring to - good tech should be about empowering people.
Bruce Sterling's Last Viridian Note provides a useful metric for testing product and technology ideas - he suggests we divide all of our "things" into four major categories:
- Beautiful things.
- Emotionally important things.
- Tools, devices, and appliances that efficiently perform a useful function.
- Everything else.
"Everything else" should not be in your immediate environment, sucking up your energy and reducing your opportunities. It should become a fond memory, or become reduced to data.
Bruce is talking about possessions, so from the consumer's perspective, but it follows that as manufacturers we shouldn't be aiming to build things that will fall into the fourth category.
Add to that Tim O'Reilly's exhortation to work on stuff that matters and you won't be far off covering the worthy side.
The word worthy seems to suffer from something of an image problem. It's often used to imply that things are dull and utilitarian, but I don't believe that has to be the case. In fact, in working on stuff that matters we need to find ways to make worthy ideas interesting and fun.
So there's definitely room for fun in the Internet of Things. As Martin points out in his recent blog post on this discussion, in my recent talk I called for more delight and fun in our IoT devices. I don't think it's an either-or choice - BERG's Little Printer shows that perfectly: the industrial design and printed-face-as-idle-screen doesn't detract from its functionality at all, but makes it more engaging and enjoyable.
And true, the Little Printer isn't answering any of the big challenges of the day, yet it does meet the first criterion of being empowering rather than controlling.
Trying to do work that is meaningful and swings for the big challenges is something we grapple with on a daily basis here at MCQN.
Our first experiments into what became the Internet of Things were looking at energy monitoring, and yet as Russell Davies summed up perfectly in his talk at dConstruct, it's Bubblino - something from the fun side, conceived initially as a way to show people the possibilities, and accessibility, of the technology that captured people's interest
"Adrian [...] is building brilliant and important things, but he'll never build anything better than [Bubblino]"
We're continuing to pick away at the energy issues, and I hope we find something that brings something new to the table - there are plenty of others pushing ahead with the simple energy monitor.
In the meantime we'll also experiment with things that are in the more fun or utilitarian end of the spectrum. They'll help us find out how to make things in the real world; how to climb the scale to volume production; and what works and what doesn't with how the Internet of Things interfaces to real people. And along the way we'll try to do so in ways that answer how we'll make gadgets and tech in a sustainable and worthwhile manner - that way we'll help nudge even the Farmville of Things in a better direction.