When Samsung CEO BK Yoon delivered the keynote speech at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, he pronounced a grandiose vision of the Internet of Things (IoT):
IOT technology is not about things. Instead, it is about people… Each of us will be at the center of our very own technology universe… We are bringing the physical and digital worlds together. This will revolutionize our lives. It will unlock infinite possibilities.
Yoon received criticism from several observers for promulgating his lofty vision while remaining vague on specifics, like how to ensure true data security and provide users with an intuitive, truly useful improvement over the way they currently do things. One of the examples he described of how exactly IoT will revolutionize the world is that a device can be built to alert users when their wine cellar runs low.
Clearly, something is amiss.
While attending the Design West tradeshow in 2013, I happen to pass the booth of a large, well-recognized company that had been operating in the electronics industry for many years. To my surprise, it had modified its standard event signage by adding a number of IoT buzzwords. That evening, I bumped into a friend who works for said company.
“So,” I ventured. “Powering the Internet of Things?” He threw me a wry expression.
“Don’t even start,” he began. “Ever since Google bought Nest, we’ve been getting all kinds of pressure from corporate to ‘define our IoT strategy’ lest we get left behind.”
Indeed, Google’s $3.2 billion acquisition of the Internet-connected thermostat company was a shot heard ’round the tech world. Wall Street suddenly began paying attention to IoT, and companies like my friend’s began receiving pointed inquiries as to whether they, too, had an IoT strategy.
That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of useful applications for connecting everyday objects to the Internet. At element14, we have seen some incredibly useful concepts come to life, ranging from a device that sends a message to your phone whenever someone approaches your front door, to a lawn monitoring device that alerts you when it’s time to cut the grass, to athletic uniforms that alert coaches when a player has received a strong impact and should be checked on.
These are examples of truly useful IoT, but they are also swimming against a tide of devices that bear the appellation of “smart” simply because someone slapped a Wi-Fi chip in them. Do you really need a refrigerator that connects to the Internet? Do you need to measure every footfall with Wi-Fi-enabled running shoes? Even Nest had difficulty in building a successor to its famous Wi-Fi-connected thermostat: Critics largely panned its Internet-connected smoke alarm as being of little practical value, and its subsequent recall and price cut suggests it may have been rushed to market without considering the actual needs of users. And then there’s Samsung’s IoT-based wine cellar alert system.
Meet the Internet of Silly Things.
You say you want a revolution?
The gold rush heralded by Google’s acquisition of Nest has created a flood of new Internet-connected products all promising to revolutionize the way we do things. But consumers might not need a revolution – they may, however, respond to products that actually make their lives easier.
Design engineers need to look beyond hardware when formulating IoT devices to make them truly useful. More than ever, they must put themselves in the user’s shoes and ask basic questions about whether the product in question actually serves any useful purpose.
Forget refrigerators with built-in LCD screens: why not design a fridge with an internal camera that can move on tracks and stream video to your phone? That way, you’d know whether or not to buy that carton of eggs when you’re at the grocery store. Or what about adding geolocation sensors to your car? Then it can tell you where it is if you can’t remember where you parked.
There are plenty of good ideas out there. It’s time to move beyond the Internet of Silly Things and build them.
Sagar Jethani is Head of Content at element14.