Prototyping the Internet of Things

An inside look at how building physical prototypes allows us to quickly move from concept to reality.

Much already has been written about product and service design, especially when it comes to showcasing finished products and services. Often, though, the iterative, behind-the-scenes process that leads to the creation of something new and innovative gets less attention. But it’s in this prototyping phase where insights are gained and challenges can sometimes turn into unexpected opportunities.

At Nurun, we are deeply committed to research and development, and rapid prototyping is central to our human-centered design process. By diving into a design challenge and prototyping from the beginning, we are able to quickly discover what works (and what doesn’t work), and move toward uncovering solutions that address real, human needs.

As a global design and technology consultancy, we believe that the connected objects that comprise the Internet of Things are quickly becoming key components within digital ecosystems. As we work to bring together human, business, and technological insights to create high-value digital products and services, we foresee the integration of the Internet of Things as an important innovation-driver for our client partners.

A prototype of a connected tray that Nurun created for a luxury watch brand allowed sales staff to project product details and specifications onto a tablet, simply by placing a watch on the tray. The underside of the connected tray shows the simplicity of the electronics that powered it.

Last year, we designed and built a connected tray for a luxury watch brand that allowed sales staff at the brand’s boutiques to project product details and other specifications onto a tablet, simply by placing a watch on the tray.

This smart tray was tested at boutiques in selected markets, giving us the opportunity to experiment with the application of a connected object in a real-world setting, and giving the luxury watch brand a chance to test an innovative digital tactic—as well as delight and surprise its customers.

The technology behind the connected tray was relatively simple. Built on Arduino, an open-source electronics prototyping platform, the minimal components were embedded in the underside of the connected tray and could easily be disguised beneath a piece of fabric. While the prototype of the connected tray wasn’t ultimately implemented across all boutiques, learnings from the experiment opened up further opportunities to conceive and test future prototypes.

TinkerKit is an Arduino-compatible, plug-and-play electronics kit that allows hobbyists and professionals alike to quickly and easily build interactive projects, including connected objects.

In June, Nurun will sponsor a daylong, invitation-only workshop, Learn. Build. Innovate. Prototyping the Internet of Things, at Arduino’s headquarters in Torino, Italy. David Bliss, who serves as Executive Director of Technical R&D at our San Francisco office, will be one of the workshop facilitators and presenters. We recently caught up with Dave to talk about the value of prototyping, to find out what it’s like to work with the Arduino platform, and to get a sneak peak at the workshop project.

@nurun: For people who might not be familiar with Arduino, can you talk a bit about what it is?

@davidbliss: Arduino is a Torino, Italy-based company that created an open-source electronics prototyping platform that’s based on flexible and easy-to-use hardware and software. It started a few years ago with the Arduino Uno, which is a very simple but robust electronics prototyping platform that allows users to connect switches and different electronic components, and easily write software programs that can be downloaded to Uno’s micro-controller. From there, Uno can run based on what it has been programmed to do.

@nurun: Was the Arduino platform developed for hobbyists to play with or for professionals to create prototypes?

@davidbliss: I think it’s for both. Arduino was originally conceived by a professor at an art and design college as a way for his students to incorporate electronics into their art and design work. Since then, Arduino projects have become very popular in the Maker Movement, with lots of hobbyists playing with electronic kits to create everything from gaming extensions to home automation tools. For all of its simplicity and ease-of-use, though, Arduino has many applications in the workplace. Professionally, it’s useful for moving quickly and rapidly iterating through prototypes.

Arduino Yún combines the conventional Arduino processor with a Linux processor and wifi radio on the same board. This combination makes it much simpler to build connected devices.

@nurun: How does the prototyping process work for you? Are you developing software and working on hardware concurrently or separately?

@davidbliss: It’s a modular process. For the current prototype that I’m developing, I started working on the software last week, and spent a few days working on connectivity to the Internet. Then earlier this week, I started getting the hardware in place. I soldered the hardware to the Arduino and built a modified object with all of the electronics. Once that was all together, it’s been a matter of refining the software I wrote and figuring out the behaviors of the physical object. Like any microprocessor, the Arduino runs on software, and the Arduino folks have created a simple development environment that works very well with their hardware. So, you install the IDE (Integrated Development Environment) on your computer, write software for it, then connect the Arduino micro-controller to the computer via USB. Once connected, the software automatically loads on the Arduino, and the micro-controller and the computer can talk to each other. If all you want to do is get input from a button or a temperature sensor or any other sensor that’s connected to the Arduino, it’s an easy way to run.

@nurun: How do you untether the Arduino from your computer? Or can you?

@davidbliss: If you disconnect the Arduino from your computer and power it with a separate power source, it can run on its own. Thus, you can have an application that’s running by itself, pulling in sensor data from all sorts of different inputs, and actuating different things, making different actions occur, depending on what’s been programmed.

Arduino makes prototyping electronic projects relatively fast and easy.

@nurun: It seems like a leap to go from working on an electronics board to prototyping connected objects or Internet of Things. How does Arduino help to make that leap?

@davidbliss: When Arduino Uno first came out, it had support for digital (as well as analog) inputs and outputs, but Internet connectivity was only possible when connected to a computer. My guess is that Uno was created before Arduino was thinking about the Internet of Things. Many projects in the early days simply gave applications running on a computer access to physical world inputs and outputs. When an Internet connection was needed, it usually was provided by the computer. Over time, as the Internet of Things became more popular, there was greater demand for stand-alone Arduino applications to be directly connected to the Internet. Shields (a.k.a., electronics boards) were created that could communicate directly to the Internet, through wifi or through other radio technology. Once connected objects became available, people started using Arduino for the Internet of Things. Today, the platform is much more ready for Internet connectivity, and the Arduino Yún features connectivity and a Linux-based processor so you can create more complex connected objects.

Simple, everyday objects, such as a modified IKEA lamp, can become connected objects with the help of Arduino.

@nurun: How does the Yún pull data from the Internet?

@davidbliss: In addition to the Arduino processor, the Yún board includes a wifi radio and a Linux-based processor. The Linux processor manages all the connectivity, and it and the Arduino processor can talk to each other. If the software was written to retrieve data online, it would tell the Linux processor that you want some data off of the Internet, the processor would grab it, and hand it back to you. This means you can do a lot more, and easily build much larger projects than you could before.

@nurun: You’ll be facilitating and presenting at a Nurun/Arduino prototyping workshop in Torino in June. Can you tell us about the prototype project that you’ll be working on with workshop participants?

@davidbliss: The prototype idea is to create a connected lamp. We’re developing the software that runs the lamp as well as developing an API on the server side that will feed data to the lamp. The basic idea is that the lamp would be connected to data, like traffic information. The owner of the lamp could go online and put start and stop destinations, then the API would determine whether or not the requestor can expect normal commute times or expect delays due to traffic conditions. We send information back and forth between the Internet and the lamp, and the lamp responds accordingly, displaying an amber alert if there’s a 20 percent longer than normal commute time and a red alert if the commute time is 30 percent longer than normal (or shades in between).

The prototype of a connected lamp lets users know if traffic conditions are good based on the color of light that’s emitted from the lamp. A green light means traffic conditions are normal.

@nurun: It sounds like a simple but ingenious idea.

@davidbliss: The current prototype I’m working on is based on a modified lamp from IKEA. There’s an Arduino inside and a set of LED lights that support RGB, plus a simple button on the back. If you tap the button once, it’ll tell you if the expected commute time is good (green). If the connected lamp pings the server and finds that it’s a longer than expected commute time, the light comes on constantly with some shade between amber and red to let the user know that it’s probably a good idea to leave a bit earlier than usual. There’s also a built-in color-cycling function that goes into an ambient light animation. The rainbow effect is a placeholder for the prototype.

By prototyping a physical object—versus working on a storyboard—testers are better able to observe and finetune the product lifecycle and more fully explore the experience.

@nurun: What is the value of rapid prototyping?

@davidbliss: By prototyping an object like this, we can observe the interactions in a natural environment and finetune the controls and responses, such as the duration of the color-light animations. Working on the physical object (instead of working with video or storyboards or whatever else we might have at our disposal) lets us take the entire service lifecycle of the product into consideration, from website to backend architecture to physical hardware, and allows us to more fully explore that experience.

Nurun’s “Learn. Build. Innovate. Prototyping the Internet of Things” workshop will be held at Officine Arduino, in Torino, Italy, on Thursday, June 12, 2014.

In his role as Executive Director of Technical R&D at Nurun in San Francisco, David Bliss is responsible for examining emerging technologies and identifying opportunities to leverage those technologies in client work. A professionally trained architect, David switched career paths and went on to become a Founder and Technical Director of two successful digital design agencies. He has extensive experience with both design and software development.

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