Internet of Things? Internet of Stories!

The last decade or so, the Internet of Things was supposed to revolutionise how we work, play and live. From suitcases with voice recognition to e-fridges, our daily lives would be spectacularly morphed into a futuristic dream where we interact with things that then do what we want them to do.

Except, it hasn't happened yet. Why?

It's certainly not down to technicalities. Processing power is basically free these days. And connectivity to the cloud helps getting more data processed even in fairly basic toys. So what's missing?

The problem is that, already with the very term Internet of Things, we focus too much on the Thing. That's fun for everybody working in the industry, but nobody else really cares. A smart watch? If I have to go through several screens or, worse, visit this Internet thingie to find out what it needs to tell me, you can kindly keep it, thank you!

To make the Internet of Things successful, we should stop the revolution and start an evolution.

That doesn't mean I'm not a believer in the Internet of Things. On the contrary. Recently, a number of people have stood up and identified individual aspects of what is missing. By adding these up, I construct a very different approach how to make the Internet of Things work for everybody, not just for us techies.


Does your smart fridge have a cute magnetic dog like this? I didn't think so!

Take the smart fridge, for example. The smart fridge has been explained over and over again ad nauseam. Yet, the few attempts at making such a product have been very "light", to say the least. Why? It's because people working in IoT build the vision of a smart fridge based on what is technically possible: RFID, sensors, e-payment, and so on. But the story doesn't work in practice.

Take a look at what your fridge contains: your regular meat and veg, some leftovers of yesterday's Indian curry take-away, a few bottles of champagne for the baby shower, a large bottle of Coke, and so on. How is the fridge going to know what you are doing? "Oh, I see you're taking the Coke out of the fridge. Let's order a new one! Oops, you put the bottle back in. Maybe you just wanted a glass. Should I cancel the order?" Zero user interface is a very nice idea, but by itself, it isn't enough. In the case of the smart fridge, technology distracts us. We're staring at the fridge as a connected Thing and we forget how we usually fill our fridge.

Instead of looking at the Thing, the technology, we should therefore use the current behaviour as the starting point. Doing that, we see that our shopping experience is a story that evolved over time. My bet is that the next step is another evolution, not a revolution.

Look at how people shop and make your smart fridge as similar as possible, but with clear benefits. People will then understand how your product helps them.

Fifty years ago, people went to the shop, grabbed what they needed and went to the cashier. The cashier looked at the prices, typed them into a calculator and charged you the total amount.

Twenty years ago, the same thing happened, but the cashier scanned your products instead of typing in the price. Behind the scene, this improved logistics as the scanner could take the product out of stock automatically. But for Joe Public, the shopping experience was nearly the same.

Ten years ago, you grabbed your own scanner and scanned everything yourself. The cashier was still there to take your money. Five years ago, the cashier was replaced by a screen that helped you to pay without the intervention of a human.

Yes, I’d like to scan that at home from now on, please.

One way to make the smart fridge easy to digest, is to build in a scanner. When you take a product out of the fridge and you realise you're running out, you just scan it. You're doing the same thing as in the shop, but at home. When you arrive in the shop, your shopping list already shows everything you scanned at home. Just grab everything else you need, pay, and pick up your home scanned goods. The advantages for the shopper are clear. Not only do you save time because a large part of your goods have already been se taside. You can now also scan products exactly at the moment when you realise you're running out of them. That means you won't forget them when you're in the shop.


At the SSIS2015 conference, Cees Link from GreenPeak referred to an example in the healthcare sector. He asked his mother, a charming elderly lady, to wear a fitness band. The result? The poor lady stopped exercising because she was convinced she would stay fit by wearing the fitness band. The Thing didn't match the story she was used to.

Stories also help in making new technology comprehensible.

Instead, Link proposed to introduce the fitness band by using a familiar story. His mother knows what a doctor is. Her doctor tells her to keep active because it's good to stay fit. Nowadays, personal fitness coaches have taken over from doctors, but the story remains the same. So you tell your mother that you have this really good automatic fitness coach who can tell her whether she has been active enough. But to know this, she should wear this fitness band. The story is still just a small evolution of what she already knows. There are then several possible scenarios on how to use the data (a human coach translates the info to human language, a website translates it to human language, a beep indicates you're good for the day, …). The main point is to translate the Thing into a recognisable scenario.

Here, mom, use this!

As the world of Things changes, so do the people. By the time we are old, most elderly will be used to interacting with technology to get things done. And so our IoT stories can become more complex. Newer generations are used to having a connected phone that combines their own information with data offerings from the manufacturer as well as third parties, most prominently social media. The challenge stays the same: how do we translate a technical offering into an understandable story? How does our Thing improve on the habitual behaviour of our customers? How do they benefit?

Increasing data complexity offers challenges, but great opportunities as well. For example, Sentiance builds up a context of a situation that a person can relate to. If you know somebody always listens to music when leaving the office, you can open the Last.fm app on a workday at the time he usually goes home. When he checks Facebook just before he leaves the office, you can present him with ads from MediaMarkt or specific band when they release a new album. Or you can inform him when a friend buys tickets to a concert that he'd love, too. By gathering data and using it to improve on stories that customers recognise, you can win them over. In that sense, it's more an Internet of Stories than an Internet of Things.