Becca Chacko
Aug 4, 2016 · 5 min read

At IDEO coLAB, we’re spending the summer exploring what happens when connected devices can transact with humans and with one another. We’ve brought together a network of innovation leaders, students, freelancers, corporate employees and experts to build prototypes of autonomous devices, distributed organizations and peer-to-peer networks for nine weeks. We’re asking ourselves: what happens when the internet of things meets blockchain?

Imagine a world where a Syrian citizen’s perspective or in-the-moment photo of an Aleppo bombing gets as much credence as professionally curated media. Imagine a world where satellite imagery helps predict the spread of Zika, where people access networks of strangers for expert advice, where we know before boarding a train which seat is available, and where it is.

We built that world last week. After six weeks creating new, enormous decentralized systems to explore the potential of blockchains and the internet of things, we decided to take a break and hack. From fifteen prompts that ranged from “create a new kind of sensor” to “build a low-cost self-scoring Scrabble set,” we built five prototypes under only one rule: the product should be technically functional and viable as a business in a week. The outcomes didn’t matter — the making and learning did. Lucky for us, the outcomes ended up pretty awesome.

Witness: Crowdsourcing News Images

Lisa Tacoronte, Jeronimo Van Schendel Erice, Jeff Marple, Robert Gaulin

As our news cycle shortens and smartphone cameras improve, we’re looking more and more to regular citizens to provide us with up to the minute photography of newsworthy events. The problem? It’s difficult for a news organization to legally reprint an individual’s photograph, because it’s hard to prove its legitimacy. If the media misattributes or mistakes an image, the consequences can range from a retraction to financial penalties — not a risk many are willing to take.

Enter Witness. News agencies can put out calls for images of events, individuals can upload photographs directly from their phones, and those photographers get compensated each time their image is used. With a system of smart contracts, micropayments and verified metadata, Witness democratizes photojournalism by providing a trusted platform through which regular people and their media organizations can transact.

Facts & Perspectives: Local Voices Spread Globally

Eric Chan, Bruno Olmedo, Richie Mendelsohn, Anand Upender

Emerging narratives in conflicts can be hard to sort through. Facts & Perspectives curates a crowdsourced timeline of an event or situation. With sections for context, curated via local activists and credible news agencies, and perspectives, written by on-the-ground local voices, F&P provides an overarching, live updating picture of situations ranging from the Turkish coup to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to gentrification in San Francisco’s Mission District.

The really cool part? F&P limits contributors to locals by geofencing the content that’s submitted and then upvoted. It’s a platform intended to amplify local voices, and provide an ear to the ground in places where it’s difficult to separate external opinions from the experiences of those living it.

Lumy: Data Streams from Satellites

Dan Lafever, Andrea Santichio, Reid Williams, Noa Kaplan, Courtney Chow

Tracking the number of cars in a retail parking lot can help us understand purchase trends. Identifying areas of standing water can better map mosquito-borne diseases. Using images to find leveled homes can help us decide where to deploy resources in a disaster. We know the uses for satellite imagery are boundless, and we’re getting closer to a world where satellite imagery refreshes every day. The only thing to solve? How to turn those still images into numbers we can track over time. Those data streams could be used by investment firms, corporations, governments and aid organizations to better price, optimize and deploy resources.

Lumy is a data solution for satellite imagery. It crowdsources non-experts to tag a set of images on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform. For a minimal cost, Lumy creates a set of training data used to train a machine learning algorithm, that can then run over thousands of satellite images, in order to track and stream… well, just about anything.

Inquire: Accessing Expert Networks

Adam Lukasik, Joe Bernitt, Phil Blaisdell, Rui Maximo, Blake Armstrong

A networked group of humans can sometimes form the best sensor there is. Move to a city and need to know a good place to eat? Looking for the best dermatologist? Inquire connects information seekers to experts through short phone calls. Experts sign up and log on when they want to provide responses to questions, and they’re compensated via micropayments for their time. By tracking and transcribing the conversations, Inquire uses machine learning to create heuristics — meaning automation isn’t too far off.

Another cool feature? Experts are paid for their time and then receive “tips” from a community pool based on their consolidated rating, turning five star ratings into direct compensation.

Tush: Sensors in Seats

Shuya Gong, Rob Sieg, Ashley Kim, Joel Kwartler

Ever show up to a sold-out game only to be frustrated by the rows of empty seats in front of you? Stand in the front train car, wondering if any seats are available in the back?

Tush is a new kind of sensor. Using capacitative sensing, Tush can figure out if humans are in chairs. Unlike traditional pressure sensors, Tush can distinguish between bags, books or other items and people. Tush sensors can be built into seat fabrics, and can be deployed at scale for minimal cost into arenas, restaurants, offices or trains. Tush is ready to create the perfect economy of seats — and butts.

At IDEO coLAB, we work at lightning speed. Even so, five functional products in a week is a lot, and we ended the week exhausted. But we also left excited. When we talk less and build more, we get energized for the future. We’re diving back into our big system solutions this week renewed, refreshed, and with some great new prototypes under our belts.

Interested? Get in touch via email or Twitter (@ideocolab)


A collaborative network focused on accelerating the research and development of emerging technologies.

Thanks to IDEO CoLab

Becca Chacko

Written by

Venture Designer @ IDEO CoLab. Finding big problems and dreaming big ideas.


A collaborative network focused on accelerating the research and development of emerging technologies.

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