Looking Critically at Internet of Things (IoT)

I first heard the term “Internet of Things” about three years ago. One of our interns at the startup I was then working at gave a presentation with the title, “The Internet of Things.” How beautiful — he’s a poet, I said to myself, thinking he’d made the term up.

Little did I know that he was touching on a technology trend that has been gathering momentum for sometime.

The term “Internet of Things” — or “IoT” — has gathered steam in the last several years. Originally coined by Kevin Ashton in 1999 at a presentation given to Proctor & Gamble (Steenson, 101), the term has come to be synonymous with the future of technology and the web. However, in her article, Architecture Machines and the Internet of Things, Steenson argues that even before Ashton coined this term, the groundwork for the convergence of the computational and built environments were being laid.

The potential and opportunity of IoT lies in the question:

What if any THING could be a transmitter, receiver, or processor connected to a larger system?

We’re already seeing more sensors being embedded into our everyday experiences — particularly in around smart homes, fitness and exercise, smart grids, healthcare services, and more. New opportunities are opened up with this extension of computing into everyday non-screen objects. Buildings can be more customized and therefore efficiently managed, as well as managed from afar. Exercise and fitness buffs can incorporate sensors into their workout that report detailed biometric statistics for their workout in more intimate and non-intrusive ways.

My hypothesis is that what’s enabling the proposed advent of IoT is both technical — i.e. the technology exists in a practically implementable way — and cultural — we’re at the point where there are enough people excited and ready to adopt and accept this type of technologically connected future and/or there are enough people innovating towards that future.

As an interaction designer, there are several concerns that come to mind when designing for the Internet of Things. Here, I’ll attempt to highlight a few key concerns and describe why they are important for designers to think about them.

1. Design being used as an intermediary and excuse to good old fashioned human interaction.

One of the things we need to think about fundamentally is when the technology is used in a way that doesn’t devalue human interaction and/or the human experience. There’s this notion that we can use connected devices to monitor and thereby change behavior. For instance, in one startup idea, someone was seeking to keep an elderly person healthy by having everyday devices such as spoons and forks notify them when they were exhibiting a “bad” behavior such as eating foods with too much saturated fats. Or what about the rise of digital pet sitters such as Clever Pet?

One of the great promises of technology is its reach across space. However, these types of innovations take advantage of that aspect but also take the real connection out of the interaction and substitute for it with a device. When replacing the human interaction with the device, a) how do we change behaviors, and b) what kind of persons or creatures are we creating on the other side of that device. As designers, I believe we should always be asking ourselves how do we design a world with meaningful human interactions.

2. Data Privacy and Security

Another concern about connected devices is information and privacy. This article describes some interesting proposals for IoT in the governmental sectors of education, public safety, and water conservation. As they mentioned and as others have, the issue with data privacy and security — especially with public services — is going to be a big concern going forward. How do we protect the privacy of people who use connected devices?

3. More Connected = Higher Risk

The other concern with IoT is the risk of building it into existing infrastructures. Going back to Steenson’s argument of the convergence in built and digital environments, there is higher risk when you build the connectivity into the built environment and that system fails. For instance, as we layer more features into devices that live on the web, we become more dependent on the existing infrastructure of the internet. What if the internet were to go down? There’s a fine line to walk in terms of relying on devices.