Storytelling for the Internet of Things

John du Pre Gauntt
Apr 27, 2015 · 13 min read

[Edited transcript of a presentation delivered April 1, 2015 in San Francisco at MarTech 2015]

About a decade ago, I took my son Alex to the Bronx Zoo for an annual Halloween event called “Boo at the Zoo”. Boo at the Zoo is awesome because you dress in costume, get your face painted, and go see the animals. Alex was into vampires at the time. I must’ve been inspired by Phantom of the Opera.

Properly attired, we headed straight for the Monkey House because we both loved the Curious George books. The Monkey House is one of the oldest buildings at the Bronx Zoo, having opened around 1901. It exhibited all of the Zoo’s old world and new world monkeys in a single building. Generations of New Yorkers have passed through its humid hall to see Macaques, Gibbons and the spectacular Mandrills.

If it’s not feeding time, monkeys are typically blasé about human visitors. However, we walked into the Monkey House with our faces painted. Being social primates who depend heavily on facial recognition, the monkeys didn’t know what to make of us. Some monkeys stopped and stared. Others scampered up vines to look down at us from a safe distance. A trio of capuchin monkeys bum rushed the glass where they made exaggerated eyelid displays and showed their teeth. The longer we stayed, the more agitated the monkeys became. Finally, the zoo keeper asked us to leave because the animals were literally about to go ape shit.

Monkeys aren’t the only primates who communicate a lot of social meaning with their faces. We paint our faces to communicate identity and intent to other human beings. The scientist Edward O Wilson said, “The perfecting of quick and expert reading of others has been paramount in the evolution of human social behavior.”

Being so invested in visual communication with our faces, it’s natural that we also adorn our faces with technology. From aiding weak eyesight to directly broadcasting images to our eyeballs, there have been innumerable attempts to graft technology onto our faces to experience life and express ourselves in new ways.

Most recently, some of the sharpest minds in Silicon Valley bet big that people wanted to wear a computer on their face. Google Glass entered the market with a stellar brand, massive backing, and unmatched awareness. But it failed. Why?

To be sure, Google Glass had functional issues. But people have adopted early stage technology many times before. I believe Glass’s main failure resulted from pairing immature technology with equally immature storytelling. Glass launched as an exclusive luxury good but couldn’t communicate how other people perceived you when you wore it. In such a vacuum, it wasn’t surprising that people soon created their own stories.

I don’t want to bash Google. I do want to illustrate, however, that even the most cutting edge organizations can misread the interplay of story and code. And I’m not talking about just the entertainment or descriptive value of stories, but their far more important job for assigning value and meaning to what we experience.

We experience our environment and what’s in it through the physical senses. But we perceive our environment and what’s good or bad about it through story. Perception: in Samuel Coleridge’s phrase, “the outward beholding”--- is our way of pre-configuring and thus, intuiting what we experience. Basically, it is how we look things over and size things up.

Hence, the value of storytelling isn’t just about more efficient communication of information. It’s more about how we determine what’s significant and valuable to us. I want to show two examples where story changed the perception of value in physical objects.

The first project was called Significant Objects by Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker. The project asked whether a great story could transform a worthless trinket into a significant object? Glenn and Walker had a talented, creative writer compose a story to pair with a thrift store item they bought for an average price of $1.25. Then, the object was uploaded to eBay.

Great care was taken not to hoax eBay customers so the author’s byline appeared with the story. In Glenn and Walker’s experiment, people were fully aware that they were paying for the story more than the object for sale but they didn’t mind. Equally important, the challenge of infusing significance into knick-knacks inspired some amazing stories. When the experiment first ran, Glenn and Walker sold about $130 of thrift store inventory for $3600, all of which went back to the contributing writers or a selected charity.

Repeated experiments have supported the basic theory of Significant Objects, which is that people are wired to wrap narrative around objects to contain memory, communicate value and symbolize personal identity. That’s why a widow might keep her late husband’s razor or a sports fan treasures a signed jersey from a famous athlete.

Another project by Foster Huntington asked a simple yet profound question: “If your house was burning and you only had one suitcase, what would you take with you?” According to Huntington, it’s a conflict between what’s practical, valuable and sentimental — — a personality test condensed into one question.

Huntington invited people to upload what they would take in a suitcase if the house was burning. Entries came from around the world and were distributed across age, gender, education and income. Here are suitcases from Belgium where 40 years separated the two people.

One person from Australia actually experienced losing everything she ever had in a fire. Any guess out there about the first thing she bought for her new home? Yep, a teddy bear…

Let’s imagine running these experiments in 2025, just a decade from now. How will these collections change? What new objects will people value? Will there be objects that not only symbolize memories, but can actually reproduce living, experiential memories? It’s not that far fetched.

The Internet of Things is a new killer environment for investing identity and story into objects and locations. By killer environment, I mean that IoT enables us to encode unique, personal meaning onto objects, living things and locations. Moreover, these meanings evolve as we integrate these connected objects into our lives. I’m not going to dwell on the IoT technology architecture as it is well documented. Suffice to say that the IoT stack enables objects to sense, take action, remember and learn by experience.

For the most part, the popular press tells the story of the Internet of Things from the viewpoint of “things”. It’s whatever new wacky connected contraptions come out of CES or SXSW. Certainly, the connected cars, homes, pets, babies and plants help anchor an article about a hot start-up or an industrial giant re-inventing itself.

However, I consider these IoT products to be million dollar cool because they’re using IoT as a microscope. It’s where networks add value to a product. Connect the car to a network and now it can diagnose itself and communicate back to a manufacturer. Or it can become a new channel for cross selling or upselling the customer. Regardless of the use case, the value proposition of IoT as a microscope focuses on the object, which is the center of its own universe — — much like Google Glass

But there are other ways to look at IoT that I believe can be billion dollar cool. That’s where you use IoT as a telescope. It’s where connected products add value to networks. The action lies in the patterns that emerge when an object interacts with other objects, other locations and other people. When you use IoT as a telescope, you start realizing that these objects are more than just connected. They’re becoming social.

According to Peter Semmelhack, social machines enable a world in which social networks include not just other people, but Internet-connected objects, locations and contraptions of all kinds. Social machines mean more than your next Twitter follower is your refrigerator or your new Facebook friend is your brother’s Ford Mustang.

Social machines are catalysts for new forms of human networking.

In Switzerland, a company called Qipp attaches a unique digital identity to any object, whether it has sensors or not. Qipp’s founder, Stefan Zanetti, calls this digital ID a product passport. The object can communicate and update its status, join groups of other objects, and engage in many activities we usually associate with people.

The physical ID tag can be a barcode, a QR code, NFC, Bluetooth low energy, it matters not. The action is in the cloud. Once an object is fixed with a unique ID that can be captured and understood by a smartphone, you’ve effectively glued a digital communication channel onto a physical object. Brands have a new, direct point of interaction with the customer and their extended network. But it’s not a website. It’s the product itself.

Europeans call these things caravans. This is from a company based in the Benelux region that will launch a line of caravans that has socialization baked into the product design from the start. Sure, you can schedule maintenance and many other product specific activities associated with personal ownership.

But the company wanted to add value to the full ownership experience, which is ultimately about finding the cool places to go and connecting with other people who are into the caravan lifestyle. In essence, Qipp’s content design focused on enabling people to socialize around the object more than just operating the object itself. Thus, the caravan is simultaneously a physical product, a media distribution node and a point on a social graph all wrapped together.

Closer to home, this past autumn 2014 at the University of Washington, a colleague and I worked with eight graduate students in the Dept. of Communication to prototype a social layer to sit on top of a healthcare wearable device. The device recorded vital signs such as temperature and pulse as well as physical events, up to and including a fall.

The model scenario consisted of an elderly patient (aged 75+) who wore the physical device, an adult child caregiver (aged 45+), and medical professionals. The research question pivoted around the possible “connections” where shared data communicated different meanings to the three audiences.

A connection might involve the communication between the patient and the caregiver, the patient and the medical professional, or the caregiver and the medical professional. Those connections between technology, data and content were analyzed to create contextually appropriate communication for each audience. An example might be a PC or mobile-based data visualization targeted at a medical professional. What information in what format does this professional need under what type of conditions to monitor and care for the patient? Likewise, the information content and flow to the patient might be expressed by a physical color change on a wearable piece of jewelry. The adult caregiver’s UX might focus around smartphone alerts about their parent’s current condition.

With that background, the research question pivoted on how do we develop different user experiences for different audiences who have different needs, but who are all socially connected, and who all draw from the same data?

So when I talk about billion dollar cool IoT plays, I’m talking about merged story and product design that engages different audiences across different contexts with socially relevant communication that is derived from a shared data source.

How will we get there? If we look around today, most of our best practice for telling and monetizing stories grew out of web publishing. That served us well for desktop and mobile Internet, but I’m betting that people aren’t looking to “log on” to a growing pile of connected objects to find yet more content.

More likely, storytelling for the Internet of Things will resemble a conversation more than a publication. A merged physical and digital UX will be contained and organized by alerts and notifications rather than contained and organized by pages, links and web addresses. These chunks of relevant content will be generated in no small way by a partnership between human storytellers working with sensor data and machine learning technologies.

Therefore, I believe the way we plan, create and distribute stories for IoT requires systems-oriented thinking more than screen-oriented thinking, and perceives content less like literature and more like software for social innovation.

For example, Facebook isn’t really a destination website anymore. It’s evolved into an ecosystem of profiles, tags, photos, videos, status updates, likes, comments, branded ads and a whole clutch of digital coinage. Facebook breaks user generated and professional content into packets and uses those packets to fuel the flagship application as well as WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger that people use for socializing.

I’m not saying we should copy Facebook’s federated philosophy wholesale for IoT. But it stands to reason that as objects become more social, their content and storytelling models will resemble social networking more than publishing.

Along with a social networking bias, it also defies logic that the Internet of Things will be 100% owner-operated. The lines between product and service, purchase and sponsorship have blurred for a long time. IoT will make these lines virtually indistinguishable. But we will still need to assign value and communicate it in an environment of social machines and packet-switched narratives.

We need to train a new generation of communication professionals to create and evolve native storytelling for IoT. Our research and commercial agendas will differ in the details but the core issues are clear. What suggestions for human behavior unlock the value of a connected product or service? What information does a person need right now and in what form to interact meaningfully with a connected product or service? Most of all, how do we prepare people to live in partnership with Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?

These are storytelling problems more than engineering problems.

On March 1, 2012 the Monkey House closed after 111 years. Rather than putting all of the monkeys in one place, the Bronx Zoo determined that exhibiting monkeys according to their natural habitat was more humane for them and more educational for us. Now, when you go to the Bronx Zoo, the monkeys are distributed across multiple habitats instead of being placed in one building.

We are primates too. We groom ourselves with stories for social cohesion. We share stories for the pleasure of being together. And we invest objects with stories to make them distinct and valuable.

Therefore, storytelling is infrastructure for the Internet of Things just as much as sensors, hubs, clouds and networks because people won’t integrate IoT into daily life without stories that create shared understanding. And if we surprise people with unexpected situations where they know objects are recording everything, but people don’t understand how it affects them and their social relationships, we shouldn’t be surprised that people become agitated.

But it doesn’t need to be that way. We can humanize the Internet of Things by investing talent and resources into building story-based systems in parallel with technology-based systems. We should do it not only because it’s the right thing to do. It’s also the smart thing to do.

This is Alex today at age 15. He will integrate connected objects into his life far deeper than almost everyone reading this. And the future child on his shoulders will grow up unable to conceive a world without objects that tell stories about themselves.

Today, with the Internet of Things we are setting some of the early defaults that they will have to live with. For example, NEC Corporation uses facial recognition to power its “V.I.P. identification” software for hotels and other businesses. Facebook already offers face-matching software, called “Tag Suggestions,”. These capabilities exist today but without a robust story base to communicate why we should consent to being monitored by them, I fear we could construct a Monkey House made of silicon.

Conversely, if we’re smart and brave enough to collaborate from the ground up to build robust, narrative systems that enable connected objects to explain where they fit in our world and why, I believe we can evolve more natural habitats for us and for the objects we accept into our lives.

Image Credits:

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  10. ) Qipp, used with permission
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  13. ) Author collection
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IoT Storytelling

Communication for The Internet of Things

IoT Storytelling

Communication for The Internet of Things

John du Pre Gauntt

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Storytelling for Augmented Environments. Very raw market. Very high stakes. That's why it can only get better.

IoT Storytelling

Communication for The Internet of Things