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Former Member

My last post discussed an information visualization concept in the realm of Big Data. This post concerns another emerging area that intrigues me (and several of you, I’m sure!), the Internet of Things (IoT). I’ve had the opportunity to work on an IoT-related project in recent times, and here are some of my learnings from that experience.

What the Internet of Things is Not

IoT recently replaced Big Data in Gartner’s latest Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, and according to them it is “becoming a vibrant part of our customers’ and our partners’ business and IT landscape”. While this makes IoT even “buzzier” than ever before, let’s try to understand what the IoT actually is. Or is not.

It is interesting to note what famed technology experimenter, visionary, and MIT MediaLab founder Nicholas Negroponte feels about what is packaged as IoT today. After all, in his seminal book “Being Digital”, Negroponte imagined what the IoT would be two decades before it existed. According to Negroponte, IoT is a lot more than just putting “an oven control on your phone”. A truly “smart” appliance wouldn’t just be a display panel on a phone or tablet, but would be connected and capable of detecting, by means of its sensors, that you’ve put a chicken in the oven, and would then know how to prepare it, maybe even to your liking. Smartness in the IoT would, therefore, be a measure of the accuracy and timeliness of how our goals and intentions are understood and predicted, without our repeated intervention.

Today’s early (and sometimes gimmicky) manifestations of IoT showcase novel ways for us to connect with devices, and for devices to connect with each other. As Justin Zalewski points out on his excellent journal, “data fuels the IoT”, but this data is a means to a much larger end. In this age of “information anxiety” (a term introduced in the ‘80s by TED Conference creator Richard Saul Wurman in his groundbreaking book of the same title), we don’t want to be deluged by data, there is simply too much of it being produced, too rapidly. Instead, we expect connected devices to converse with each other, and process data to engage us with insights that are truly valuable, or enable us to exert more meaningful control on the “things” that surround us.

If we were to look at the Continuum of Understanding (a theory proposed by Nathan Shedroff), where data transforms into information by the addition of context, and based on learnings from experiences, information is translated into knowledge, and finally knowledge is distilled into wisdom – I’d expect IoT to bring about a revolution wherein devices actually become “wise” enough to complement our lives usefully. They’d learn about our habits and behavior, and either adapt to them, or recommend how we could change them for our betterment.

Sanjay Poonen (former Head of Mobile Division at SAP) authored a terrific post (on SCN) on the IoT a couple of years ago, where he talks about scenarios that demand the IoT. Do check it out when you can.

Unraveling Design for the Internet of  Things

As a UX Designer, I am fascinated by the IoT, and its endless possibilities. To prevent the IoT from becoming a veritable Pandora’s box, design must play an integral role in composing and conducting the symphony that would be orchestrated by a multitude of IoT instruments.

If I were to think of a strategy to design experiences within IoT, I would think of three principal tenets:

1. Usefulness - IoT needs to bring about distinctly perceptible value to our lives, whether it is in the form of task automation, human empowerment, or higher awareness. IoT needs to transcend some of the fads that are to be expected at the onset of any such big wave, and deliver something unequivocally beneficial. For example, showing us ways to live a healthier life. Or, spending more time with family. Or, saving the world’s resources.

2. Usability - All the devices within the IoT need to have some level of smartness to be independent and self-managed, that is, not requiring constant human intervention. However, human intervention will be necessary in various scenarios, be it configuration, maintenance, extension, customization, and several more. These interface touchpoints with the IoT need to be intuitive and innovative, and not necessarily limited to being controlled from a smartphone or tablet. Do note that when I say “interface”, I don’t mean a screen with some text and controls, but something that holistically and appropriately melds industrial design with human-computer interaction. Like what Donald Norman talked about in “The Invisible Computer”.

3. Unification - Ultimately, the IoT is all about seamlessly integrating valuable experiences into the fabric of our lives. As more and more devices join the IoT fold, the greater the need for an overarching design language and philosophy that unifies individual atomic experiences into a cohesive story (or stories even). Devices would need to coexist harmoniously, and transitions between device touchpoints would need to be effortless and intuitive. Branding would need to be consistent across, and the sum total of multiple disparate experiences should ultimately map to a human life goal. After all, Max Wertheimer (one of the three founders of Gestalt psychology) did state that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. In a Venn diagram, unification would be the area of intersection between branding, technology, and experience.

The Internet of Intelligent Vending Machines

Let’s talk about a specific IoT example.

Vending machines have for long existed, positioned strategically at vantage points in hotel lobbies, office corridors, sports stadiums, and airport terminals, as highly efficient android (not the mobile operating system!) salespersons selling myriad items, respecting anonymity and convenience. There is some gratification associated with purchasing a product from a vending machine - a sense of control, where a machine obeys our orders and dispenses the needful without a fuss, and a feeling of awe, in respect of the human spirit that could invent an electro-mechanical marvel so useful. As far as salespersons go, vending machines aren’t the smartest – they certainly won’t recognize you even if you’ve bought an ice cream from them several times. Nor are they inclined to make clever conversation. Or any conversation at all.

The IoT gives us the premise to imagine vending machines that are smart, and let’s understand how.

Smart vending machines are capable of tracking and collecting user information, are connected to an extended network of other vending machines, can interface with other business applications and services over the cloud, and can converse with mobile phones and maybe even wearable computers, in the future. For businesses, this would translate to higher revenue and profit, and more importantly, greater consumer engagement (and maybe even loyalty). Brand and social web professional, friend and former colleague, Manu Prasad, talks about how the IoT would essentially alter consumption patterns, as purchases become more data-driven.

As a result, we’d see:

1. From mobile to magic wand – you could use an NFC smartphone to “login” to a smart vending machine, and use the same phone to make payments, either over the cloud, or via audio-signals, or through a banking application.

2. Smarter planning and real-time analytics – with this, the entire vending supply chain could be optimized to ensure that the product inventory on a particular machine caters to the demand on it. Inventory planning would be more informed and data-driven. Moreover, the machine can provide status and health updates in real-time, and let service personnel know when something has gone wrong.

3. Personalized recommendations – the 21st century consumer is digitally networked, and there is no reason why vending machines cannot have consumers login via Facebook (say), understand their likes, map them to a particular market segment, and make product recommendations accordingly. If this is too advanced, the vending machine can simply remember consumers' past purchases, record their favorites, or enable them to send gifts to friends and family, across the world (remember that “Secret Santa” game?).

4. A unified narrative – this is a big one, I talked earlier about how unification is crucially important for the IoT. Let’s say you set a goal for yourself to live healthier, and articulate this somehow. IoT could then advise you on the products you should avoid (that delicious calorie-laden ice cream) at the point of purchase (or vending, if you will). If you are due to travel, it could guide you to a vending machine in your vicinity to pick up something (a travel adapter) that you might need on your trip. Ahead of a friend's birthday, it could urge you to send a gift via a vending machine. And if you are a regular customer, it could notify you when a new promotion or product has just arrived. Moreover, a unified experience would ensure that you (and your preferences and settings) are remembered at every vending machine (of the same brand) that you might access, anywhere in the world.

5. Immersive experiences – a vending machine contextually lies at a unique intersection; it is essentially a public utility endeavoring to offer personalized experiences, much like an ATM. There are several user concerns regarding security, safety, and privacy that can be discussed, but let's save that for later. Modern vending machines boast 42” HD touchscreen displays, and also have a camera, microphone, and speakers. We could think of gesture-control, voice-recognition, augmented reality, gamification, and so many other ideas to make the vending machine experience more delightful, not to mention the wealth of product and allied information that could help consumers with purchase decisions. Back in 2010, Sapient Nitro worked on a novel ice cream vending machine that would measure customers' smiles, and post their photographs on Facebook.

In recent times I’ve worked on an experience for a smart vending machine, that incorporates many of the features above. The proof-of-concept is due to be tested at a customer location early next month, and maybe I’ll author another post on the details of the experience I have crafted, later on. For those who are interested, analyst Ron Miller believes that smart vending is the future of technology in this post reviewing SAP’s previous proof-of-concept at the Mobile World Congress 2014.

That’s all folks.

Looking forward to hear back from you. Do add your thoughts on the IoT, where you think the technology is headed, how design can play a constructive role, and what you feel about smart vending machines.