By Thibaut Moulin
Communicating with trees is one of the new powers the world of the Internet of Things (IOT) has brought us. Since 2013, the city of Melbourne, Australia has had a website to share information on the city’s trees, each of which has its own unique identifier. This “service” initiated by the city was designed to facilitate and optimize the maintenance of green spaces, but locals have naturally put the system to novel new uses far removed from its original purpose: they share their emotions with the trees, just as they do with other humans. Now, trees are receiving messages to apologize for any inconvenience caused by the family dog or even thank you notes for the simple fact that they provide shade. The IOT not only allows us to share data: it also allows us to share experiences.
A long list of “general public” applications for IOT is emerging. Some companies are trying to enrich the user experience by giving their product new uses. Thus, French company Withings has transformed its Pulse pedometer into a new product, the Pulse Ox, which measures the level of oxygen in the blood and monitors sleep cycles to help users wake up more comfortably, all with a simple software update. One of the masters in the art of the software improvement is Tesla, which changes the behavior of its cars by making them self-driving via a hassle-free update of the embedded software. IOT technology, when well engineered, helps us go beyond merely collecting and reproducing data.
There are still limitations in deploying this new connected world. The first is physical and is inherent to the nature of the product: a vacuum cleaner cannot, by default, act as a thermostat. It must be equipped with a temperature sensor. The second is related to the user experience. “It is complicated for a user to manage multiple interfaces and different applications, all related to their daily life, on their smart phone,” notes robotics expert Catherine Simon, President of the Innorobo exhibition. “How many applications do we download to our phone that we end up never using, only to uninstall them when we need more storage space? Just imagine the 200 applications for 200 different objects connected to your environment that all the latest market research promises you! One for your thermostat, one for your fridge, for your bathroom scale, one for your shutters, another for your alarm, your music, your pulse, your blood pressure, your exercise, the number of calories you burn throughout the day, and so on. The various objects connected to your environment must be linked as a network (via Machine-to-Machine Communication), which itself must be engineered for various uses and individual and group lifestyles, with family, friends, guests and more.”
Imagine for instance that when the alarm on your phone goes off, the towel heater in the bathroom gets going, your toast start toasting, your coffee is already hot and your refrigerator advises you what to eat for breakfast based on the fact you had a good night of sleep and taking into account the use-by dates for the food you’ve bought, your schedule for the day and a host of other variables.
The most complex – and yet most crucial – factor that will drive IOT technology beyond the “gadget” stage and allow it to be adopted by the general public is a user-centered approach. Each “object/service” pair must be designed to help our world evolve and provide each of us with enriching new experiences.
This is much easier to write about than to actually do. Nevertheless, adopting solutions based on Open Source systems with readily available Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) gives users the power to customize the way they want to use the smart objects on offer. This process gets the user and their creative power more involved in designing the object. Open source breaks down the purely business barriers and focuses on what’s essential: the user experience.