Stop making things we don’t want
Memo to inventors: most of us don’t need our toothbrushes or forks connected to the Internet
Internet of things? More like Internet of useless things, no?
Next to “wearables,” the Internet of things — or IoT if we want to be cool about it — has been the next big thing in technology since tablet sales started to slow. For the past few years, the hype has been about connecting everything to the Internet, whether it’s refrigerators, luggage or even our pets.
The idea is that all these things generate data, and if we can move that data around and access it whenever we want, we’ll find new ways to make our lives better and more efficient.
Based on that, the market forecasts are enormous — 25 billion connected things globally by 2020, up from 4.9 billion this year, according to projections from research firm Gartner.
But on the consumer front, the flops keep mounting — Internet-connected fork anyone? The IoT may have myriad industrial uses, but at home, where it matters to the average Joe, the hype wave hasn’t saved us yet from the unbearable burden of remembering not to eat our dinner too quickly or, ugh, having to flip on the light switch at night.
This might be because many of the people who are bringing us the “things” are thinking more about hitting it big with surprising and novel products than they are about enhancing our lives.
“The mass market is looking for something that has a really clear value proposition and benefit,” says Claire Rowland, a U.K.-based product consultant and lead author of Designing Connected Product: UX Design for the Internet of Things. “The money and effort need to justify it.”
One of the big issues designers are facing in making their products useful are the networks they connect to. Great progress has been made in increasing speeds and lag time over the past few decades, but wired and wireless networks — which includes Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technologies — still can’t match analog, unconnected alternatives all of the time.
Bluetooth toothbrushes, for example, usually need a few seconds to connect to the app on your phone so that they can track brushing, which isn’t the case with a plain old toothbrush. That lag often makes the difference.
“I’ve managed to turn my lights on (manually) and that’s been 100-per-cent successful,” Rowland says. “We don’t expect the real world to take 30 seconds to respond.”
Many IoT devices are also a hassle to set up or babysit. All need to be powered, so either they run on batteries that have to recharged or they need to be plugged in. A key-operated door lock or a basic toothbrush doesn’t.
Some devices, such as sound systems and universal remote controls for televisions, also need external hubs to act as go-betweens. Consumers tend to avoid such products because of the inconvenience.
“(A hub) takes up space, it takes up an outlet and customers have to pay money for them,” says Zayn Jaffer, director of emerging business for Best Buy Canada.
IoT developers also have to face the fact that anything and everything can and will be hacked. Not only does that mean baking strong security features into devices and systems, it also means limiting the potential damage from a hack.
Breaking into a toothbrush could have trivial or even comical effects, for example, but a hacked door lock could be disastrous.
So far, the products that have been successful are those that have tapped into fundamental wants and needs without posing too much of a security risk. Nest’s smart thermostat and Dropcam’s cameras both allowed users to do things they couldn’t before — remote control and monitoring of the home, respectively — in a relatively cost-effective and simple way. Not surprisingly, both companies were bought by Google last year at a total cost of nearly $4 billion.
Google, or rather its new parent holding company Alphabet, looks to be taking the right approach by folding both acquisitions into Nest Labs. The division is looking to develop a unified system that can control all home devices, thereby easing the job for the consumer.
It’s a step in the right direction, according to Mark Rolston, chief creative lead at design firm Argo Design.
Connected homes are most appealing when “smart” functions are built in at a more comprehensive and fundamental level, rather than on a product-by-product basis.
“That’s an argument that starts to make sense once you realize that an infrastructure is emerging,” he says.
“You’re not buying things, you’re buying a system.”
The Internet of things will doubtlessly have a huge effect in industrial situations, where enterprises will use connected devices to extract all manner of efficiencies from their businesses.
But for the average consumer who just wants to brush her teeth and turn on the lights without thinking, the benefits will probably take longer to materialize.
Like smart toothbrushes, connected refrigerators aren’t among the best of what the Internet of things has to offer.