The internet is cold. A chilly place, driven by data and algorithms. It’s a place that gives us access to the web, which in turn strips humans of their humanness, replacing it with strings of 1s and 0s. The internet is devoid of personality, supposedly. And if the stories are to be believed, the days of big data are only going to add to this impersonal, cold future of the internet where we’re controlled by the decisions of machines.
But is that really true?
Putting aside social tools for a moment (quite literally for some of us), there is another area that’s quietly warming up on the internet sidelines, adding personality and depth. And it’s largely doing so without the need for images, words, memes or deep interaction. Or screens. What’s that area? It’s IoT: the Internet of Things.
From Tinkerer to Maker
Historically, the web has been a place that required perpetual input to become interesting. It has constantly been vying for your attention, as if it had ADHD, since the mid- to late 1990s. And in the past decade it’s got more hyperactive, becoming a time sink that has had psychologists talking about addiction and neurologists claiming it’s changing the way the brain stores information and retrieves memories. In short, it’s fundamentally altering our very humanness.
Yet quietly, over the past few years, a new order has been building. 2013, it seems, is the year that this order goes mainstream, becomes acceptable and begins to bridge the ever-widening gap between our traditional way of living and the digital epoch. And what is this order? It’s the makers. The rails of the internet are starting to infiltrate manufacturing.
No longer are we building objects of wonder, designed to show off these new tools and materials in the same way architect Thomas Farnolls Pritchard’s plans showed off the world’s first cast iron bridge, built across the River Severn.
Now we are creating new ways of manipulating the materials, of doing things with these same tools and evolving our methods to suit – or perhaps cope is a better term – with this shift in the way the world works.
We are starting to turn the (mainstream) corner of the Technical Revolution.
Using the internet to make physical things is becoming more and more common. Kickstarter is one of the reasons for this. While the wisdom of the crowds didn’t really set the world on fire, crowdfunding might just be the spark that ignites things.
I’ve been a fan of MakieLab and the Makie dolls for some time. (Disclaimer: I’ve ordered two for my daughter. She loves them.) While 3D printing features as a ‘major trend’ for 2013 on just about everyone’s list, I believe it’s the ability to create unique – or at the very least, bespoke – items and have them printed locally that’s really the innovation here. Whereas previously, manufacturing was all about making duplications of one thing in large numbers, the internet is making the dream of smaller manufacturing runs a profitable reality.
Innovation is building behind this idea of small manufacturing. New products are being created that, without the Internet, may never have seen the light of day in the days of the traditional process of product development. There is the brilliant Pebble Watch, the tiny Instagram-powered projector, Projecteo, and countless others.
Moving beyond this is the ability to cut down on the transport of vast quantities of goods from one part of the world to another. What the next stage of the Technical Revolution can do for Supply Chain Management and Global Logistics might just end up shifting the balance of power away from the land of manufacture (China) to smaller scale, local businesses. In time, of course.
Atop this layer is where the IoT becomes very interesting.
Often, when the Internet of Things is demonstrated, companies such as Samsung and Microsoft present an everyday piece of equipment and stick a screen on it. By doing so they are increasingly missing the point of IoT. By seeking to normalise it, they in turn commoditize it and IoT becomes increasingly obsolete in the public’s mind. Moving away from the screen is where real IoT innovation appears to growing. And, as with all new things, it’s building slowly from the foundation of the small manufacturing movement.
BERG London’s Little Printer is one of the first examples of the IoT world where an electronic screen is conspicuous by its absence. By creating a delightful and playful product that’s connected to the Internet and yet feels like an analogue device, they have managed to successfully bridge the divide between physical and digital. Already, the Little Printer is proving to be useful in ways that, when it was first mooted, people couldn’t see. Dan Catt wrote lucidly about this here and here. He also produced an Email Bridge that gave even more functionality to the Little Printer. And this is just one person. Over the next few months, I’m sure the ideas for what this device can do will flourish. And with the BERGCloud, they are building a platform onto which new products will no doubt be added.
Ugle is another example of an IoT object that requires no screen in order to convey information – in this case, mood. And by applying a simple taxonomy to the colours – which will be unique to you – Ugle can be incredibly useful in passing on information. And it’s a private communication (unless you share your chosen taxonomy with others).
Recently, the Good Night Lamp launched a shop, where you can buy a family of connected lamps that let you communicate a simple message: I’m home. Again, there is no screen, yet the potential to convey a lot of information through a single touch is there – and with future introductions such as colour, it could convey unique and private messages. Just enough information to make sense, not so much information that the user feels overwhelmed or the message gets too complex.
Turning up the heat
And this is just the beginning. When we look at the work Ford and other car manufacturers are doing, automotive data is the next seam to be mined. This could lead to smarter parking, autonomous cars, better HUDs, and more. And with open source, the innovation that could be unleashed by developers is proving exciting.
New sensor applications and hardware APIs are also helping IoT to move into other areas. Smart cities [PDF] – from lighting through to energy use – is another area that is about to mature that little bit more. And then there are the energy systems using sensors and opening up their data reserves and creating new ways of helping people manage their energy use – or providing a feedback loop about a country’s energy infrastructure.
The overall benefit is that things we take for granted start to inform us in interesting ways through colour, sound, smell or printouts on paper. What ties all these ideas together, beyond them being part of the Internet of Things, is that they are simple and beneficial. And they have something inherently human there: emotion. And it’s that which makes the cold world of the internet much, much warmer.