Designing for an
internet of things
I do design and research at the Oslo School of Architecture & Design, running a design research
project that looks at emerging technologies.
We work in interaction and industrial design mainly; so the design of physical products and interactive
(By the way I really dislike the ‘internet of things’ as a title, it can mean such different things to
different people. Maybe we should call it something else?)
Well ﬁrst of all the internet is really exciting these days as you must be aware. It has matured to a
point where it is ﬂexible, open, robust, densely connected. Lots of good things are going on!
But there is a downside.
A few months ago Marc Smith talked at the Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium and said
“Most digital interaction takes place in another interaction order – in another space – not in the
physical interaction order of co-presence.”
So digital interaction takes place, mentally and physically, somewhere else. We go onto the
internet... We stare at screens, we shift in and out of our immediate surroundings...
But he also says: “This is about to change...”
So Bruce and Usman have introduced an internet of things...
For the last couple of years the Touch project has been investigating a technology called Radio
Frequency Identiﬁcation. RFID is a technology for identifying and linking physical objects to data.
It is interesting technology because it is becoming very ubiquitous, causing controversy and hype in
It has been hailed as one of the main building blocks of an internet of things, where physical objects
in the world are identiﬁable by computers, and many of our everyday behaviours become data...
But what is really signiﬁcant about it is that it is in use everyday, by so many people.
The ‘Internet of Things’ is not just a future scenario with the clichés of Ubicomp.
It is being designed and used everyday.
We are attempting to build a pragmatic and actionable understanding of it.
So by looking at things that exist and things that we have designed, I’m going to go through levels
of the user experience and design of various products that might constitute one version of an
‘internet of things’.
Here we have a selection of RFID enabled objects from around the world, these are in use by millions of
In many ways they are mundane. But as Clay Shirky so eloquently puts it; technology gets “socially
interesting when it becomes technologically boring”
The ﬁrst level of user experience is tangible interaction.
This is something that we have explored a lot with RFID: how to use physical objects to control digital
function and content.
These wooden objects have embedded RFID chips, that create reactions when they are placed inside
Peripheral, background, sound, haptic; The use of glanceable or haptic information
If the web has become widgetty, then the web in the world will be peripheral and haptic
Instead of the focused, attention grabbing interaction with the web, what if we could use more of our
senses to get information:
[this is a video of bowl in action]
Bowl shows that simple object-based interactions can have possibilities for play and entertainment
We really tried to concentrate on objects and interfaces that would ﬁt in the home environment (on the
and would allow for subtle and tangible interactions with media (particularly with kids)
[this is a video of the iPhone RFID in action]
This concept vide of an iPhone reading media from objects is the same as bowl but inverted, so that
the screen becomes a lens to content embedded in the world.
This is a nice interaction metaphor that I think shows interesting possibilities for entertainment and
[this is a video of Sniff in action]
This is ‘Sniff the dog’ that sniffs RFID tags and gives sound and vibration feedback.
Sniff is designed as a companion for children in everyday life, particularly around engaging children of
different ability levels.
It uses sound, and many subtle and nuanced kinds of vibration to respond to the environment in
It is a social, shared toy that supports many people at once.
And of course, interaction with objects is perfect for games and toys, this is where it is starting to
emerge. Such as the RFID driven Brio Network
But beyond RFID interactions there are many products that are beginning to offer tangible sensing and
Nokia 5500 and iphone have accelerometers.
Not overlooking the humble microphone...
Games include sound and breath input for the DS.
And this is a lovely use of haptic feedback, Chris Woebken at the RCA made a simple digital compass
that vibrated whenever it pointed north. People who wore this apparatus gained a new sense of
Part of the animal superpowers project by Chris Woebken
The next level of the user experience is connectedness
There is a relatively new group of products that variously include elements of ubiquitous computing,
personal informatics, tangible interaction, data shadows, spimes, internet of things, etc.
These are products that begin to blur the boundaries between objects and services. Computing
‘blending’ into the physical world. transitional products such as Nabaztag, Touchatag, Olinda, Nike+
etc. (early and maybe premature IoT products. Proto-products, but still products)
You can pretty much tell these objects by the way that they become useless once the internet or data
network has been turned off.
All of these products could be said to be contributing towards a new language of electronic products.
But each of them is treading their own paths, and the objects are largely in a space with very few prior
The Nike+ is a brilliant example:
It is a designed, physical object, using high technology.
But the connection to the web is the critical part of the experience.
It seems that these technologies lend themselves to the sensing and capture of our human activity.
In what Matt Jones and Tom Coates are calling “Personal Informatics” there is the possibility of
“leveraging data about yourself and your friends to your advantage”
This is the Wattson.
It records and shares your household electricity usage.
It has both an immediate glanceable display, but it also sends data to the web, for the full
experience of sharing and comparing data with social networks.
A peripheral that enables your objects to participate online.
This is the Olinda radio from Schulze & Webb.
Here a piece of hardware is mirroring the web in many ways: it connects to online friends, relays
listening data and shows you what your friends are listening to.
They even made a hardware API.
The interesting thing about these hybrid product/services is that they are usually small, self-
contained systems, loosely joined.
They don’t require interoperability as a ﬁrst step (unlike a lot of ubicomp research, that attempts
hard AI semantic problems).
They just use the internet!
Matt Jones: Thingfrastructure! Each object leaks out a bit of infrastructure. Simple APIs. Not over-
arching semantic webs
The third thing is visualisation and reﬂection
All of this tangible sensing and connectedness has the potential to create a lot of data.
Here is a printout of my usage of a London Oyster card.
How can we personally make use of our own data? And retain control over it?
The sharing and reﬂection on data is a critical part of the overall experience of these kinds of
In the case of the Nike+, the data ﬂows out of the shoes, through the ipod
The same kind of reﬂection and sharing happens with Nokia Sports Tracker, where rich data can be
used to ﬁnd other people’s training routes.
And the resulting data visualisations are then excellent ‘social objects’ with which to compare and
Here is the energy visualisation from Wattson / Holmes
This is the kind of rich mappings you get if you aggregate the location data on thousands of mobile
This is the ‘Mapping Graz’ project by what is now called ‘senseable city’ at MIT
How do we bring this information back down to the level of tangible interface?
Tangible & embodied
So how might we design the user experience for these ‘systems’?
To go back over the three levels of user experience:
Firstly on the level of interface; immediate, tangible, satisfying interaction is critical
This is how the object gets used, local tangible interaction. Makes sure it collects good data!
Tangible, non-screen based and glanceable interfaces are often overlooked in favour of screens and
are really important to consider; because these things will live alongside us, they inhabit the same
spaces. Do we want full-on, singing, dancing interfaces everywhere?
In the Nike+ for example, changes in audio tempo are how the device signals change, nothing ﬂashier
Industrial design just as important as interaction design
Connection & sharing
Tangible & embodied
Then the connectivity of devices is critical to design.
This is making *connection* essential to *usage*.
It is often the breaking point, if it is too difficult or lacks purpose, the device does not get used.
Most importantly, there needs to be a clear purpose for that connection: in the form of social
connections, competitive challenges, high scores, social comparison. It’s the short-term feedback,
messages, next step advice, competitions against friends, encouragement
Visualisation & reflection
Connection & sharing
Tangible & embodied
Then the ongoing engagement with the product needs to be designed.
This is the long-term reward for using the product
Using the data that it produces over extended periods of time.
Living with the product, shifts in progress,
Here data visualisation, sharing, comparison is vitally important.
For self reﬂection, then being able to act upon information from others, collective intelligence, from the
long term use
short term use
So these levels of user experience:
* Tangible and embodied
* Connection and sharing
* Visualisation and reﬂection
Can be seen as feedback loops that take place over time. From the immediate usage of a product
through to the longer term.
We have the beginnings of a way to look at the experience of these products, and to see how we might
Personally I like physical things, and I’m quite happy to jump on any bandwaggon that promises more
of physical interaction in my life, and less of the screen.
And I kind of hope we don’t end up in a world ﬁlled solely with slick, glowing rectangles.