The internet of things: coming ever closer

Last week I went to a talk at NESTA where Usman Haque and Matt Jones mentioned some interesting quotes in their presentations that I wanted to note down:

Personal data is the new oil of the Internet and the new currency of the digital world : Meglena Kuneva, European Commissioner for Consumer Protection (from this 2009 speech)

Lying about the future produces history: Umberto Eco

When you cut into the present, the future leaks out: William S. Burroughs

Be as smart as a puppy: IDEO via Matt Jones

Image from Usman Haque's recent presentation on IoT

Amidst all the talk of open data, Haque made an interesting point when he said that we’re not quite in the ‘internet of things’ yet, where machines are interconnected to each other. We’re still in the machine-to-machine phase (one-to-one) where data is in silos. Nike controls the Nike+ data, for example (see his presentation from earlier this year).  He mentioned the Natural Fuse project as an example of people controlling machines: the survival of plants in the project is dependent on the community.

Matt Jones showed us this funny video about Siri and mentioned the difference between smart devices and smart pliable devices.

As Usman Haque said, there is an increasingly blurred line between ‘digital’ and ‘physical’. Most digital things still need some physical input from humans anyway, so they aren’t truly digital in that sense of the word.

I was reminded of Matt Webb’s talk at the Royal Institution a while ago when someone at the NESTA talk (I forget who) mentioned that the real internet of things will be when we are able to buy easily operable devices at Argos that pull in useful digital data.

Today, the BERG folk released Little Printer and the BERG Cloud. As Russell Davies said, it took them 5 years to get from an initial prototype to this, so we shouldn’t underestimate the amount of effort involved. But the fact that there are projects like Little Printer and Twine happening at shorter intervals these days is a good sign. Maybe we will see them in Argos soon.

In the meantime, I’ve backed Twine and signed up for updates on the Little Printer. Take a look at the two here:

Hello Little Printer, available 2012 from BERG on Vimeo.

It’s all about light

Audrey Penven’s use of Microsoft Kinect’s infrared structured light to create these photographs reminds me a lot of Dentsu London and BERG’s work on creating Penki, the iPhone app that allows you to paint 3D messages and images that are revealed in long exposure photographs.

I think there’s a lot to be said for structured light, or as Wikipedia says “the process of projecting a known pattern of pixels (often grids or horizontal bars) on to a scene.” They further go on to say: “The way that these deform when striking surfaces allows vision systems to calculate the depth and surface information of the objects in the scene.” It doesn’t seem all that cool at first if you’re not familiar with the concept – takes  a while getting your head around it, but Audrey’s description of the process of the shoot is fascinating and helps understand what it’s like:

For this shoot my models and I were essentially working blind, with the results visible only after each image was captured. Together, we explored the unique physicality of structured light, finding our way in the darkness by touch and intuition.

Working blind!

BERG were also able to create the original light-painting video by using iPads to “create three-dimensional images out of light, using long-exposure photography and stop-motion animation”.

As Tim Carmody says in the Wired article, I feel we’re going to be seeing a fair bit of products and processes that use light – and structured light – in the future. Stay tuned.

Matt Webb: What comes after mobile

If you have 30 minutes to spare, watch Matt Webb’s talk ‘What comes after mobile’ that he gave at Mobile Monday Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago. In it, Matt talks about what we should be thinking about when we design for the future, stating examples of projects that exhibit design influenced by human behaviour.

Cloud, embedded, networks, internet of things: all of these are just technologies. (…) These names of technologies don’t give us any clues about how to design for them, how to design for these future media and services and how we as humans relate to these things.

He then talks about 4 clues that we can use while thinking of how to design for the future:

1. Faces make understanding: I loved the use of Chernoff faces here, which are “an idea from psychology that we’re much better at understanding human expression as faces than we are at understanding lists of numbers.” Chris Quick wrote a fascinating post about the use of Chernoff faces to explain major league baseball here. Matt explains why Chernoff faces are useful, it’s because “we as human beings are more able to pick out emotional facial expressions in a crowd than we are a high number from a list of numbers. and emotion is infectious: we get happy when we see happy faces, and we get angry when we see angry faces.” BERG essentially used this idea in Schooloscope, which I liked when I first heard about it a few months ago. Schooloscope uses government data to rank schools, with happy and sad faces to illustrate how students perform, and red/amber/green colours used to indicate how good, optimistic or bad BERG rates them on the basis of the available data.

I thought of Dave’s and Desicreative’s ‘faces in places’ series – it’s interesting the way people see faces in everyday things.

2. Hard math for trivial things: There are quite a few apps and services that use maths for very simple things, such as Sudoku Grab, an iPhone app which lets you take a photograph of a Sudoku puzzle (including using augmented reality), uses machine vision and neural networks to figure out what the numbers are, and then solves the puzzle very easily.

Then there’s Red Laser, which scans barcodes for comparison shopping and finding product information. If it can’t find it out, Red Laser uses Mechanical Turk to solve the problem.  So a global network of thousands of people put their energies towards finding out the prices of goods.

Finally, Shownar, an experimental prototype created by BERG last year, for the BBC, that trawled Twitter and thousands of blogs to find out what shows people were watching, and then told you what to watch based on the popularity of shows.

3. Fractional artificial intelligence – Here Matt spoke about basic plastic toys, usually made in China, that only really need a chip to make it interesting: produce strange sounds, for example. Still, it’s interesting to see what you can do with a chip.

4. Chatty interfaces: Plenty of examples on Twitter now, but he specifically mentioned @andy_house, which tweets the energy used by Andy Stanford-Clark’s house (Andy happens to be the CTO of Smarter Energy), and Lanyrd, which connects with Twitter to keep track of the conferences you go to, in a  social way.

He concludes: “the principles we take for granted in designing mobile apps come from an era where chips were too simple to be smart and business models too obsessed with buttons to let the everyday be fun. Just as cheap oil, let there be an explosion of cheap plastic products, with cheap interfaces, leading to the possibility of being incredibly different.”

Here it is: