Co.Design

Why Own Several Lamps When You Could Summon One Whenever You Need It?

And more on the promises (and challenges) of networked moving things, from Smart Design's Dan Saffer.

When we think of the Internet of Things, we typically conjure objects in a fixed location: appliances (Hi, Internet fridge!), home automation systems like Nest, or individual stationary items like Berg’s Little Printer or the Good Night Lamp. But some of the most important pieces of the Internet of Things are likely to be the objects that move: Those that move on their own accord (cars, robots) and those that move with us (mobile devices and wearables).

Given the central role that mobile objects play in modern life—like transporting people and goods—it makes sense that objects such as cars, trucks, and trains, would become attached to networks. Knowing more about location, fuel efficiency, and the relationship to other vehicles is of interest to both businesses and people, while being able to track data across multiple environments gives a fuller picture of our lives, helping companies design and create products that make better sense for people. Insurance companies can monitor real-time driving habits to give good drivers a discount on insurance (and, presumably, raise the rates of bad drivers). Audi’s Traffic Light Detection system adjusts the speed of the car to coordinate with traffic lights, saving time and fuel.

An object that can move—or move with you—can also replace multiple versions of the object, in the same way mobile phones are replacing fixed landlines. Why have many lamps, when you could summon one to the room where it’s needed? What will car “ownership” mean when cars can park themselves (or rent themselves out) when not in use?

Objects that move on their own accord can provide potentially more accurate data than static ones. To measure the speed of traffic, you can install sensors at various checkpoints along the road, or, like Waze, you can collect more accurate data from the vehicles themselves. To find the location of a bus, you can put sensors at bus stops, or just add a GPS on the bus itself, like NextBus does.

Networked moving objects can also affect other networked moving objects. Traffic data generated by vehicles themselves could cause self-driving vehicles to adjust their routes, much as humans do now using data from apps like Waze. Cars could instantly signal to each other when one nearby is turning or parking, causing traffic to adjust accordingly. Public transportation could add more buses to a route based on the crowds that particular day.

Of course, moving objects can send data back to stationary objects. Buses, trains, and subways can already alert stops as to when they’ll arrive. But your car could alert your thermostat you’re on the way home, so it will start warming up the house. With its acquisition of Nest, Google, powered by its maps, is in a position to now do this. Cars alerting traffic lights to their presence could adjust the light’s timing on the fly—no more waiting at an empty intersection.

It can also work in reverse as well, with stationary objects sending data to moving ones. For example, a charging station could send a notice to a low-battery electric car of its availability. Parking spaces can advertise their openness to nearby cars. And, yes, your local Taco Bell will probably spam you with an ad for its latest Doritos burrito combination.

But the advantages of networked moving things are matched by the challenges of designing them. The situations a car can get into are vastly different than those a microwave can, and items worn on the body go through all kinds of abuse that a similar object would never need to endure. FitBit found this out the hard way when its Force bracelet gave a small number of users a rash. Designers need to account for, and be cognizant of, the changing contexts that moving objects travel through—and alter by their presence.

Vehicles, airplanes, and public transportation are traditionally slower-moving industries, working on half-decade (or longer) timetables, not the rapid-release cycles of digital technology. Car and airplane manufacturers and public transportation systems scramble to keep up with the fast-moving innovations around connectivity. Their industries are cost prohibitive, adoption is slow, and they work on a massive scale. They are more used to materials like plastic and steel, not an immaterial like data. Incorporating data as a material requires a shift in perception: How can you improve the traveling experience not with a sleek interior and smooth ride, but with data? Can data be stylish? How can data feel premium or luxurious? These are some of the challenges the makers of the Internet of Moving Things will wrestle with over the next few years.

Large, moving, autonomous objects can be frightening and even dangerous. Military drones are a perfect example, yet it’s only a matter of time before all kinds of civil and consumer drones swarm through our cities, fighting fires, fixing infrastructure, and even, as Amazon recently announced with its Amazon PrimeAir, delivering packages. These, too, will be part of the Internet of Things, and ripe for all kinds of abuses, especially privacy.

Connectedness breeds concern for privacy and personal safety—especially when it comes to potentially lethal moving vehicles. You might not want it publicly known that you’re driving alone late at night through a dangerous neighborhood. But hopefully the more efficient and delightful pathways that these vehicles will provide will outweigh the significant legal and emotional hurdles that we must solve getting there. We feared cars when they were introduced at the turn of the 20th century; we feared computers as they started to take over many of our daily tasks during the late-century PC revolution; and we might fear the Internet of (Moving) Things until it becomes mundane and necessary in our lives. That necessity—like a self-driving car—is arriving.

[Images: Fantasia lamps by MID, robot hand, bus via Shutterstock]

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5 Comments

  • I tend to enjoy the thinking and the writing of Dan Saffer, and this is another time that this happens. Nonetheless, a challenge I hoped Saffer pointed out is the role that tech protocols and proprietary licenses will play in the ecosystems of this new breed of objects. This is a design challenge, and hopefully design's pivotal role - acknowledged more widely in the last decade - will shape the arena of the business and technology requirements.

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  • D.l. French

    This shows a pretty poor understanding of the user experience of lighting products in living spaces and consumer desires. Your highlighted concept of a smart 'follow me' lamp may have utility and a value proposition for industrial or workspace setting. For 90% of the world lighting is set in a fixed location for a reason. To optimize the functionality and desired effect of the target to be illuminated. Reading, artwork, the architecture of a room, creating an ambience or emotional setting for an area. So in most applications this smart product falls flat on its face and its value proposition is pretty miserable compared to a variety of purpose/experience specific light designs. Besides a light following you around is just creepy. This is a real good example of people looking at the wow of technology instead of the true desired benefits desired by the user.