By Aglaia Staff
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 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 ofDesigning 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, un-connected 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 don’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 impact 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 their teeth and turn on the lights without thinking about the tasks, the numerous obstacles developers are facing means the benefits will likely take longer to materialize.
Nest Learning Thermostat: The prototype for successful IoT products, the Nest adapts to its users’ patterns and allows for remote control via smartphone. Easy to set up and use and selling for $249, it checks all the boxes for a good connected device.
Nest Cam: Formerly Dropcam before being bought and rebranded by Google, the $219 Nest Cam is an easy-to-use home monitoring device that beams live video to the user’s smartphone. There’s also an optional recording function where, for a monthly fee, everything the camera sees is accessible for up to 10 or 30 days, depending on the package chosen.
Sonos speakers: Sonos has been the name in multi-room audio for years now, but the company’s speakers have typically required a central, modem-like hub to communicate with the user’s mobile device. Sonos smartly eliminated the need for a hub last year by building direct connectivity into its speakers.
WeMo switches: Belkin’s line of smart outlets gets a few things right. They’re inexpensive, generally selling for less than $99, and they’re versatile. The switch plugs into an outlet and connects to a wi-fi network. Then, whatever is plugged into it — be it a lamp, stereo, TV, space heater or whatever — can be turned on and off via smartphone.
Parrot Flower Power: When it comes to gardening or even just maintaining a household plant, most people have no idea what to do. Parrot’s $79 Flower Power, a plastic dongle disguised to look like a twig that you stick next to your plants, solves that with sensors that beam soil moisture, fertilizer levels, temperature and sunlight intensity information to your mobile device.
Oral-B Bluetooth Toothbrush: Oral-B’s SmartSeries toothbrush is the antithesis of what a good connected device should be. At $149 (U.S.), it’s expensive and of questionable usefulness. It connects to your smartphone via Bluetooth and the app awards video-game-like trophies for brushing correctly. The toothbrush also buzzes if you’re pressing too hard. Most of the functions duplicate common sense.
HAPIfork Bluetooth smart fork: The HAPIfork received much attention at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, but for all the wrong reasons. The $147 fork — you read that correctly — connects to a mobile device via Bluetooth and tracks how quickly its user is eating. If you go too fast, it buzzes. Again, it’s an expensive and unnecessarily complicated way to replicate something a parent can easily teach a child.
Smart TVs: Many “smart” TVs that have hit the market so far have been anything but intelligent, with wonky software and terrible interfaces. Third-party connected devices such as Apple TV and Roku boxes have provided much better experiences, obviating the need for many televisions to be connected in the first place.
Smartwatches: Still struggling to find their “killer apps,” smartwatches have failed to catch on for a number of reasons. Unlike their analog cousins, they need frequent recharging and they don’t do many things that smartphones don’t already do.
Samsung’s tweeting refrigerator: Back in 2011, Samsung was selling a connected refrigerator that ran apps, including Twitter and Pandora, on an eight-inch LCD screen housed on one of its doors. Needless to say, it didn’t catch on.