Lamps That Talk on the Internet of Things

Tomorrow's iBeacon?
Tomorrow’s iBeacon?

Your phone is a clumsy interface to the Internet of Things: it takes too many hands and eyes and touching and swiping to get it to do the simplest of things.

Instead, look to calm computing for hints at where an aware and connected world is taking us and think about the lamp post at the corner for design inspiration.

The World is the Interface
Mo Morgan, head of technology at Kitcatt Nohr Digitas, proposes that we’re so locked on smart phones as the ultimate connected device that we’re missing the broader opportunities on an Internet of Everything:

“Screens have evolved past being a means of displaying information to become an input device too, but touchscreens and devices that have them are not without considerable limitations. In fact, I would argue that this kind of interface is simply a stopgap while a generation of things we don’t currently consider “smart” evolve.

Touchscreens can’t easily be used just by touch. A smartphone needs two eyes and at least one hand to use. This isn’t the unity of digital and physical, but rather the digital world hogging two of our senses for itself. Thus, walking while getting directions or any other screen-based task is difficult. As a piece of technology they’re pretty demanding, and at odds with the thinking of some of the greatest technological theorists.”

Mo riffs off of a network of lampposts in Barcelona that will be able to detect parking spaces and imagines them lighting up to lead you to the nearest spot:

“Let’s think of lampposts as a forest of connected, aware devices, that exist to make streets easier to use. Perhaps you could ask one, as you might currently ask Siri, to direct you to somewhere. It could look up your destination and direct you, perhaps also informing its local siblings so they could help you on your way. Perhaps even asking would be unnecessary: the forest might recognise you, fetch your destination from your calendar, and all lampposts en route could dutifully guide you there.”

Calm Technology and Responsive Design
Mo points to the 90s and Xerox PARC for inspiration when Mark Weiser and Seely Brown proposed a coming age of calm technology. They proposed three design paradigms for technology that could lead to true calm and comfort based on: their motion between center and periphery, peripheral reach, and locatedness.

But I’ve been wondering lately whether there isn’t another phrase that could be appropriated for an era of connected devices: responsive design.

Currently applied to websites that ‘respond’ to the type of device you use, the concept of responsive design carries a rich set of meanings that go beyond the way a site grows or shrinks depending on the kind of screen you have.

It carries with it affordances for touch screens and media break points, content that appears and disappears based on the form factor of your device, and text that doesn’t just bump up in font size but completely changes based on user input, kerning, leading and weight.

In an era of connected everything, it’s time to move beyond the screen. To think of how an iBeacon, for example, might subtly change color depending how many devices are connected to it, or walls that display different colors depending on the information being traded in a physical space.

But to start, I’d propose that we think about how we swap the principles of responsive web design into an architecture for the Internet of Things.

We should think about fluid interfaces for objects and things. Objects shouldn’t just be able to find us a good parking spot, they should be able to find a good parking spot in as many ways as there are users who are looking for the way.

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