Screenshot from Affective Things, a film by Iohanna Nicenboim

Where do people fit into the Internet of Things?

As more and more of our physical environment gets spattered with sensors and hooked up to the Internet, objects are becoming more autonomous. Traffic lights direct traffic flows, lights can turn themselves off, and cars can drive themselves.

There are now more things connected to the internet than the number of people in the world. Many of these devices are inside our home, from Bluetooth speakers to smart coffee machines and fridges. In the future, even our plates and curtains might be hooked up to the internet. The house will then resemble a lab, in which we are the studied subjects. How much alcohol do we drink? How often do we wash our hair, or cut our nails? Are we snacking more than usual? Spending longer in front of the mirror? Maybe the homes of the future will know.

I began to consider the consequences of the Internet of Things more deeply when I attended a conference called the Internet of People. One of the presenters was design researcher Iohanna Nicenboim, who has created speculative designs exploring what will happen when objects can chatter to each other, and when they try to guess our behaviour from their (limited) perspective. Will eating ice-cream while watching a movie and using lots of tissues trigger your radio to think you’re heartbroken, and to start playing comforting music, for example? Or using your duster for the first time in a year while setting out your best china cups trigger your hoover to start, under the assumption your mother-in-law is coming for tea? 

When objects surveil us

These scenarios may sound light hearted, but being surveilled by objects in our home could have an insidious influence on our behaviour. Would you reach for another biscuit if you knew that the tin was counting how many you’d eaten, and relaying that data to others (perhaps your health insurance company, your doctor, or your personal trainer?). And what if that biscuit tin conspired with your fridge and cupboards to hide or destroy other sugary food?

As with all technology, the consequences depend on designers’ intentions. And as design researchers, we can play a role by ensuring the designs are based around real human needs. We can also flag up features that threaten unethical or inappropriate intrusions into people’s lives. And finally, we can encourage designers and programmers to consider the human impact of their products and services, and to weigh up the pay-offs involved.

Resourceful Ageing

There are obviously many positive applications of IoT. For design researchers, being able to track inanimate objects could throw new light on human behaviour. We can find out how often people use things, and how they use them. Resourceful Aging, a collaborative project between TU Delft, Avans Hogeschool and Philips Design, in which Nicenboim is involved, is exploring the ways in which elderly people use their homes, with the aim of empowering them to age resourcefully.

In one part of the project, they used sensors to track objects’ journey through the home, and how they are used. They then tracked how and where objects were used. They found some surprising combinations: for example, a bracelet was used to prop a stuck door open. One woman used a magnet to hold metal objects like paperclips that she found difficult to pick up from a flat surface. Cups travelled throughout the house over the course of a day. Meaningful information, evidently, is held within the life of objects.

Serving users

Ensuring that connected objects serve their users, rather than farming their users for data, or pestering them to change their behaviour against their own will, will remain a challenge. For example, sensors are starting to be used to keep an eye on elderly people or those who have difficulty looking after themselves. A relative or friend can receive an alert when someone moved in their home,  serving as an early warning that they may have had a fall, for example. Fortunately, sensors are less intrusive than cameras. But, as this ad from Superflux shows, designers should be careful not to make their designs too prescriptive, and should make sure that they represent the desires, interests and motivations of the user themselves, rather than another party.