Tending to the Internet of Things Like You Would a Thriving Garden

Devices that can understand and anticipate what we are feeling are helping us interact and communicate more effectively with each other, our surroundings and ourselves.

From botanical to the hanging variety, every garden in the world shares one thing in common – they exist because someone cares. Dedicated individuals attend to them who know not to plant mint in the same plot as basil, and who use a combination of accrued knowledge and good old-fashioned hard work to curate how these natural ecosystems grow and thrive.

In a similar way, the systems and devices that make up the Internet of Things (IoT) wouldn’t seem so special if nobody cared to program and direct them. Better yet, it used to be that only a small group of people with specialized training could communicate with this technology, but many developers are now creating simple programming interfaces, or “recipes,” to extend that language to the rest of us.

PSFK recently spoke with Adam Jordan, senior user experience designer at Intel Labs, and Lucas Ainsworth, industrial and experience designer at Intel Labs, to hear more about this trend. Will it really be so simple to curate our environments? What are some potential applications for these interfaces, and how might they empower us to lead more creative lives?

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Adam: There is definitely a shift in people’s attitudes and expectations towards technology. Tools and platforms for making with technology are becoming both more powerful and easier to use, allowing anyone to tinker, experiment and build. More people are becoming creators rather than passive consumers, and they are looking for ways to control, customize and personalize technology to their own specific needs and situation. And more products, websites and apps are becoming available that allow people to manipulate and modify bits and things without needing the skills and expertise of a developer or engineer.

As this ability to easily tinker and experiment becomes more widespread in the products around us, there’s an opportunity to enable real-time control and modification – if people can configure how they want their technology to work in the moment, the more likely they are to use it. This could be if/then controls, or simple logical operations or real-time mapping between sensors and data in their environment. There is power in allowing people to configure and re-configure their devices and their interactions with those devices as they are using them.

Lucas: I think we’ll see the most initial adoption in areas where control and automation creates a sense of personal empowerment.

It’s easy to fall into a dystopian vision of a fully connected world, where we’ll just float along in our pods and become disconnected from our environment. In this vision everything will happen automatically, our data works in the background and we as individuals will do less and less … we feed the machine data and things happen for us, and it’s all kind of a mystery.

Taking active control of our environment is, I think, a much more exciting concept. I think at first we can get excited about things as simple as taking active control of our sprinkler systems, and maybe adding a little current weather data for automation. Just being empowered to do new things in your environment that weren’t possible before.

Everyone can recall being promised a seamless technology experience, then living through a torturous and disillusioning one. I think we don’t trust that a top-down IoT world would be any good. The more that people have simple tools to take control themselves, the more actively we will discover great ideas through experimentation and personal empowerment.

Some people will have very specific goals in mind, but with accessible tools, I think a lot of people will just like playing with control, experimenting. What happens if I have this data stream interacting with some aspect of my home or some appliance?

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Considering the experimental component, what will it take for these systems to be something that people rely on?

Adam: Through tinkering, experimenting, building and rebuilding, I think people will create systems that are more relevant to and intertwined with their daily lives. People will create and continuously refine solutions that are meaningful to them and accomplish useful tasks, tasks which will also likely change over time.

Experimentation will also allow people to learn about, understand and refine their relationships with these systems. This could apply to physical relationships, in which people will try out and learn what is useful to control remotely from a distance versus being in the same physical space. Or it could apply to emotional relationships, as devices use “human” communication channels to text or tweet about their state or what they’ve just sensed, and people try different levels of expressivity, mood or personality in their devices’ messaging.

Lucas: I think in the beginning, some of the most interesting home IoT work may just be playful. It will be early adopters hooking up their sprinkler system so that – instead of just coming on at 3 a.m. – it comes on when the nosy neighbor comes on the property, or the neighbor’s cat or something like that. There’s a lot of opportunity for play and real creativity.

To become more ubiquitous, I think there will need to be some common unifier. Something like energy or water consumption is a good start.

For example, while you’re away, your house may know that certain things need to happen. Your Roomba needs to run, laundry needs to run, maybe your pets need to be fed. Connected devices can be monitoring electricity demand through the day and using power when it’s cheapest or in coordination with grid demand. Or maybe you have a solar panel, and want to just run things right when your house is creating the most electricity. You could also conceivably loan out your home’s computing power when you’re away (or lock it up tight!).

Adam:And as people engage intelligent devices and systems in a playful manner, they likely will go beyond concrete, utilitarian uses. It will become a form of self-expression.

For example, your connected house may reflect your mood, the lighting in your house indicating if you’re feeling great or stressed out. Or maybe the lighting in different rooms reflects the moods of different members of the family or household. The ability to play with different interactions and behaviors – try something out, and see what happens – will encourage incredible innovation and will make notions of control and programmability a lot more fun and interesting.

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We’re definitely intrigued by this idea of self-expression, and what forms that will take. What do you think about developer apps, for example, and user-made recipes for these devices?

Lucas: What’s really catchy about the idea of a recipe is that not everybody has to spend brain cycles writing their own. Maybe you’ll get really inspired about one thing, and write a recipe – but otherwise you can pick and choose a recipe written by someone else who was inspired.

If the recipe already exists, then it’s very low cost for you to try it. A dedicated urban farmer could provide a recipe for conserving water in your garden. You don’t have to be an expert yourself. That’s what’s really fun about the whole idea of crowdsourcing knowledge. You can try out 50 different recipes for your house and just keep the ones that work for you.

Our group is doing a lot of research right now into development boards like Arduino and Raspberry Pi. Arduino is a relatively simple microcontroller for building simple electronic projects. With Arduino, you get down to the brass tacks of what makes things work. There’s example code that you can copy and paste, but ultimately you’re getting down to code.

Raspberry Pi is basically a small Linux computer, and has a much higher barrier to entry and to tinkering down near the metal. So you see a recipe pattern emerging where someone makes a Pi project and shares it. Most Raspberry Pi owners just download complete projects from the many available online. They don’t need to be Linux experts to build great projects based on the recipe model.

Is the value of programming the Internet of Things in building a sort of personalized central hub, or is it in the more creative applications?

Adam: I think there will be both – high utility, useful applications and playful, expressive applications. I also think the programmable lifestyle will also be something where people can modify and configure how the technology around them operates, but also where technology itself observes, learns and adapts to people.

As systems adapt and learn about you, the kind of controls that they give you will become more relevant, so that when you want to configure or modify the device or service, it’s a simple effort. I think the interplay between you modifying your devices and your devices modifying themselves will be very interesting.

Lucas: It could be that the next big thing is going to be another beautiful commercial project that blows us away, like the first Nest. Something that really strikes a chord with a combination of industrial design and user experience that becomes a widely adopted product in its own right.

Or it could be a grassroots movement of individuals making recipes, and potentially coming up with solutions that are so clever that they can’t help but spread. I can’t wait for someone to send me a video of a project that’s automating someone’s house – a project so inspiring that I have to run out and build it myself! Whichever way it goes, I’m delighted to be living through it.

Thanks, guys!

In The Real World Web, iQ by Intel and PSFK Labs explore the role internet-enabled technologies will play in connected ecosystems of the future. This series, based on a recent report, looks at the rise of the internet of things and its impact on consumer lifestyles.  

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