Design and IoT: Designing the Relation between Object, Information and Usage (1/3)
The IoT revolution requires new design paradigms. Each week, we will present attoma’s perspective on the need to think connected objects and systems according to their utility to facilitate user appropriation — in everyday life as well as in the industrial sector.
The sensor is the hero
The Internet of Things, i.e. the ability to increase the capacity of the physical environment to interact with digital infrastructures, represents a challenge for the global transformation of the city of tomorrow. At the heart of the system: the sensor hidden in any everyday object or in the entrails of machines or other industrial equipment.
In this magnificent world of unlimited possibilities, the sensor dreams of contributing to the paradise of the smart city, as in the urban supervision systems whose interfaces we design at attoma — for example, the Thales’ Hypervisor platform. Contrary to the perception that one might have due to the buzz around IoT gadgets — follow me to Las Vegas… –, IoT has existed for a very long time in the industry, particularly as part of new generations of machine tools that are, in fact, connected object systems.
Robustness and affordance, key concepts for IoT design
Connected objects communicate with the world through interfaces. Sometimes these interfaces tell funny stories. Our lives do not depend on them, but it can facilitate our daily experience. With Mother, for example, we will know how many coffee capsules we have left if we use the proper settings… It becomes more serious with smart meters, like Linky, the French smart meter, whose remote interface is supposed to inform us in real time and with extreme fidelity about our uses and consumption of electricity. A beautiful promise, perhaps more complicated to keep than it seems. In any case, to exist, these objects and interfaces require real reliability and accuracy of use: while one can survive an incorrect prediction of the remaining number of coffee capsules (event if it’s quite infuriating), an approximation can’t be accepted in a critical context, such as industry or security.
Thus, the special task of IoT design is to conceive the relationship between the object, its informational value and its functionality in terms of usage. This is new territory for design, in which the work on affordance — the quality of the object that communicates its function — takes on a whole new dimension. For the design of “stupid” objects, the rules are simpler. A handle, for example, suggests by its shape the gesture required to open the door. No need for instructions! However, a connected object is ultimately just a box, a dingbat with sensors inside. How do you give this box a shape that makes sense? In fact, there is a moment when the function of the object is no longer identifiable, and we know since Raymond Loewy (who called this the “Maya principle”) that in design, this is a threshold below which we should not dare to venture. IoT design resides at the intersection of these questions of meaning, information and form.
Anyway, dear objects, it’s over for you (but actually, not really)
Today, to promote the acceptability of the hyperconnexion of our living spaces, we need to “totemize” the connected object. Why do assistants Alexa and Google Home have this shape, of a sacred object to put on the coffee table like a trinket? Because it is still necessary, in this “early adoption” phase, to create rituals. But tomorrow, most of our everyday objects will be connected and will have their own form of intelligence. What will then be the point of their ability to connect with us? In fact, in the future, we will even see these objects dissolving in the domestic space: if their essential nature consists simply in exchanging data, on a mode of vocal interaction, they better didn’t exist at all. They may not even be objects after all: there’s no need for form to access the function.
There is also a phenomenon of functional migration: some objects are destined to disappear when their functions can be found elsewhere. This is the case, for example, with the paper diary and the camera, replaced by an object that was originally intended to do something else, the smartphone — a strange physical and immaterial conglomerate, but still an object. Thus, the notion of object is not meant to disappear. We will continue to share our living spaces with objects that will allow us to stay connected (this time, in the human sense!) with our deep nature and culture.