The Internet of Real Things requires a Design Revolution.


We drive into the future using only our rearview mirror.

Marshall McLuhan

The Internet of Things (IoT) is the rather simple concept of connecting any device to the Internet, and by extension to potentially any number of other devices. Included among these are “digital” devices which already have a built-in CPU and wireless communication technology (such as smart phones, computers, and wearables), automobiles (where electronic components already outscore mechanical ones in regard to cost), and other mobility devices such as scooters, bikes and skates. More problematic devices – because they are not yet designed for the expanded usage of digital connectivity – are home appliances, medical devices, and functional objects such as engines and brakes. Connections and interactions will take three basic forms—people-people, people-things, and things-things—and analysts like Gartner project that by 2020 there will be between 25 and 100 billion connected devices.

This brings us to an age-old challenge that accompanies the adoption of any new technology, especially as digital products have to converge with physical products. Semantics and legacy couldn’t be any more different: so far, digital devices (e.g. smart phones) have a relatively young legacy with simple physical shapes, and interaction is limited to mostly eye-hand-touch, whereas physical products (e.g. stoves) have a long historic legacy, as well as complex functionality that has resulted in myriad “use cases”. Other challenges are asynchronous innovation and product lifetime cycles. For instance, an automobile, a washing machine or a medical dental unit has a physical life up to 20+ years, whereas the lifecycles of digital components are being counted in months – and those components include physical elements such as processors, displays and interaction devices. Software updates can be uploaded, but hardware is hardware. And the way it looks right now, the current trend of digital waste is being amplified, applying the same technology multiple times for the same purpose. Plus, most of the targeted “Things” already have been stripped down to the most primitive standards of electronic controls (e.g. cost-effective flip-flop switching). Looking at the annoying UX of our high-end kitchen appliances by Gaggenau or the Miele washing machines, we need a total re-boot, because upgrading these “Things” into something intelligently accessible just isn’t possible. IoT requires a design revolution.

All technological leaps since Gutenberg’s printing press have created new opportunities, but also a great amount of pain. As Marshall McLuhan writes, “new technologies create new environments, which then create pain, because the body’s systems is shutting down in order to block it out”. McLuhan identifies mechanical leaps (e.g. the wheel made the feet less important) and advances in electronic media (e.g. the radio reduced personal interaction and print) as being both extensions and limitations of man.

So far, IoT only offers asymmetrical innovation: a connected fridge is, in essence, still the same fridge. Conceptually, IoT mostly adds complexity to what is already there. What we designers have to achieve is to create an improved product and experience environment, which isn’t “loaded” with historic mechanical legacy or IT-waste. It is important to recognize that physical products have to pass the test of a rigorous process in design, manufacturing, and investment for best usage, whereas digital products are mostly virtual prototypes with generic UX, and often shipped as “Beta” until they finally work. In short: physical and digital design must converge for better results, and we must achieve more benefits with less material engagement.

This is the other big challenge: Sustainability. Design for IoT must reduce waste of materials, apply modularity to physical products in order to manage asynchronous lifecycles and digital interaction (i.e. voice and gesture), and also limit bandwidth needs, as the biggest waste of our current digital model is time and energy. Design for IoT must save material resources both in production, repair and recycling. Design for IoT also must save energy during usage. E.g. fridges have been dumb-designed to a one door concept, where each time the user opens it, all the cold air falls out. In addition, there are no different temperatures for different foods (veggies, dairy, meat/fish etc.), and the adaption to different cooking processes around the world is zero. IoT so far popularizes the idea of, to take just one example, a fridge that can “tell” the user about its content. But most fridges are still bland commodity designs. Looking at toasters: they heat the air instead of just toasting the bread, and despite visual contact, the bread still comes out too pale or burned.

Beyond re-designing existing products as IoT, we also need to design systemic concepts such as energy conversion, storage and re-use in a household. This will also result in new product concepts. So far, Western kitchens are designed for usage including some design overkill, but most kitchens are compromised by western appliances cramped into tiny spaces. The IoT kitchen also will have to follow the flow of energy. We also have to design appliances as objects – not just panels. Designing for a really smart home is another systemic challenge. Today’s fractioned concepts aren’t really smart and the UX is a nightmare, and security and energy are still separated – Nest is good progress, but it falls short of its claims because of the time required to use it remotely.

Another pertinent and related area is the reduction of water consumption, especially for sanitary usage. Michael Hoffman of CalTech, who is also a collegue of mine at DeTao in Shanghai, has designed a self-contained autonomous toilet with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. By applying nano-filtering, the toilet is water-independent and produces just a small amount of solid waste. So far, prototypes are the size of a shipping container, but the technology can be advanced towards a compact size. Looking at apartment towers all over the world, I believe that Michael has opened the gate towards both incredible water savings and hygienic gains.

I believe that IoT presents us designers with the task of creating innovative and human-minded concepts, before technology runs wild and forces stupid applications upon us. Looking at the commoditization of digital UX in software, apps and eCommerce sites e.g. by Google tools , it is obvious that we have abandoned the cultural achievements of physical industrial design. Instead, the Internet of Real Things must advance the benefits for people in a holistic way, which indeed requires a design revolution. Let’s get started.

Student Project:  Self-driving toilet with autonomous recycling technology by Michael Hoffman/CalTech.


Student Project: Rotary Fridge, which allows to separate veggies, dairy and meat – plus a freezer as a “chest”.


Student Project: Toaster, which keeps the heat inside and controls toasting levels via a photo sensor.



One Response

  • Nice article, provides a good big-picture observation of the space today..

    “Nest is good progress, but it falls short of its claims because of the time required to use it remotely.”

    Do you mean the time required to set Nest up for remote use? Or, how long it takes to access?

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