Human-Focused Design Will Stop the Soulless Future of the Internet of Things

The looming age of the Internet of Things—the networked interconnection of everyday objects—promises great possibilities—and some unsettling ones. In a world where all objects are equipped with identifying devices so they can be connected and managed by computers, you can imagine the physical world shrinking sadly away into oblivion. 

As we shift from data created by people to data created by things communicating with other things, where do humans fit in? It all sends a bit of a chill down your spine. Are we sacrificing our very soul for a “smarter” inanimate world?  As we decreasingly interact physically with the things around us—because they're interacting with each other— will our humanity be lost?

Innovators with the gift of foresight want to make sure this doesn’t happen. Designer Valentin Heun from the MIT Media Lab, who “believes this technology is leading to a dystopian future filled with soulless, virtualized products and users overcome with information overload," Wired reported today.

Heun’s Smart Objects project incorporates empathy, humanity and nostalgia into the design of the computerized objects that will make up the Internet of Things. He's making design interfaces that are a more natural extension of natural human behavior. In other words, objects have all the increased functionality of the internet and hyperconnected network of things, but without sacrificing tactile pleasures.

It's infusing a bit of humanity into the fast-approaching futuristic world. And fast approaching it is. Chips are smaller, faster and cheaper than ever before; we have better wifi and more bandwidth; we're getting at processing big data; and open source programs and crowdfunding make it easier to innovate and create smart objects. Assuming a world population of 7.8 billion by 2018, there will be more connected devices than people on the planet in just five years.

Really, the IoT age is already here. With wearable tech, Google Glass, apps that practically read our mind, even talk of implantable sensors, humans are already nodes in the network. As we get caught up in the speed and excitement of this next technological revolution, we'd do well to take a look back at history before moving too hastily.

We're currently living out the backlash from the digital revolution in the form of analog nostalgia. (How many of you have a cherished vinyl collection?) Subtle nostalgia is felt in all sorts of little things—I for one long for old-fashioned physical keys you can stick into a lock and turn to the left to open the hotel room door.

In a Paleofuture blog post about the Internet of Things, Matt Novak points out that through the decades, more sophisticated technology hasn't equaled greater happiness for humans, and maybe we should think twice before plunging forward. "In the future we may romanticize the simpler days of the early 21st century—before your toaster became besties with your toothbrush," he wrote.

This is why Heun is taking pains to not lose the natural physical element of interacting with objects as he designs for apps and touch screens. For example, the Smart Objects radio is a physical radio with a modern design, and regular-old nobs you can turn to choose a station or adjust the volume. But when you hold the programmed tablet over it, the functionality increases significantly. (You can see it in action in the video up top.)

The screen shows an augmented reality version of the radio and you can interact with the screen the same way you do with the radio—but also influence functionality, by telling the nob what to do when you turn it. To adjust the song to play through two speakers, draw a line from speaker to speaker on the tablet with your finger. You’re still interacting with speakers, but the capability turns the regular, physical radio into a super-object.

The hope is that this kind of design thinking will preserve the nostalgic, sensory memory and human emotion we attach to our things—especially the things that have meaning to us. As Heun told Wired, “Look around you—How many of the things you own foster memories? How many of those memories are important to your sense of self? And how fast can you access those memories by just touching and looking at these objects?”

"Move away from the screens and try to understand how things will communicate with each other and with us."—Roberto Tagliabue

Heun isn’t alone in this thinking. At a GigaOM Internet of Things meetup in March in San Francisco, Roberto Tagliabue, a software engineer at Jawbone (maker of the fabulous Jambox), said that designers and developers have to think beyond the screen and consider how a product fits into human lives. As the smart stuff trend rises, "We start to lose our perspective as a person, a normal person," he said.

Instead, humans have to be at the center of the rising trend, he argued. UX designers have to focus less on the screen and more on the the journey of the experience, by observing people.  "Move away from the screens and try to understand how things will communicate with each other and with us," he said.

An article in Neutral Magazine went as far as to suggest the challenges of technology will either lead to humans’ emancipation or enslavement. The answer is in designing not interfaces, but systems that empower people to participate, create and change society. Author Justin McKeown writes, “As computers and 'smart' devices move beyond laptops and tablets, isn't it time they get a redesign to meet the complex, human needs of humans?”

Design as a word is heavier than ever—far beyond making things aesthetically beautiful and cool, design can be used to encourage functionality, not only in a device, but in how a device is used by people, and how that use impacts society.

Props to the insightful techies out there using design thinking to make sure we humans don’t innovate ourselves into irrelevance.

Topics: internet of things, design

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