The Useless Side of the Internet of Things
These spoof products are only marginally more stupid than real smart devices.
A cloud-connected bookmark. Image: Internet of Useless Things
The internet of things isn't always smart—some of the devices are downright dumb.
For every energy-saving smart thermostat and weight-reducing fitness band, there's a fork that tracks your chew rate, a tray that alerts when you're out of eggs, and a cloud-connected bookmark, so you'll never lose your place when reading.
Though it may not actually be the silliest, the last of those Internet of Things products is fake, part of a project that mocks up spoof smart devices dubbed the Internet of Useless Things, inspired by some of the less clever smart devices hitting the market.
"In some ways, some of these smart devices are becoming really dumb," said Tom Le Bree, a partner at RehabStudio, the design agency and tech consultancy that came up with the Useless project after a trip to monstrous electronics show CES in January. "Connecting things is adding little to no value, or by adding technology, we're making them less valuable."
Analyst firm Gartner has predicted there will be 4.9 billion connected "things" in use this year, climbing to 25 billion by 2020, with the market worth $70 billion this year. That includes smart cars as well as manufacturing and industry—but also "new and novel devices" that are gaining connectivity.
"It's one of those tech trends that everyone jumps on, assuming technology is always going to make your life better," Le Bree told me. "And that's not the case."
Designed to highlight such IoT missteps, his firm's mocked-up ideas are based on real products that are taken a step further. There's Neighbourly, a smart lock that lets people on your street unlock your front door when you're not home, and FitSpoon, a "big data" utensil that compares your eating speed to others via a cloud-based database, opening holes in the spoon if the "content depletion sensor" wants to slow your consumption.
As silly as the fake FitSpoon may sound, it's not far off the HAPIFork, a Bluetooth-connected fork that lights up and vibrates if you eat too quickly, and measures how long it takes you to eat your meal and how much time you take between bites—or as HAPI calls them, "fork servings."
While many silly-sounding devices may be useful to someone, and there's always going to be creative experimentation in a new market, such products highlight the problem with many internet of things devices, Le Bree said: they don't solve problems that anyone actually has.
Despite the project, Le Bree stressed that not all internet of things products are stupid, just some need more thought put into their designs. He's a fan of the Nest smart thermostat, and pointed to a connected cap for the air intake on car tires, which warns you when they need to be reinflated, rather than wait until your car feels funny driving down the motorway. "I don't need my toilet to tell me something's wrong with my diet—this [smart cap] would be way more useful," he said. "It's very small and very effective."
In other words, it's actually useful.