How brands can join the Internet of Things

The internet of things has been a key phrase among product and interactive designers for several years. In this article, Design Week editor Angus Montgomery considers how this burgeoning connected world can work to the advantage of global brands.

The concept of connected and controllable devices is an appealing one for brands and consumers. It is a world where you can adjust your home’s temperature and lighting – even lock and unlock your front door – using just a smartphone. This world is well on its way to becoming a reality, with research firm Gartner suggesting that there will be nearly 26 billion devices linked to the internet of things by 2020.

So with the internet of things moving from concept to ubiquity, what are the opportunities for brands, and what are the potential hurdles they will have to look out for?

Making the right connections

The first thing to note is that the idea of connected and automated devices isn’t always met with enthusiasm. For every interactive smoke alarm or automated energy-saving lighting system there’s a gratuitous example of bandwagon jumping.

The most commonly cited example of this is the internet fridge, a mainstay at the annual Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show and described by Guardian technology editor Charles Arthur as “a peculiar dream that just won’t die”.

Beyond the fact that creating a fridge that can text you to tell you its contents “cannot be done”, Arthur points out that “people don’t use fridges in that way… The simplest way to know what’s inside your fridge is to look in it.”

Nest is probably the most high-profile example of a brand that has taken home interaction and made it useful and popular. Nest makes a series of products, including smoke and carbon monoxide alarms and thermostats, that can be controlled remotely through smartphones and can also alert users to alarms or changes when they are not at home.  

The products are intuitive and easy to use and have also won plaudits for their design, with Nest picking up a Wallpaper* Design Award and a Red Dot Design Award among others. The Nest Labs company was co-founded in 2010 by two former Apple engineers and was acquired by Google for $3.2 billion.

Cost benefits

Although Nest seems to have solved two of the major issues around internet of things products – creating objects that are both beautiful and useful – it still battles with the issue of price.

The Nest Protect smoke alarm sells at $99, which doesn’t sound wholly unreasonable until you realize that the average house would probably require three or four individual units.

Elsewhere there is a trend towards lower-key and more affordable consumer goods linked up to the internet of things. So as well as seeing major interventions such as environmental control systems or fully connected fitted kitchens, there are a growing number of individual pieces such as Belkin’s $99 slow cooker that can be controlled through a smartphone. Start-up Kolibree, meanwhile, is selling an internet-connected toothbrush that can upload “brushing data” and help users track their brushing habits and dental health – although the $129 pre-order price might provide something to chew on.

The developing trend seems to be, as you might expect, that these are consumer goods, aimed at the average consumer and aspiring to a reasonable price point. As brands and product lines become established and can achieve scale then they can address cost issues without a knock-on effect on quality.

A unified approach

One result of filling your home with individual connected consumer products is that you end up with a series of items that exist in their own isolated worlds. As such, there has been a move recently for companies to create universal controllers and platforms to link up internet-enabled devices. 

Revolv, which launched last year and was acquired in October by Nest, is a physical hub that allows its users to control different products – including Belkin switches and Philips Hue lights – using a single app. Since its acquisition it no longer offers the service to new customers, but appears to be an integral part of Google’s ‘Works with Nest’ program, but its premise was to use seven different radios that communicate with almost any connected home device, and operate as a platform to let the user control all these devices, remotely if needed, through an app.

For brands that can do this, there are obvious benefits to designing software and networks rather than creating one-off products. Creating hardware is, well, hard and costly and a company that creates products without control of the method of controlling them will struggle to get full engagement with the consumer.

What’s the protocol?

As brands begin to move their attention away from the physical manifestation of connected products and look more closely at the systems that operate them, a number of issues come into play.

The first, as we’ve already seen, is uniformity. How can brands ensure that the consumer is easily and seamlessly able to operate a plethora of individual connected devices (and at the same time take control of the internet of things world)?

Revolv is one way of approaching this and the newly established Thread Group could provide another.

The Thread Group brings together Google, Samsung and other product developers including Yale and Freescale Semiconductor, in an attempt to create a set of communications standards for all connected devices.

Nest already uses the Thread system for its alarms and thermostats. Thread operates across different networks, including Bluetooth, Wi-fi and Near-Field Communication (NFC) and works with low-power connections to help device battery life last longer.

The aim of the Thread Group is to establish best practice in the field and to certify Thread products in the future.

The collaborative nature of the Thread Group also indicates how brands increasingly find themselves partnering up in order to better develop opportunities in the Internet of Things. As Wired journalist Liat Clark says, “It's collaboration that will lead to a truly effectual and game-changing internet of things future.”

Safe and secure

One issue that all connected product developers are quick to talk about is security. A good example of this is the August Smart Lock, developed by designer Yves Béhar working with entrepreneur Jason Johnson.

The August keyless lock lets you open and close the doors of your home using a smartphone app. You can also send “virtual keys” to guests or people you want to let into your house.

If there’s anything that you’d want to be secure, it’s your front door lock, and Béhar says the point of the project is to create “technology that puts you at ease – that is sure and reliable”. August operates using the same secure communications technology used for online banking, while the lock itself has its own power source, so will work even during a power-cut. As a last resort, users can log on using the August website to unlock, over-ride or remove authorization for the device.

As well as safety, brands are equally quick to talk about how secure user data is – one of the obvious byproducts of connected devices is the potential to harvest huge amounts of user data. Nest’s acquisition by Google in particular raised eyebrows, with Nest co-founder Tony Faddell quick to point out that there would be no data-sharing with Google, unless, of course, users opted in.

Recent Central Saint Martins industrial design graduate Sarah Gold has developed a project that aims to put data control back in the hands of the user and could provide a future model for connected device makers. Gold’s Alternet proposal is based around a co-operatively hosted network that lets users clearly see how their data is being used.

Gold also proposes the idea of “data licenses” that would let users say what data they would like to share and in what way. For example, you might be able to say that you will allow your location data to be used by commercial companies or your financial data to be used by non-profits.

While a speculative project, the Alternet broaches two huge issues that everyone involved in the internet of things will have to tackle soon – as it grows in scale, how is this network supported, and what does it mean for the people who use it?