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The future of… IoT

From the day you set your first steps on campus as an Industrial Design student, to the day you leave you’ll be surrounded by the intriguing phenomenon that is the Internet of Things. 

Maybe it fascinated you already before you were a student, and was it one of the reasons you came here. Maybe you fell in love with the concept during your study and will continue exploring the world of IoT in your work for many years after you graduate.
But one thing seems certain; IoT is the next hot topic that conquers the world by storm [1].

The ‘Internet of Things” (IoT) is an umbrella term. It describes the network of physical objects (things), that is equipped with data-collecting sensors, and communicate among themselves and the Internet [1].
If you think the “Innovation Trigger” IoT emerged a couple of years back, you are one of many. But some sources believe that this concept of a network of smart devices was first described already in 1982 [2]. Where a modified Coca-Cola vending machine at Carnegie Mellon University became the first internet-connected appliance. The vending machine was able to report its inventory and could indicate whether newly loaded drinks were cold or not [2]. Only the term IoT wasn’t used to describe the phenomenon until much later. 

Even though the design of socio-technical systems receives an increasing amount of attention lately. With applications such as Fitbit, Philips HUE, or the Ring video doorbell being common knowledge [3-5]. When looking at the big picture you might see that IoT still hasn’t been able to really step out of that world of “gadgetry” after all these years.
When I asked around on campus, many ID students (somewhat shamefully) admitted they don’t own a single IoT appliance in their home.
Reasons seemed to vary.
From “I don’t have the money for things like that” to “I prefer my time at home to be screen-free”. But still, it made me wonder… if making use of IoT appliances already doesn’t seem to be that common amongst us in-group members (ID students) after all these years, what does that mean for the future? Is IoT simply something for the elite? Or will this change and are the current IoT devices just not there yet? Does it need changes in usability and interaction design for it to become common? Is the public just simply still warming up to the idea, and will the next generation that grew up with more tech in the house embrace these smart devices more often with open arms than their parents? Or is the phenomenon really just a buzzword that will be forgotten soon?

I spoke with Joep Frens and Thijs Hendal about this topic. I only had one question for them “How do you see the future of IoT?”

Joep Frens is an accomplished designer and researcher, as well as an assistant professor at our university. With his expertise in the topic of connected products and growing systems, he is for many students the first face they think of when they hear the word IoT. But even his initial reaction to the question was “Exiting to think about! But I don’t have a crystal ball”. However the first prediction he dares to make, is that the name IoT will change. “What we now call IoT was already envisioned in the 1990s. Maybe with a little less attention to data and connectivity, but you could see that there was a lot of speculation. Even though it was called differently from the Internet of Things”. So it is likely to believe the speculation on this topic will continue to be, even after the word IoT becomes outdated.

In contradiction to this change of name Frens sees the development of IoT household products is likely continue in a fairly similar way as it is today. He sketches the image of devices with many functionalities, that play to the individual while respecting the group. Like companies as Google and Amazon are doing in their lines of IoT products today. “Either there will be a multiverse of these walled gardens that offer further integration with more devices being compatible.. or one company breaks through”.

However one thing that Frens hopes will change is that companies stop their habit of breaking their equipment. Devices becoming outdated and incompatible with newer releases is something that holds people back from buying an expensive device. Frens predicts this can be solved in two ways, go through law or some form of open sourcing. The open source DIY movement and online collaboration on complicated things might become more mainstream, with users hacking into their own old smart products that are no longer supported. “The tools are there to at a behavioral level hack your own products. These hacking communities are already present, but currently they are still very bad at interfacing to the common public. But perhaps this might change”.

Also data use will continue to rise. This will keep sparking discussion on privacy but also create more energy consumption. With the further development of the climate crisis this might become problematic if we as designers don’t make sure it will become less energy consuming. But IoT can also be a way to do this; “In the future we will have much more agency over the quality of our environment and health, intake of foods, quality of the air etc..” Frens expects.

But Frens also questions the uprising of connected products, because as much as the devices around us now promise convenience. He believes we also need to change that towards an idea of what it means to be human in the world 15 years from now. “I don’t think we are best served by butlers. But that we are best served by being active and social members of society. And that starts in our own homes.”

Hoping that the tech in 15 years makes us better humans and makes us good at being human. Through helping us wisen up, instead of entering a surveillance society.

While thinking about the Internet of Things and its future is something that Frens does almost every day (and has been doing for several years already). Thijs Hendal is completely new to this intriguing world. As he is just a first-year student, I wondered how different his views on the future of IoT would be. Before he is exposed to the ideas of the university.

Hendal also thinks it’s most likely IoT will continue to develop in a straight line, from how it is going now. “We are still in the starting blocks of this new age, I predict soon everything is going to be connected. That’s easy-going, that’s comfortable, that’s time sufficient. Users like this comfort, it’s inevitable on the market”, he said. 

“When you look around you in this future world, what do you see?” I asked. He sketched a picture for me. In 15 years you won’t find a household without smart products. People like convenience and that is what this IoT automation revolution will bring. And while it will start in the households, it will likely not stop there. Hendal predicts it’s possibly objects like bikes and cars that will connect your smart home to public places as well. Offering personalized experiences in public parks or movie theaters.   

How you interact with products is likely to change as well, now the user most often instructs their devices with their phone. But the smartphone as we know it, will eventually become outdated. Maybe not yet in 15 years, but in a futuristic household Hendal can imagine working with “..mind control or telekinesis! Some new interaction style, one that we might not even know to exist today, in addition to our usual voice control and remote control”. But also that commanding your devices around in general will become less necessary. The devices are smart, they know what is necessary and will make sure the work is done by communicating amongst themselves. Because the household manages itself more, houses will also become more clean and tidy. And with more and more tech becoming wireless and integrated, you will save a lot of room in the house. “You only need a bed in the evening, so it can be gone, and a safe place during the day. But when you need it, it reappears automatically.. all mind control,” He says with a laugh. All these little things will prove themselves to be very convenient in our future world, considering overpopulation and disease control.   

But is change always good? Hendal predicts this development will have consequences for users’ mental health and social relations. Because what will less time spent in the household mean for people’s work/life balance? People will have to find little moments of fulfillment elsewhere. But with time for “nice things” becoming more common, Hendal thinks these moments won’t remain as special and nice as they are now..

Even though IoT appliances offer exciting possibilities for our future it seems we as designers need to continue to be critical of what we put into the world. Since a connected world might sound like a futuristic dream at first, it is important we continue to think further ahead like Frens and Hendal.
Cause in the end, no one can predict the future. But as designers we find ourselves in the special position to create it. When thinking about the influence our work and work similar to it will have on the daily life of our users we have to keep checking in with our vision and personal values.

What we put out in the world today will set an example and inspire others around us. Shaping the future world of IoT. 

[1] https://algolytics.com/internet-of-things-new-buzzword-or-real-trend/ 

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_of_things

[3] https://www.fitbit.com/global/nl/home

[4] https://www.philips-hue.com/nl-nl

[5] https://nl-nl.ring.com/products/video-doorbell

text Kyara Fasen

visuals Ilayda Bayram