Connected objects

A connected object is one that senses, thinks, and acts. The home has categories of connected objects that tend not to be in other spaces, such as white goods and personal memorabilia.

What is a connected object

Depending on the field, the terms smart and connected are used largely interchangeably. For the purposes of this book, we primarily use the term connected.

A connected object is one that:

  • senses (i.e. takes input from the environment or a user)
  • thinks (i.e. computes and analyzes data, often on the cloud)
  • and then acts (i.e. makes something happen)

A connected object also has a physical component. It can interact with the physical world through its input or output, or both. A connected object is likely networked to other connected objects or digital services via the internet or local networks.

Sensing

An object that gathers information about its environment is sensing. Examples include measuring temperature, sound, light, or movement. It can also mean receiving input from a user, such as a button being pushed or a switch turned on.

Thinking

Thinking is the process of analyzing the input. Perhaps the incoming data is added to a larger data set, or some computation is run using it. For connected objects, thinking increasingly tends to happen "in the cloud", instead of locally on the device itself. This increases the computational potential of the object, since cloud services are able to process much more data than small, local hardware.

Acting

As a result of thinking, the object acts. It performs some kind of output, such as switching off a light, turning down the temperature, unlocking a door, or sending a notification to a phone. These actions can be physical or digital, visible or invisible.

Often, but not necessarily, these three behaviors (sensing, thinking, acting) happen in chronological order. In larger systems, several of these processes might happen in parallel or in ongoing loops. The interactions can be quite complex. Nevertheless, the basic pattern holds.

Categories of connected objects

The home contains objects of various categories: furniture, appliances, devices, personal memorabilia, food and more.

Here we outline several categories to see if they yield any interesting insights or questions.

Connected vs. disconnected

One simple distinction of objects is connected or disconnected.

It is binary—simply on/off. If we look at the last 10 years, this held up nicely. Lamp on, phone off, refrigerator running.

Over the last few years, the lines have started to blur. Is the smart TV on or off, if its always listening in even when the screen isn't on? As more things come online, and their connectivity becomes more complex, the binary distinction might become more of a spectrum.

Active vs. passive

Which objects in our home actively listen, sense, interpret, process, act on what's going on in the room? Which ones sit there until we intentionally trigger them? How will we distinguish these modes at all?

For example, an Amazon Echo listens actively for commands, as does your Android phone if you set it up to react to the trigger word "OK Google".

However, the trigger word is primarily processed locally. Once uttered, the devices fires up a connection to a server farm and gets ready. Is this active or passive listening?

What about a geofence that triggers an action once we approach it, such as when we enter our home with our phone? That system doesn't listen for audio cues, but it does track our behavior and switches from kind of passive to fully active.

What about a motion sensor that is connected to the internet? What about a learning algorithm that doesn't act in a visible way at all, yet nevertheless learns about and adapts to our behaviors?

The categories of active vs. passive data gathering objects are ripe with questions.

Consenting vs. refusing

User consent is complex, and it can depend on the kind of sensing happening in the home.

For example, carbon monoxide detectors might be perceived as non-invasive, whereas someone may want to opt-out of a microphone or camera monitoring them.

How can a user understand and give informed consent for a microphone in a friend's home that listens to their every word? Today, many devices already have actively listening microphones in smartphones, laptops, game consoles, and TVs.

What's more, the number of actively listening objects looks like it will take a sharp upturn now. Personal assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home, or voice controlled appliances like ovens, are on the rise. If it's voice-controllable, it's likely to include at least some level of active listening. What does user consent look like here?

We see these questions around voice control as an important frontier for these questions of consent vs. opting out.

Will every object sense?

Device makers are betting that consumers will flock to smart home hubs and other voice-controlled appliances. Just about every major tech company or home appliance manufacturer has some sort of smart play in the market.

How much so? At CES 2016, Samsung president BK Yoon announced that all Samsung televisions will be IoT devices by 2017, and within five years all Samsung hardware will be IoT-ready.1

Voice will likely be a major interface for these devices. It means that the home will soon have a lot of microphones. There will also be many more sensors, meaning your home will be listening to all sorts of inputs.

Adding computation and network capabilities to consumer and home devices is getting so cheap that it hardly makes sense for a company not to put it in, even if the value isn't clear yet or they don't know what to do with all the data that will be collected.

Here we outline a few further categories of objects in the home and how they might change with connectivity:

Routers

First, routers might turn out to be the hub that controls all our smart home infrastructure. It's not clear how it's going to play out, but it's a strong scenario. For example, Google's wifi router On Hub2 comes with all the protocols equipped, plus microphones and speakers, even though Google has a dedicated smart home hub in the market (Google Home). Routers are already at the core of home connectivity, but also notoriously tricky to configure and maintain. They might just be the least beloved of all tech objects in anyone's home. Do we want these as hubs?

White goods

Second, white goods such as dishwashers, fridges, washing machines, and ovens have been the connected fever dream of manufactures for years. (The internet-connected fridge has become a running joke by itself.)3 There might be something there. Assume for a second that a scenario where we have a home server in every house; a local cloud solution of sorts. It's a long shot, but the fridge might not be the worst place to house this device, or to double as a hub if integrated smartly.

We believe it's more likely that appliances will end up with minimum connectivity but with voice-controls. A hands-free scenario is useful for cooking, whereas a fridge automatically ordering groceries seems somewhat invasive.

This is purely hypothetical. We don't have much data on user acceptance. All it takes to change the perception of a service or product is for one to get it just right. It would be an "iPhone moment" for connected appliances that doesn't just improve an oven but redraws the meaning and boundaries of the category entirely.

Home infrastructure

Third is infrastructure. What happens when existing infrastructure such as water pipes, heating, electricity and the like get connected?

We see the first steps with smart meters that measure electricity consumption and make it more transparent and actionable. There's still lots of previously dumb infrastructure to explore.

But also, what about the infrastructure in a home we usually don't associate with connectivity? Floor boards, wall paper, blinds? It seems to early to tell, but there might be unexpected sensing, thinking and acting coming soon to our home infrastructure.

New kinds of objects

The fourth category is truly new stuff. The unknown unknowns we can only speculate about. This is the category that's most sketchy—with the most potential while also likely to cause major friction.

We'll be watching with interest over the next five to twenty-five years as more connected objects, from fridges to kitchen tables, come online.

1. See AV Interaction (Jan 2016): avinteractive.com/news/samsung-announces-plans-to-make-all-tvs-iot-devices-by-2017-06-01-2016/
2. on.google.com/hub/
3. fuckyeahinternetfridge.tumblr.com

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