The Internet of Things: what it means for designers

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I had a Nest thermostat installed in my home in April. Replacing an old, battered thermostat, this slick device, with its digital interface is ‘smart’ in the sense that it learns your behaviours and sets the temperature accordingly.

But it can also be operated remotely via an app on a smartphone. So, driving home from a weekend away I can turn the heating on so the house is warm when I walk through the front door. It also emails me regularly with how much energy I’ve used and where possible savings can be made.

The Nest thermostat is a ‘thing’ in the Internet of Things (IoT). This IoT term has been bandied about for some time and it’s at the point now where we can no longer close our ears to its chatter.
At PTC Live Global 2014, the software vendor’s annual user event, which was held during June in Boston, IoT was very much the theme.

The keynote sessions kicked off with PTC’s CEO Jim Heppelmann who attempted to clear some of the fog around this term explaining why it’s so important to PTC users and what the company is doing to help them.

“Everyone is going to be affected by the explosion in smart, connected products. It will redefine value chains, impact industry structures and change strategies for competition. It is going to be a big deal for everybody, it is even a bit scary but I think personally, change is good. It’s good for you because it creates new opportunities and good for PTC for the very same reason,” commented Heppelmann.

Definition of IoT

Essentially, the IoT is the network of physical objects that are ‘smart’ in that they contain embedded processors, sensors, software and digital user interfaces that are connected to the internet and to each other.

According to a recent McKinsey Global Institute report, the IoT has the potential to unleash as much as $6.2 trillion in new global economic value annually by 2025. Whilst Cisco predicts that by 2020 there will be in the region of 50 billion ‘connected’ objects.


Although, it’s still in the early adopter stage there are many current examples of smart, connected products. Of course there is the Nest thermostat but think of all those wearable wristbands like the Fitbit and Jawbone that track fitness and report the data back to an app on the user’s smartphone, tablet or computer.

Also, some novel products are coming onto the market such as the August Smart Lock, which replaces physical keys with a smartphone app. The lock, which is rather pleasing to look at having been designed by August’s co-founder, renowned product designer Yves Behar, connects over Bluetooth to allow you to control access to your home through the August app. So, you can not only grant the dog walker or the childminder entry but you can also track how long they stay and customise how long you want them to have access for.

But the IoT has implications in other areas too such as healthcare where a patient can be fitted with a monitor meaning they can be cared for at home instead of in the hospital, or on the factory floor where production can be tracked and autonomous machines will work ‘intelligently’ together.

Why now?

So why is this explosion, as Heppelmann puts it, happening now? Well, technology has progressed and evolved to make this connectivity almost feel like a natural progression. But it’s not only the advance in technology but also their affordability that is making the IoT feasible.

These technology innovations include:

Computing infrastructure: With everything connected there are large quantities of data being generated or ‘Big Data’, as it is called. Storage in computers keeps expanding allowing for ever more data creation and high performing processors can process it all. In fact, IBM very recently announced that it is investing $3 billion over the next five years in two broad research and early stage development programs to push the limits of chip technology needed to meet the emerging demands of cloud computing and Big Data systems.

Communication infrastructure: Today connectivity is everywhere. Wired and wireless (Wi-Fi, 3G, 4G, Bluetooth, Zigbee) networks connect ‘things’ to the computing infrastructure and each other.

The ‘things’: The physical ‘things’ combine processors, sensors and software with connectivity. Innovations have led to ever smaller sensor technology and simultaneously, the software and application development that will be delivered inside the ‘things’ has come on too.

IoT bandwagon

There is a lot of value and data that can be generated from a connected world and for this reason companies are clambering onboard the IoT bandwagon as they all want a slice of the $6.2 trillion pie.

PTC being one of them when it acquired ThingWorx at the end of 2013 (see box piece on page 37). During his PTC Live Global 2014 keynote, Heppelmann made no bones of the fact that the company are very pleased about “spending more than $100 million to acquire an exciting new IoT software platform called ThingWorx.

There is a reason why the world and PTC are making such big investments and that is because so much value can be created by this phenomenon.”

Collaboration is key

However, the real value of the IoT lies in collaboration. Currently, there are countless apps with each one connected to their own ‘smart’ product with no real synergy between the different products. But, a recent co-operation between two companies provides a taste of what such a collaboration could mean.

French technology company Parrot created Flower Power, a wireless soil sensor placed next to potted or garden plants that measures soil moisture, fertiliser, temperature and light intensity and relays that data back to the user’s smartphone. At the same time Israeli start-up GreenIQ developed the Smart Garden Hub – a garden computer that collects weather data and waters the garden according to the weather.

The resulting connectivity between these two IoT devices via the GreenIQ cloud is a fully automated garden watering solution. As Parrot put it, the Flower Power product gave a voice to the plant and the GreenIQ Smart Garden Hub hears that voice and takes action.

However, there are companies who are already wise to the benefits that such collaborations can bring. In the home for instance, Apple a few months ago released the HomeKit that gives developers a common set of standards for building and connecting internet enabled products. It means that all smart product apps will be unified and controlled through a single app. Surely then it’s not inconceivable to eventually have these various products talking to each other if they are all controlled from the same place.

Google has also made its move into the home when it announced that it had bought Nest Labs with its smart thermostat and smoke alarm products. But it’s now dug its heels in even further with the recent announcement from Nest Labs that it has launched the Nest Developer Program. This makes it possible for developers to create interactions among Nest products and others.

To kick the program off, Nest Labs has already worked with a few companies including Jawbone, Mercedes Benz, Whirlpool and LIFX lighting. So, some scenarios could include your Jawbone communicating with the Nest thermostat as to when you wake up and so flick the heating on. Or your Mercedes-Benz can tell your Nest thermostat when you’ll be home so your house won’t unnecessarily be heated if you are working late.

Designing ‘things’

Of course, when it comes to the ‘things’ in the IoT this does not always involve simply embedding sensors and software into already developed products, but often the creation of an entirely new product that comes with its own design challenges and considerations.

For instance, talking to Simon Robinson, chief scientist at The Foundry, a developer of 3D modelling software including MODO, who says that there are a number of design opportunities involved in rethinking the user experience of new, smart connected products. Such as replacing analogue control and display systems for purely digital ones.

“There’s an accelerating move among clients that use our software in the automotive world to take up purely digital displays over analogue dashboards. This changes the engineering constraints on building in-car displays and alters the whole interaction with the driver, both of which are a great challenge for designers. And that’s even ignoring the connectivity opportunities, where your car tells your thermostat when you’ll be home,” smiles Robinson.

Product design and technology consultancy Cambridge Consultants is already working with clients on IoT devices in various areas including fitness, medical, smart buildings and factories. For Tim Ensor, Cambridge Consultants’ head of connected devices, the benefits of the IoT lies in the value it brings.

“The thing I like the least about the whole IoT hype is the name because it is being called the Internet of Things as if people have ‘things’. Nobody makes things – people make locks and shoes and kettles.

“The only way this will work is taking individual categories one at a time and figuring out what value we can get for the customers by adding connectivity into it. So, that is where I think we should be concentrating our effort and thinking. The longer people carry on talking about the IoT, it will never happen. We have to talk about the individual products and what value we get by connecting them.”

Similarly James Barker, a partner at another Cambridge-based design consultancy Cambridge Design Partnership (CDP), agrees with this sentiment. Although the consultancy has seen a growing demand from clients for IoT devices and it has even spun out its own connected devices business – Gmax Technology – Barker is skeptical about creating a IoT device just because the technology is there and you can. It needs to deliver both a user and business benefit.

“From a product design point of view it begins at the application. It is understanding what you are trying to achieve and understanding how the product will be used. For me it always comes back to the application,” he says.

Get onboard

As we progress further into the IoT, questions will arise around privacy, security, the management of intellectual property and product life cycles. But with 50 billion devices predicted to come online in the not too distant future, this is one bandwagon that you’ll have no choice but to jump on to.

Although daunting for some, it’s exciting for others like Jim Heppelmann who closed off his keynote at PTC Live Global 2014 with, “I think this is the most exciting time in our industry that I can remember and I’ve been here for awhile. I want to remind you that there is no IoT without your ‘things’ so you each have a critical role to play in making this story come to life. We are entering a very exciting era and this time you are the headline act.”

PTC and ThingWorx

PTC, a global software developer, has made no bones about the fact that its acquisition of ThingWorx on 30 December 2013 will position it as a major player in the emerging Internet of Things (IoT) era.

Founded in 2009 by Russell Fadel who saw a huge opportunity for connected devices but no application, set out to create an application enablement software allowing users to write applications on a purpose built platform. Officially launched in 2011, ThingWorx claims to have been the first software platform designed to build and run applications for the IoT.

PTC, having seen that its customers were seeking to leverage the IoT, bought ThingWorx for approximately $112 million. A fair amount ensuring it got a foothold in the IoT arena and, as the company says, to help support manufacturers seeking competitive advantage as they create and service complex products, which are increasingly embedded with software, sensors, chips, and controls.

With ThingWorx, PTC users are able to connect to the smart products they create, service and operate. So, essentially they can add smartness to that product and then interact with it via the cloud. They can also use the ThingWorx platform to develop applications to generate new value from those smart products.

ThingWorx also enables PTC to support smart manufacturing processes, such as solutions to help drive more efficient plant floor operations.

“For manufacturers today, it is clear to us that improved service strategies and service delivery is the near-term ‘killer app’ for the IoT and this opportunity has guided our strategy for some time.

With ThingWorx, PTC now possesses an innovation platform that will allow us to accelerate how we help our customers capitalise on the market opportunity that the IoT presents,” said PTC’s CEO Jim Heppelman during his keynote at this year’s PTC Live Global 2014.

Al Dean’s views on the Internet of Things

While there’s much buzz around the Internet of Things (IoT), many are scratching their heads as to how this next revolution in technology is going to change products — and that has yet to play out.

For me, the interesting thing to consider is how IoT might influence the systems and technologies we used to design, engineering and, perhaps most importantly, improve the products we’re working on.
Perhaps what I find most exciting is the potential to collect much more data about how a product is used and perhaps just as critically, mis-used.

If we can gain insight into user patterns, usage scenarios, then we stand a better chance of identifying areas for improvement, for repurposing of a product to solve a hitherto unseen application.

The challenge is, of course, how that stream of data will require an entirely different set of tools to collect, interpret and present it as meaningful information that can be actioned upon.

There’s a move in the PLM world to link together requirements management — imagine requirements capture and planning when you have a stream of data about how your products are being used, where they’re failing or where there’s user error?

That’s going to need a heavy sea change in the world of data analytics and visualisation. Yes, that will mean more acquisitions, more hyperbole from the vendors and it’ll probably cost a small fortune, but the potential is ripe.

We’re all used to working to specifications from clients on the initial development of a product and we’re all used to working to requirements when that product gets redesigned, refreshed or the next generation is planned.

Imagine how that process is going to change if we have a live feed of usage information, have the ability to predict failure or service requirements and be proactive with our customers?

So, while the IoT is still in a nascent form, the benefits and changes it could potentially bring to us, as designers and engineers, is huge. Exciting times are coming.

What is it? What does it mean? Who’s doing what?

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