The Internet’s Next Layer: The Internet of You

October 9, 2013 | Sce Pike

Don’t get too attached to the web’s latest phase, the so-called “Internet of Things.” As Citizen’s Sce Pike explains, an even better digital destiny awaits. And it all revolves around you.

About two years ago, my adventure into the world of the Internet of Things began when I installed the wireless stereo system Sonos in my home. As soon as I plugged in the speakers, I could play the same music throughout my house or play different tracks in different rooms, using my mobile phone as a remote. It was so easy that it led me on a quest to connect everything in my house. I got Nest, the intelligent thermostat; then WeMo to control the lights; and then GreenGoose, a sensor that measures personal behaviors, to keep track of my cat Thor’s eating habits. It became addictive: I wanted to control everything in my home from my mobile phone.

These products are part of the latest phase in the Internet’s development, called the “Internet of Things.” Through the convergence of social and mobile layers, more and more objects are being wired with connections to the Internet and digital functionality. Still, the name of this new phase is a bit of a misnomer. As much as I enjoyed these projects, they required downloading just as many apps to support them and, more importantly, they needed me to manage them. When my initial awe for their connected functionality wore off, I realized they weren’t connected enough. That is, they couldn’t perform basic “smart” functions that a connected device should be able to do.

While these objects can access the Internet and the social layer, in particular, the reality is that they rarely do. And with no standard programming language among apps, they can’t communicate with one another (unless you know how to hack). Even their connection to my phone, which I use to control them, began to seem like a missed opportunity. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed these objects should be retrieving information from the web — like weather and traffic conditions, geo-location, billing information, etc. — and syncing it with the personal information on my phone, including location, calendar, contacts, text messages, email, and other sensors. The full spectrum of possibilities in smart phones and devices was being ignored; it was just used to present information or control wired objects.

Imagining a Smarter Device Experience

Imagine a device intelligent enough to connect all those dots for you. Sonos could take note that I’m going to a Bon Iver concert tonight and suggest it play Bon Iver. Or Nest could let Sonos know that it’s cold and rainy outside, making Radiohead the perfect soundtrack. If all of these layers could be connected, “Internet of Things” would be an accurate description, but, for the present, you are the bridge between these isolated apps. All the information collected by these apps gives you a clearer picture of yourself, but the mobile phone still requires you to synthesize that data to make it meaningful. So how can mobile hardware better integrate its functionality to offer you a truly personalized experience? That’s easy: you build it.

A New Craft Renaissance

Only 150 years ago, our ancestors were crafting objects — clothes, furniture, toys, etc. — that fit their needs. But mass production separated designers and users, replacing custom solutions with a one-size-fits-all mentality. But all that is beginning to change, even right here in Portland. We’ve seen a craft renaissance emerge that reflects a cultural shift back to this bygone paradigm. Here, consumers are seeking out locally made, artisanal goods, which include everything from microbreweries and small batch coffee roasters to leather tanneries and boutiques like Beam & Anchor that only sell local goods. When this trend spreads to the world of technology and connected devices, in particular, we will once again be completely in control of our environment — and the objects that populate it.

Turning Ideas into Objects

In many ways, we’re seeing the first signs that this trend is taking hold. New technologies, like 3D printers, are giving everyday users access to unprecedented manufacturing possibilities that allow them to design and fabricate products that are precisely calibrated for their needs. Online services like Shapeways are allowing people to transform their ideas into objects that may not be right for the masses, but are exactly right for them. The ease of access to this new technology also means that the previously clear-cut lines between users, designers, engineers, and manufacturers are beginning to blur.

Turning Objects into Interfaces

While 3D printing can help us create objects, there’s still a ways to go before similar services will allow everyday users to create their own interfaces and, in turn, control all the connected objects in their lives. But it’s not a complete pipe dream, either. Online services are already helping users create interfaces out of literally anything. Through MaKey MaKey, an inexpensive tool I bought online, I was able to create an interface using a houseplant that, when I touched one of its leaves, would advance to the next slide in my presentation. While that’s still a step away from the software needed to create our own mobile devices, we are getting so close that the idea of individuals creating custom devices is not so far-fetched. In fact, it would restore the user-designer paradigm that existed prior to the Industrial Revolution.

A Unique User Experience

Instead of the “Internet of Things,” we need a new paradigm in which the networked objects in our environment are designed by us to uniquely fit our needs. I’m calling it the “Internet of You,” because it will be created by you and emphasize the things that matter most to you. You will easily pull data from the data and social layers of the Internet and tie them to your connected devices. When those devices aren’t good enough, you’ll start printing what you wanted all along. Through the data gathered by devices you design yourself, you will begin to see a holistic picture of yourself and embark on a journey of self-actualization that is removed from the constant noise of the marketing and advertising engines. When users are fully empowered to create objects and devices for themselves, they’ll create things that perfectly complement their lives. That is, they’ll create a truly authentic user experience.

Sce Pike

SCE PIKE Managing Partner | Citizen, Inc.