Have you ever thought of the Toy Story films as sci fi? I think they have many interesting themes that could apply to the Internet of Things. When people start bringing more “smart” devices to their homes, they will create a setting for Toy Story behaviours, such as addictive personalities and leadership conflicts.
Digital products send notifications to be noticed. For example, red dots constantly appear on our mobile home screens calling for our attention. We might find it annoying, however it makes perfect sense from each individual app’s perspective. If notifications make us open an app, there’s always the chance that we upgrade to premium or spend money on in-app purchases.
When every app is goverened by its own business model, their fight for our attention can become overwhelming. It’s a classic tragedy of the commons, where individuals damage the common good by acting in their own self-interest. So what might happen if this behaviour spreads to connected devices in our homes, such as security systems, connected appliances or toys?
Just think about the potential “smart” objects that could end up in a kitchen: ovens, fridges, kettles, toasters and so on. What if they all had their own agenda?
The more smart devices we have, the more competitive they might become. This is the essence of the design fiction masterpiece “Brad the Toaster” by Simone Rebaudengo. Brad is a connected toaster that just wants to make toast. This makes it behave like an addict. Brad envies other toasters and it might even try to move to a new home if its owner is not using it right.
It’s easy to imagine that a “razors and blades” business model could explain Brad’s addiction. For example, Brad could be an inexpensive appliance sold by a company that makes their money selling bread.
While we might put up with one needy object like Brad, things get messier when there are more devices like it. A home where many smart objects compete for our attention might end up being more like Andy’s room in Toy Story. Andy’s toys are a mix of old and new and they are not always fully compatible.
One of the main themes of Toy Story is the arrival of the new toy that does not fit in. When Buzz Lightyear appears, the older toys worry that he’s too shiny and that they will be forgotten. Woody feels that his leadership is threatened. Similar conflicts might arise in future homes every time a new smart object meets older IoT devices. Will the new device be able to communicate and play well with the others? Will it ignore the others or compete with them?
On mobile, Android and iOS give more or less the same rights to all apps. Will future operating systems for smart homes allow equal rights to all devices, or will they allow one device to play the role of the leader? If so, how smart does this object need to be?
To make informed decisions that influence a larger group of devices, the leader device must understand a lot about what is going on in a home. This involves analysing the behaviour of people and connecting to other smart devices. Today, this is typically the ambition of sensor-packed devices such as Amazon’s Echo devices or Google’s Nest.
But why just interact with other smart objects? The innovative home security system Point can be taught to recognize the sounds of analog objects such as alarms and doorbells. This ability to retrofit connections to older objects in a home is an advantage for any device that aspires to take on a the role of the leader.
Just like Woody experienced in Toy Story, leadership might be challenged every time a new and potentially smarter device is introduced to the home. Since technology develops fast, the leader device probably needs to be upgraded or replaced frequently. While less capable devices might get away with minimal user interfaces, one of the most important tasks for a leader device is to communicate with people. In Toy Story, the toys try to hide their autonomy from their owner, Andy. This is a great premise for drama and comedy in a film, however it is not a useful design pattern for IoT.
In future smart homes, many interactions will be complex and involve combinations of different devices. People will need to know not only what goes on but also why. For example, when smart lights, blinds and indoor climate systems adjust automatically, home owners should be able to know what triggered it. Was it weather forecast data or the behaviour of people at home that made the thermostat lower the temperature? Which device made the decision and told the others to react? Especially when things don’t end up the way we want them to, smart objects need to communicate more, not less.
One interesting design challenge ahead is to be able to visualise chain reactions in a way that users can understand. Maybe one day, they can be visualised in ways that resemble Rube Goldberg machines?
“To Infinity and Beyond”
It’s up to us to decide how we want our smart objects to behave. We need to think about how to design communicative user interfaces for IoT and how to avoid the notification overload that we see from mobile apps today. By studying some of the dilemmas of Toy Story and Brad the Toaster, designers can prepare for what’s next.
For those interested in other potential futures of the attention economy, Keiichi Matsuda’s augmented reality visions are amazing and trippy. Also, check out my presentation from The Conference on how information on screens in public spaces might evolve.