The Internet of Things and Why It Matters to You

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a growing network of objects–from home appliances to industrial machines and from signs to cars—that are connected to each other and the Internet. Through an infinite web of sensors and devices that generate constant streams of data, objects will communicate with each other and “collaborate” to make everyday tasks more efficient. Yes, it all sounds very Minority Report. But what does it mean for you and your future in designing experiences and connecting people to place?

At Xlab 2015, we’re putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Be there to see how it all relates to YOUR practice!

Xlab is in NYC, 11/05/15. Join the conversation.

That’s the short definition of the Internet of Things. The long of it is that many systems, platforms, and devices are being created in the environment and they will eventually be connected. We are inexorably racing toward this vast, connected Internet of Things. We hear about new technologies, applications, and platforms every day and someone is always launching the next “killer app,” but it’s almost impossible to keep up with the pace of advancements and what they all mean to the bigger picture.

It seems far off and nebulous, this mythical Internet of Things. But the fact is that we are making quick strides toward creating intelligent environments that are gradually becoming responsive. To break it down in simple terms, the Internet of Things is made up of three parts:

1. The “things” or objects
2. The communication networks connecting them
3. The computing and software systems that process and use the data flowing among the things

Within this network, objects can and will communicate with each other and make activities more efficient—based on analysis of the copious, never-ending river of data flowing through the network. We’ve all heard the examples and there are products on the market even today that begin making the Internet of Things imaginable: traffic lights that change timing according to traffic volumes, home security systems that not only provide security but proactively set the temperature in your home the way you like it, signs that recognize your face and deliver targeted advertising, trash cans that compact waste and have sensors that alert city workers when to empty them.

Darren David,founder and CEO of innovation studio Stimulant(and featured speaker at Xlab 2015) says we are already seeing the emergence of “smart spaces”—physical environments embedded with digital superpowers. “What could a space do or express if it was dynamically aware of its surroundings?” David asks. “What experiences could you create if the conversation between inhabitant and space happened completely without friction?” In this context, interfaces disappear and the conversation between people and spaces is direct and unhindered. The possibilities for problem-solving and improving human experiences are infinite.

The Smart Citiesmovement is another major step toward the Internet of Things. Many cities have already made all sorts of data open to anyone who wants to connect to their services and gain access to that information. Companies like INDRA, IBM, and Cisco are trying to cobble the various data sources together to create “dashboards” that will help city officials better manage resources—to name just one example, traffic management and flow.

In an example closer to the realm of experiential graphic design, digital technologist/designers like Christian Marc Schmidtof Schema(Seattle) are using social media platforms like Twitter to visualize and make data flow useful for people.

And in New York City, LinkNYCis creating a network of WiFi hotspots throughout the city’s five boroughs. The consortium leading this effort includes CIVIQ (the recently rebranded Comark), Control Group, and Titian (now Intersect) under Dan Davidoff (who is linked to and funded by the Google Sidewalk Labs, a venture fund looking at this from the "consumer" point of view). Mike Clareof Control Group (now Intersection)will be a featured speaker at Xlab 2015, explaining how the LinkNYC project works and providing some key insights about how this type of project impacts experience design and city planning.

Interestingly, the LinkNYC business model uses advertising revenue to pay for the infrastructure and the 7,500 branded WiFi kiosks. Even more interesting, wayfinding is the only real "killer app" embedded in the units—not their reason for being, but a feature. It will be interesting to see how and if local businesses and communities will create their own apps that can be hosted on the system.

So what does this all mean for you today, as an experiential graphic designer?

There is a huge opportunity for design to create the next interface/useful application for the web/data/digital world. We are already seeing designers experiment with the next interface to the web in the environment—remember the “Environmental Mediascape” in LAX’s new Tom Bradley International Terminal?While this is essentially an ambient solution, it’s not too difficult to envision how this type of environmentally integrated application could be fully connected to a broader network.

Another example are the “legible cities” projects now dotting the globe. Companies like Applied and CityID understand how wayfinding systems are the core of much larger, more enabled networks that connect all modes of transportation to the city infrastructure. The idea may have started with wayfinding, but its possibilities go way beyond navigation. However, identifying these possibilities may require design and user research projects--and this is one of the opportunities that present themselves to experiential graphic designers who have the experience and specialist knowledge of how users navigate and experience spaces. 

In the world of EGD/XGD, companies like Control Group, City ID, Applied,and Local Projects understand and are open to the possibilities beyond the traditional scope of EGD. Yes, their systems may often start with wayfinding—but they expand to include not only helping people find their way, but enriching the experience, connecting people with city services, and solving a world of other problems that people encounter in the built environment.

Who is more equipped to tackle the challenges of an increasingly connected world than designers who are subject-matter experts in the problems that people encounter in physical spaces?

That is why Xlab exists. At Xlab 2015, thought leaders from design and technology companies will share how they are using new platforms like beacons, sensors, data, virtual reality, and even messaging to create experiences and connect people to place. You’ll not only hear from Mike Clareof Control Group (Intersection), but leading designers and technologists like Flavia Sparacino,an MIT PhD and inventor who is exploring the possibilities of beacons in public spaces, Vivian Rosenthal,the designer and digital entrepreneur whose company Snaps is using social messaging to build brands, a panel of experts on how technology is shaping the retail space, and Becky Sternof wearable technology company Adafruit.

There are many pieces to the “puzzle” that is the nascent Internet of Things. No one as completed the puzzle, but many are working on it. For designers, the trick may be simply to stay tuned to new technologies and platforms and look for the opportunities that digital disruption is creating in the physical environment. What problems can you help solve? 

We’ll meet you at Xlab to find out. See the program and meet the speakers here.

More than 360 people attended Xlab 2014, and 2015 seats are going fast. Register today to be a part of the future!

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