The Internet of Things: New Challenges, New Opportunities

In the last column, we talked about Big Data and the challenges that it might present the designer and engineer  in the near future (if not already). As part of that, we touched on how much of this might be driven by the Internet of Things. And the fine folks at PTC have asked me to give you a thoughts on this very subject this time around the block – specifically, asking “What does the average designer need to know or to do in response to the coming IoT era?”

The Nest Thermostat – Internet connected, smart, and it looks a lot better than the thing you stand staring at for hours on end as the seasons change. It also got the company, Nest Labs, acquired by Google for a whopping $3.2billion. Beat that, beige box.

So let’s begin by taking a look at what Internet of Things (or IoT) for short actually is. While I’m sure it might mean many things to many folks, a simplistic definition is this a “network of physical objects or ‘things’ embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and connectivity to enable objects to exchange data with the production, operator, and/or other connected devices.” (Thanks, once again, to Wikipedia.)

Essentially, imagine a world of objects that are connected, usually via the web, to other devices. It is, I’ll admit, a pretty wide definition. So perhaps some examples might be useful.

One of the success stories of late is Nest Labs and its range of thermostats, smoke/noxious gas detectors. These looked to advance the state of the art from static devices to something that gives users control and monitoring capabilities not only when they’re in the premises, but away as well.

Another that I’ve come across in recent months is the work that Yves Behar’s Fuseproject Studio has done with a garden monitoring start-up, Edyn. Again, this combines a nifty bit of product design (in terms of its sensors) along with connectivity and associated apps.

There are all manner of examples, not just in the “fancy consumer electronics” category, but elsewhere and increasingly at an industrial level. The most often quoted examples are industrial equipment manufacturers adding sensors that constantly feedback performance metrics to both the customer and the manufacturer. This gives rise to greater potential for pro-active maintenance and trouble shooting before the trouble even starts. Something that companies like Tesla have mastered. (This is an interesting breakdown of Tesla and its use of IoT tech.) Also, as we discussed last time around, there’s also potential to feed that information back into the next product iteration – making improvements based on collected, real-world data.

So what should designers and engineers think about and factor into new projects? Perhaps the first question we should answer “Why should I care about Internet of Things?” For me, the simple response is one word: opportunity.

There’s all manner of statistics around this, one interesting one was found in a TechCrunch article, stating that venture capital investment in connected devices has tripled in two years (up to $1.5 billion in 2014). It’s pretty clear that many start ups are focusing on IoT-related projects because investment is there and available.

It’s also worth spending some time to look into not only the mechanics of how connected products are put together and the different schema available (PTC’s CEO does a pretty bang on job of explaining the ins and outs in this article), but to also consider what goes into a “good implementation.”

It seems that it’s a case of combining all of the constituent parts and “designing them” as a whole. It’s about good hardware that’s task appropriate as much as it is about good software on the front end. I’ve heard many stories of IoT projects that have failed and its often good hardware and poor software or vice versa. After all, if one part fails or doesn’t delight the customer, then the whole system breaks down