The Constellation of Things

Your keys, your car, your credit cards, your smartphones, and the information they contain—these are all things you generally want to keep close.

But what if the safest place to keep them wasn’t on your person but connected to your personal cloud, the data that is you? Today, products are more than the physical things you buy. They’re channels through which data continuously pass and devices constantly communicate. They’re conduits to your personalized physical world that connect you with your home, car, maybe even your coffee shop or doctor.

More companies are looking for ways to manufacture products that serve as these data channels, but makers of the things in the Internet of Things must consider how their products will function across industries.

Already, automakers are thinking about mobility; home-appliance makers are thinking about how to communicate with cars; consumer companies are collaborating with the health care industry. The list goes on. As technology steadily becomes cheaper, smaller, and more powerful, there’s a leveling of the playing field, and even the most traditional companies are recalibrating to take on newer, unexpected competitors.

At last year’s Data Days Conference in Berlin, Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, product designer and founder of the London-based company Designswarm Industries Ltd., which advises businesses on how to understand and integrate IoT, explained how this shift will affect their product development.

“Objects have taken a background position, in a way, where we see them as extensions to our mobile phone experience,” Deschamps-Sonsino said. “That is really changing the landscape of how we think about the Internet of Things.”

You’re going to see collective innovation around building an ecosystem that can go to market, Mendenhell says.

In other words, the novelty of a product is no longer its tangibility, but its ability to become a vessel for countless other services. This “digitization of the physical world,” as Michael Mendenhall, the CMO and CCO of global design, engineering, and manufacturing company Flex, describes it, is driving a technological renaissance in which connected products themselves are made collaborative.

“You’re going to see an evolution of connected products from one of operability to one of intelligence, predictability, and optimization,” he says. “Products will become a platform and a part of an ecosystem of connected points.”

Take the Nymi Band, a wristband that authenticates users through their unique cardiac rhythms, allowing fluid wireless access to IoT devices such as cars, computers, TVs, credit cards, and more. In late 2014, the Toronto-based company began selling discovery kits intended for developers who want to build Nymi-based applications. One example is the shopping application Change Room, developed in partnership with MasterCard, which allows users to reserve in-store items and pick them up on the fly. The Nymi Band automatically confirms the shopper’s identity and proof of payment by communicating with the store’s computer system, eliminating the need to use a physical credit card.

“The Internet of Things is not just a conversation about technology,” Designswarm’s Deschamps-Sonsino said. “It’s a conversation about design. It’s a conversation about products.” It’s a conversation many companies are starting to have.

Everyone's an IoT Star

The global consumer is hungrier than ever for connectivity. According to the “2014 Internet of Things: The Future Consumer Adoption” report, conducted by Accenture Interactive’s Acquity Group, 30% of consumers already own or plan to purchase an IoT device by next year.

Meanwhile, as Moore’s Law tells us, the processing power of computers continues to double every two years, while the size of the technology continues to shrink rapidly. One good example is RF Digital’s Simblee (featured in this issue), an Arduino-based Bluetooth chip the size of a fingernail that allows developers to embed mobile application behaviors directly into almost anything—a car, home, smartphone, or retail shop, to name a few.

“You should be able to interact with things around you without needing to go download an app,” RF Digital President and CEO Armen Kazanchian says.

According to Bloomberg Business’s report on the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis’s personal consumption expenditures price index, in 2014, personal computers and software cost less than 1/1,100 and 1/100, respectively, of what they did in 1980, and prices continue to drop.

Smaller. Cheaper. More powerful. All of this leads to a realization by IoT hopefuls that they have plenty of reason to hope in this fresh, heterogeneous, and cheaper-than-ever industry. Now every person has the opportunity to design and create “things” for the Internet of Things. “With the miniaturization movement and the decreasing cost of technology, it takes very little capital to break into these industries,” Flex’s Mendenhall says. “Technology has democratized the playing field.”

Mapping Uncharted Systems

This paradigm shift is not without its hiccups. As a Flex-commissioned IoT study conducted by Edelman Berland last year found, 86% of companies believe that integration of IoT is very important to their success, yet less than a third say they are experts at it.

As innovation increases and the buying power of the middle class rises globally, regional product needs will become more important as consumers will be able to demand more customization of their products. As Mendenhall notes, this is where regional manufacturing and speed to market becomes extremely important as a competitive advantage.

“You’re going to see collective innovation around building an ecosystem that can go to market,” he says. Collaboration will start from the very initial design phase of a product. IoT designers have not always had the luxury of collaboration, which Deschamps-Sonsino says she experienced firsthand when developing her own consumer product, a series of IoT-connected lamps.

“The Good Night Lamp is something I developed 10 years ago, when people weren’t as familiar with Internet-connected devices,” Deschamps-Sonsino says. “It took me a long time to meet and talk to the right people in electronics and product development.”

Today, more designers and businesses are formalizing ways to collaborate. Nominet’s Smart Oxford Challenge, for example, brings together experts and individuals seeking IoT help for their ideas. Mendenhall says the first step for any potential partners involves a long, hard look at needs. “One of the most strategic things companies can do at this point is look at how and where in the company innovation lives,” he says. “Once you define that strategy, you’ll know what kind of people, capability, and resources you need to make that a success."