The Internet of Things – and People

Carl Magnus Olsson, Helena Holmström Olsson, Daniel Spikol and Gion Koch Svedberg, researchers at Malmö University and participants in the Vinnova project Elis, talk about the Internet of Things and People.

This post was originally published in the Medea publication Prototyping Futures.

One of the key concepts you are exploring in your project Elis is the “Internet of Things”. What are your perceptions of this concept? Can you give us a brief description from your points of view?

CARL MAGNUS: “Internet of Things” was probably officially first mentioned in an article by Kevin Ashton in the RFID Journal, where he claims that he was the first one using the phrase as the title of a presentation he did for Procter & Gamble back in 1999. And what is it? It can be a bunch of things, anything from a smart fire alarm (editor’s note: which accidentally went off in Carl Magnus’ backpack during the interview), to more or less intelligent devices that you could combine and connect in various ways. Lately there has been an increasing interest in connecting many different things to actually see what we can do with them. In certain cases, there are very specific benefits, but for many people it is still just a matter of playing around and seeing what we can do with technology.

HELENA: The basis for exploring the potentials of Internet of Things is to get the chance to do some great research and start experimenting with all new opportunities that these technologies provide us with. There are possibilities that we do not really know of yet, but that we need to discover and start exploring, and through that potentially introduce new kinds of services that could have an influence on our lifestyles and behavioural patterns. We need to pay attention to all these new openings and explore them in collaboration with the users. From a research and development perspective, I think we are the right people to do that since our job is also to be critical, reflective and open to both good and bad things.

DANIEL: This whole field comes from some sort of innovation chain. Before Internet of Things we had “smart house”, and different kinds of connected devices, but they were localised and limited to one specific area – like a factory or a home. With the pervasiveness of the Internet, people started to assign IP addresses to everything. Then suddenly that shifts it from a closed environment to a potentially open environment. Now that the Internet is everywhere, many different things can start talking to each other, which means your phone can talk to your car, which in turn can talk to your computer, which can talk to your refrigerator, which can talk to a chip implanted in your pet. What does all this mean on a societal level, on a technological level, on a research level, or on a privacy level? What does it mean on an architectural and design level? This is what people really want to know, and also how it can benefit us. It could certainly benefit logistics and factories, but the question is, how does it benefit us as people?

CARL MAGNUS: In the Elis project, we are exploring Internet of Things from various angles. One of our areas of exploration is apartments, focusing on people, families and households. We are specifically trying to improve energy efficiency, which is the actual goal and the purpose of the whole project. Of course, we would also like to address quality of life in relation to Internet of Things, but in this project we are trying to specifically target energy efficiency and possibly establish an award system for actually caring about energy consumption. That means a slightly different array of devices, compared to what we are normally faced with as consumers. A radiator thermostat is normally just something that is plugged into a radiator and you turn it on or off if it is warm or cold. We do not really care about interacting with it otherwise. Our project actually means a pretty big shift in terms of what kinds of devices we are really trying to make come to life to the users. These devices are stuff that are normally just peripheral to them.

GION: A lot of this is actually about measurement. The built-in sensors in our mobile devices, such as cameras, microphones, accelerometers, gyros, temperature and humidity sensors, allow for setting up large-scale, highly dynamic mobile-sensor networks that can measure at places and times of special interest. This means that, with Internet of Things, we can start measuring things we could not measure before. For example, the monitoring of “crowd” movement in a town prior to and after a football game, the most accurate weather information and dangerous traffic situations, such as slippery roads or approaching drunken drivers. We can start measuring our own behaviour and compare it with everyone else’s, for example, with regards to energy consumption, environmental pollution, physical training and much, much more.

CARL MAGNUS: The question is, what are we going to use this data for? Data is obviously useful, that is kind of why Google exists. Data has value, but what is the value of this kind of data? What kinds of services are relevant? That is what we are trying to figure out.

Concretely speaking, how do you actually conduct this kind of research? What are your methods? Do you use, for example, the Connectivity Lab at Medea?

CARL MAGNUS: The Connectivity Lab is one part of it, that is where the initial development is being done. But it is in the Living Lab approach we take our point of departure, the actual deployment of the technology in real world settings. To be honest, I think that many of the devices we have seen up to now by commercial actors within the field of Internet of Things are pretty useless. A lot of companies are fighting for market shares by just putting Internet into everything and hoping that something will come out of it. There is stuff bubbling up everywhere, but we do not really know what to use it for. We do not know what to make of all this. We just do not want to be overrun by it, so we better start exploring the opportunities out there and make something out of it.

DANIEL: One more thing from the perspective of computer science at Malmö University: we always think about the Internet of Things, and people. There are just not things, we are also interested in the people part of it, the Internet of Things – and People.

Related posts
Read more about the Elis: Mobile services for energy efficiency in existing buildings and about the Living Labs’ approach.

Image credit Flickr user Storm Crypt CC:BY-NC-ND