Reprinted from hbr.org
David Rose is CEO of Ditto, an image-recognition service for brands. He’s also a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab and [former] CEO of Vitality, the maker of the first internet-connected medication packaging (GlowCap). He’s also the author of Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things. I called him to ask him about what makes an object “enchanted” and how we’ll really use all these new gadgets — and what it means for the companies making them. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
You don’t talk much about the “Internet of Things” — instead you talk about “enchanted objects.” Why the distinction?
To call it pervasive computing, things that think, smart things — all of those terms are right. But I chose “enchanted objects” because I think the motivation for what to make, the best place to be inspired for what we could make with this new capability of cheap silicon and networks, is fairytales. Our aspirations are revealed through the stories of Hans Christen Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, Harry Potter, Middle Earth, as well as spy culture like James Bond. All of those stories have enchanted things that satisfy people’s needs and desires, whether it’s omniscience, telepathy, safekeeping, or personal expression (those are a few of the ones I talk about in my book). Rather than thinking about the technology and what it could do, I want designers to start with, “What are the human psychological drives that should be satisfied?”
Some of the enchanted objects you talk about sound really cool — like the Google Latitude doorbell, that chimes with a different ringtone when each family member is approaching the house. It reminds me of Mrs. Weasley’s magic clock in Harry Potter. But how much do we actually need a doorbell that does that? What does that really do for us?
Well, here’s what it does for my family. There’s always this end-of-day confusion and uncertainty around who is where, and who is coming home when, and who is being picked up by who. These transitions in the day, whether it’s the morning commute or everyone returning to the nest at night, they’re the times that are the most fraught with anxiety and when there’s the most need for coordination and timing.
Apple’s solution is an app called Find My Friends. The problem is that it plots everyone’s location on a map all the time. Even for family, that can feel a bit intrusive. So I wanted to obfuscate the data a bit, and present it in a way [through a sound-only interface] that would require less of your attention. For instance, the Weasley clock is always present in her kitchen, and the hands not only show the location of someone, but the psychological state of the person, like “in mortal peril.” That’s a better interface because it’s in the kitchen, the place people spend their time. It doesn’t require launching an app. [The connected doorbell] lets you know whether specific family members are 10 miles away, 1 mile away, or in the neighborhood. It gives you a sense of degrees of presence without being as distracting.
The question becomes, how do you take the everyday gestures and everyday actions — and the things we’re touching and using anyway, like the drawer handles and doorknobs — and embed the information in them?
Is that the key to getting past the whiz-bang factor to making things that are actually useful? I’m thinking of something like Google Glass, where first there’s this wave of first-movers and everyone wants a pair, and then there’s this backlash of, “Oh, it’s not that useful, nevermind.” How do you get over that hump?
I think the way you learn about your reaction to these things over time is to live with them. I’m a big advocate for putting prototypes in people’s homes and letting them use them over time. For the last six months or so, my six year-old has been able to open the Skype Cabinet [a walnut cabinet with a built-in screen] in our home and talk to my parents. That gives you a chance to see, “Do they keep using it? How often, and for how long?” We’ve learned that the simplicity of the interface actually encourages more use than Facetime, even though we all thought Facetime was so cool when it came out. I’m an advocate for not making people change their current behaviors. The sensing has to be passive. With GlowCap for instance [the medicine bottle that lights up to remind you to take your pills], you have to open your pill cap to get the pills out anyway.
You’ve written a lot about how this technology affects the home. But what about at our home-away-from-home: the office?
I have a partnership with Gensler [the architecture firm]. We’ve been working with Salesforce on a couple of different products. One is a “conversational balance table.” I was inspired by the book Quiet. The message I took from that is that introverts have just as many good ideas as extroverts, but organizations suppress those ideas just through the way we conduct our day. I built a table that has six sides to it for a six-person meeting. It keeps a record of how long each person has been talking, for how many seconds, and it displays that information as a constellation of LEDs embedded under the wood veneer of the table. So you can see, for instance, that John hasn’t really had a say. The table is an automatic facilitator that helps subtly suppress the verbose people and encourage the wallflowers.
I’m also working with a group called the Changing Places Group at MIT. They develop robotic furniture that will automatically help in those situations where you need more of a heads-down workspace rather than more of a collaborative, open one. There are panels that fly up or fly in in order to solve that problem of one loudmouth who is on the phone who is disturbing five other people in the room.
What are some industries/companies that will be big in this business that we may not yet see? Everyone looks at Google and Nike and the like. Who are some potentially compelling players from outside the typical tech world?
If you think about things like jewelry, clothing, security, and who has the design talent, the distribution, and the brand power [to make enchanted objects work], it should be [established companies]. But you don’t see them doing a lot of experiments, or at least, not as many as I would expect. So Indiegogo and Kickstarter are where i go to see the start-ups that are innovating and making things like Ringly, the internet-connected ring, or BeON, the home security system.
What are some of the business model implications of products like these?
I believe that the Internet of Things and enchanted objects almost demand that every product company will pivot and become a service company. Take your most basic example of shoes or luggage or office furniture, those companies that make the products we touch and interact with. They are clamoring for differentiation. Tools they’ve been using are things like materials (plastic versus wood) or design, but now with some potential for embedding connectivity, they have a whole new playing field to explore for differentiation, and also a tether to the customer over time that suggests a new business model that looks more like subscription than product sales.
The other day I went into shop for a Tesla, and I was asking, “Well I have this tight parking situation, does it have a backup sensor that will alert you before you hit the wall?” They said, “No, not today. But we’re about to push an over-the-air update out to the cars in a couple of months, so buy it today and it will become better in a couple of months.” When has a car, or shoe, or furniture company been able to upgrade your object from afar? Now when we want an improvement, we won’t have to throw out the hardware.
But if the hardware is where the money has been made….
Look, Amazon is already distributing Kindles at cost, because they know it will get people to buy more books from them. I think they should give away the hardware like so many cell companies do. And why wouldn’t car companies follow the same model, in order to get people to drive a connected car? They could charge thousands for feature sets rather than thousands for steel.
Right now it seems like a lot of “enchanted objects” rely on the market for personal data. Do you see that changing?
That’s an opportunity-slash-issue. But even without selling any data, certain of these products, like the GlowCap, predictably change behavior. If people take their meds 30% more often, and that is the case with GlowCap, even without the data the smart package adds value because it adds evidence of use. How many more drugs would a pharmaceutical company sell if people actually took their medication as prescribed? In that sense it’s not that different from the use-strip on a razor; Gillette sells more razors when people see the use-strip is worn down. So I don’t think companies will have to pursue the selling of data in order to have this change in business model if there is behavior change involved.
But the data that is cast off is a privacy issue, and a transparency issue, and it needs to be addressed.
What about saturation? Will people get sensor fatigue by constantly being reminded by different beeps and boops and flashing lights? Will the GlowCap stop working when it’s one of 43 sensors telling us we forgot something?
The future is going to look a little like typography right after the laser printer came out. Remember, everyone was like, “Let’s use more fonts! Let’s use eight different type-facecs because we have these new tools!” In the beginning, there won’t be the Jony Ive-style design restraint that makes it elegant and subtle and embedded.
So we’re in the Internet of Things’ comic sans moment right now.
Exactly. And it’s going to get worse over the next five years.
But consider that today we adorn our homes with all kinds of art, postcards, prints, windows to the outside — there’s a lot of information in all of that. No, it’s not all internet-connected, but our human visual-auditory perception systems take in lots of messages every day and filter them fairly well. So it’s a design challenge. If designers pay attention to displaying info in glanceable or ambient ways, what psychologists call “pre-attentive,” then your visual and acoustic perception system is really good at attending to the things that are important. We’re not distracted by windows or a print on the wall, but we still see that and attune to that. So the real estate on people’s walls and floors and ceilings and desks will spread more information as long as it’s not presented in too rich of a way, means it’s not text-based. Right now we’re already overwhelmed, because we have so much richness around us — there’s already too much text to process in our Facebook feeds and Twitter feeds. So we migrate to pay attention to the photos in our Facebook feeds and ignore all the rest.
So there’s a design opportunity to present the data in a way that is respectful of both our privacy and our attention.
Watch the video below, produced by David, for a look at some of the objects we talked about: