Why the Internet of Things Needs More Personality

It seems as though everything is becoming connected. It’s not just smartwatches from the likes of Apple or Samsung. It’s also cars, homes, health, industry and agriculture. We have connected babies (well onesies), WiFi sniffing cats and even (the slightly pointless) a connected yoga mat. That’s all very well, but the mere existence of technology does not equal adoption. Cue Cat is my favourite example of a large technology investment with no user take-up. When it comes to the IoT Michael Humphrey writing in Forbes summed it up well – we have an ‘enthusaism gap’.

Clearly, going from innovation to adoption is not easy. Bill Buxton talks about The Long Nose of Innovation. Development happens over many decades until we create a truly usable product. The computer mouse and smartphone touch screens are two examples. How could we apply the long nose to the IoT? Some people suggest it will reach true innovation when it becomes invisible and we don’t know it’s there. That might be true in part, but I think there is a flip side – we need to create more enthusiasm by making the IoT more visible and giving objects a personality.

Things That Tweet
The micro-blogging channel has been put to good use, not just by people but also Tweeting objects. We have Mars Curiosity (@marscuriosity), the Crossrail Tunneling machine, Big Bertha (@BerthaDigsCR99) and there’s Tom Coates’ Tweeting house (@houseofcoates). Fun? Yes. But it seems to go deeper than that. @houseofcoates has 1400 followers (slightly more than I do), and some of them get into conversations with the house (and very occasionally, it replies).

Enchanted Objects
MIT Lab scientist, David Rose, harks back to the days of beautifully crafted artifacts that fulfilled just specific tasks. He worries that the future of most objects will be little more than a black slab of glass without any enchantment (and without personality). He is on a mission to create and promote more enthusiasm with enchanting objects. Often, these objects have fewer functions but they do them beautifully. He gives the example of the umbrella, where the handle glows when it is going to rain or a medicine bottle that chirps to remind you to take a pill. Simplicity and delight are the key to the engagement.

Simple, Fun Experiences
Taking a cue from David Rose, if we are to engage with the IoT then we need to focus on simplicity and fun. The Smart Crossing was a recent Cannes Lions winner for Smart Cars that did just that. To discourage pedestrians from crossing in front of the traffic they created a light where the red, stop person danced. Not only that, but the moves were created by real people in a booth nearby. Of course, everyone waited at the lights, entertained for a few minutes by a dancing person.

More Personality
Brad The Toaster is a more anthropomorphic incarnation. Though an artistic concept, rather than a real thing, it brings a personality to the problem of over consumption. Brad is one of many connected toasters that can’t be owned (he’s more like a cat in that respect). You can look after Brad and use him, but if he is neglected then he will simply give himself to someone else. This idea could be applied to other products like self-driving cars. Given that the vehicles we own spend most of their time parked up, it makes little sense to own a car . However, we have a strong emotional relationship with them. Even in a self-driving world where the car just appears when you want it, giving them up won’t be so simple. Perhaps, though, if they have personality more like Brad The Toaster then we’ll be more likely to switch to a simple rental model.

‘Clothes have Feelings Too’
Taking the Brad concept further, I’ve been developing an idea called The Internet of Clothes. In developed nations we buy too many clothes and wear very few of them. One solution is that your clothes will ask to be worn. They will Tweet you based on the weather, frequency of wear or occasion. And if you ignore them? They will contact a charity for recycling.

I hope that giving clothes a sense of personality it can help people make better use of the resource. There’s no reason why we can’t do the same for other IoT objects. At the simplest level, we can feel more engaged but at a deeper level, it’s also about building an anthropomorphic relationship. For us humans it makes the whole IoT easier to comprehend.

Facebook’s Dislike Button. What’s Not To Like?

Speaking at a recent event in California, Mark Zuckerberg suggested that the social network would be introducing a new button. He said, ‘”We have an idea that we’re going to be ready to test soon, and depending on how that does, we’ll roll it out more broadly”. Although the Facebook CEO didn’t name it as such, it has been branded the ‘Dislike’ button.


If it is implemented, this will be an interesting new step for Facebook. The current Like button, that first appeared in 2007, was famously the result of a hackathon. It was proposed as an ‘Awesome’ button. Realising that many post of cats and people’s children were less than awesome, it transformed into the Like that we know today.  The success of the button is both its binary simplicity and the fact that it is a positive acknowledgement of the post. Even when a post is more serious or tragic, the action of Liking is widely understood to be positive and supportive.

For Facebook, there is a need to move forwards. At a time when many young users are switching to Instagram and WhatsApp (both owned by Facebook), they need to innovate to encourage retention. The challenge of a Dislike button, though, comes from its very nature. It’s a negative action. In a Wired article, Brian Barrett suggested that it will create a negative atmosphere that will simply put people off posting. Given the personal nature of these networks, it’s easy to understand why users will be discouraged if disapproval is as simple as clicking a button.

The negativity of the Dislike button could, potentially run even deeper though. Unlike Reddit, one of the benefits of Facebook is that posts are not ranked. Once you have two options, Like and Dislike, there will be an inevitable sense of competitiveness on posts, discouraging yet more users.

I’m sure Facebook are aware of the challenges, but they will need to tread carefully. Posts and shares are the lifeblood of Facebook and that in turn is what drives their advertisers. So in the end, the success of a Dislike button will probably come down to money.

Why Google Needs Brillo, Their OS for the IoT

With Google’s I/O announcement of Brillo, things are hotting up for operating systems to run the Internet of Things (IoT). We are witnessing a considerable growth of connected objects – from watches to cars to homes. Some of these are from established manufacturers but low-cost, rapid development means that there are an increasing number of startups delivering new devices. With such a broad range of smart objects the real challenge of the IoT is how to make them a fragmented landscape work together.

Google believes that Brillo is the answer (the irony of the similarity to my name is not lost on me). They announced an operating system that is largely Android based with an additional communications layer called Weave. The over arching premise is a consistent experience. Senior VP, Sundar Pichai said in his announcement that with “any Android device [connected to] a device based on Brillo or Weave, a user will see the same thing no matter what.”

The company is already busy in the connected world – they own Android, which powers a majority of the world’s smartphones and has built Android Gear for wearable devices. Google purchased Nest, the connected home system, last year and for the future, their driverless car development will naturally connect to the IoT. The development of complete operating system makes sense for Google.

However, what underpins most of their strategy is their search engine, and with it, paid advertising. Android, for example, puts their search at the heart of mobile. Although smartphones will be the core device for the IoT, the proliferation of connected objects means Google need to ensure their search giant status is future proof.

The success is not guaranteed for Google. Look at the challenges they’ve had in other developments such as social media to see that the power of Google does not always result in uptake. And there are many challengers in connecting the IoT. Major players including Samsung, Microsoft, Cisco and mobile chip manufacturer, ARM have all made moves in this area. There are also a growing number of start-ups and open source projects such as Contiki, Riot and Onion.io. Perhaps most interesting project is IFTTT (‘if this then that’). Many people will know it as a tool for cross posting on social media, but IFTTT offers much more than that. It uses ‘recipes’ to create a codeless method of connecting across channels and devices such as Nest, Phillips Hue or Fitbit. With millions of recipes already running on their apps, the company has a head start on Google supported by a $35m VC funding round in 2014.

Brillo was just one of a number of interesting announcements at Google I/O, there is no question that the operating system has added to the increased interest (and possibly hype) around our rapidly developing world of connected objects.

What Have Hackathons Ever Done for Us?

I don’t get the point of the hack days (or hackathons or whatever they’re called this week) that brands or ad agencies organise. I’ve been to a few and my experience is that they produce very little. Has a viable product or service ever been delivered as a result of a hack day? Not that I know of.

The lack of real innovation is hardly surprising. A typical agency hackathon seems to consist of mostly people from the marketing team and a couple of put-upon developers, who are expected to do a month’s coding in a few hours. Maybe the hackathons made famous by Facebook delivered something useful, but I believe that the brand or agency sessions are largely a PR exercise. At best they might deliver the grain of an idea. There’s nothing wrong with a PR exercise, but there needs to be an element of realism to acknowledge that they are unlikely to deliver innovation.

Moan over, noMaker Monday Transparent smallw for a shameless plug …. We’re trying a different approach to hack days called Maker Monday. Instead of a day or two stuck in a room, it’s a regular monthly event that brings together creatives and technologists to develop long-term projects that deliver creativity or solutions to problems. The first one was held in May in Birmingham. Backed by BCU with funding from the EU, we’ve managed to blag some kit (Arduinos, sensors, Raspberry Pi’s, Oculus Rift and even a 3D printer). We’ve got access to an open innovation space called Birmingham Open Media (BOM) so collaborators can work on projects in their own time.

Each monthly session will be presented by an expert in their field – we’ve got people doing VR, holographic projection, Raspberry Pi, EEG inputs and gesture control. In addition to a short presentation, they will also run a workshop on their specialism. We have artists working with technology lined up to come to the event (and of course, free beer and pizza).

The inaugural event focused developing ideas to deliver for an innovation week in November. There were a number of projects including a speaking keyboard for autistic children, a holographic interactive sculpture and clothes that automatically offer themselves to charity if they’re not worn (you can find more project concepts here).

We’re hoping that the regularity of Maker Monday will create more meaningful results than a hack day. The spread between creative and technologists is pretty even, but as an open innovation event, anyone is welcome (even people from outside Birmingham). The advantage of the monthly approach is that people can collaborate and develop their skills where needed. Maker Monday is free, but tickets need to be reserved (see our Eventbrite page for details).

The next event is at BOM on Monday 29th June at 5.30pm.

See our Tumblr page (http://makermondaybrum.tumblr.com/) for project details or Tweet us @maker_monday

Teenagers, Facebook and The Rise of Visual Messaging

“It’s Dead to Us. Facebook is something we all got in middle school because it was cool but now is seen as an awkward family dinner party we can’t really leave.” That’s how a 19 year-old American student described his generation’s relationship with the social media site in a widely circulated blog. This is not really a revelation. His views were evidenced by a teenage trend away from Facebook that was first identified by Pew Research in 2013 (and confirmed by the social media site themselves). In October 2014, a study by GlobalWebIndex found that Facebook’s user base grew 2% in the previous six months. The low growth is hardly surprising when you consider their user base is close to saturation point. However, the significant stat from the study was that teens were using the channel much less. 37% of young respondents said that they were ‘bored’ with the social network. Over the same period Tumblr saw an increased use of 120%. Popular with teens (and ad agency folk), its uptake has been driven by the humble ‘gif’. The ancient web-format has gained a new lease of life with highly sharable animated gifs of cats and celebrities.

Facebook has been aware of their teenage problem for sometime. They understand that young, early adopters are fickle when it comes to their digital channel choices. And thanks to mass smartphone adoption, that switch is happening faster than ever. There has been, for example a shift in messaging from SMS to What’sApp. The teen messaging channel of choice has quickly grown to over 700m users – nearly 3 times Twitters’ active user base. Fundamentally, teenage audiences are most active in messaging channels – and they’ll go where it is easiest, cheapest but above all, they’ll go where their friends are. A few years ago, they were using BBM. Before that, MSN was popular. It’s interesting to see, therefore, that the one Facebook product that remains relevant is their messaging app. A GWI study found that social messaging use grew by 50% in 2014, across all age groups.

Whilst messaging is still the driver of teenage online activity, the significant change has been the growth visual messaging. For today’s teens, pictures are better than words. This new found popularity of has been driven by smarphone cameras and apps such as Snapchat. GWI found that the picture app grew 57% – the fastest of any messaging app. UK teens especially love Snapchat, with 39% of them saying they use it compared to 15% globally (GWI). There’s an element of teenage rebellion about Snapchat. Part of attraction is that their parents (who are all on Facebook these days) don’t see the point of it. However Snapchat is also a bona-fide messaging app. Whilst it has gained a reputation as a place for ‘sexting’, it is an unwarranted tag. A 2014 University of Washington study found that the behaviour represented only 1.6% of users. The main use for Snapchat are is not to share amazing portraits or beautiful sunset pictures, but to share quick snaps with added comments or scribbles.

The real winner in the visual message channels though, is Instagram. Sure, it’s good for showing nice filtered photos, but spurred on by hashtags, selfies and numerous celebrity accounts, it has become the channel of choice for teenagers. By the end of 2014 it had overtaken Twitter’s user base and it continues to grow. Understanding the teen challenges, Facebook has been pretty shrewd in addressing them. When they bought Instagram for $1bn in 2012, observers thought it was an excessive sum for a company with just 13 people. In hindsight, given the level of uptake, that price seems like a bargain. After sniffing around Snapchat for a while (who reportedly turned them down), Facebook ended up buying What’sApp for $19bn in 2014. Facebook are aware that ultimately, no site is safe from a mass exodus of their users. Just look at the fate of Friendster or Myspace (and BBM or MSN for that matter). However, if Facebook are simply going to buy their most popular competitors, then the chances are, they’ll still be going in a few years time.

The Rise of The Phone Zombie

Earlier this year the picture below was trending on Twitter, with the ironic statement (and I paraphrase) ‘What on earth is this guy looking at? The World or something?’. It looks like we’ve become a society of phone zombies.

Instead of engaging in conversation with our friends or family, it seems we are constantly distracted by our smartphones. As if proof were needed, a recent IPSOS study identified this trend. They surveyed 16,000 people in 20 countries and 60% of them agreed that they were ‘constantly looking at their screens’. In the UK though, 71% said they were glued to their phones (second only to China). Perhaps our zombie behaviour is best summed up by Buzzfeed’s, 23 Pictures that Prove Society is Doomed. This phenomena doesn’t just impact on our social lives, there are other risks. One cyclist, writing in London’s Metro paper, explained that phone zombies were the most frequent hazard she had to contend with. Maybe in the future our smartphones will need proximity sensors to alert us of traffic hurtling towards us.

Is the phone zombie good or bad for marketing? A decent ad person would spin the problem into an opportunity. For example, we reach for our mobiles within 15 mins of waking and check them up to 150 times per day. That’s a lot of marketing opportunities. But perhaps, just perhaps the best thing we can do is to help society act a little less like the living dead and occasionally speak to other people. The Brazilian beer brand, Polar tried to do exactly that. They created the phone nullifier. A bottle wrapper was able to block the phone signal for anyone within a few feet, thus nullifying the phone zombies and ensuring that people enjoyed their drink, whilst conversing with their real friends.

Arguably though, the phone zombie could be seen as a natural behavior. Humans, especially the younger variety, enjoy media that distracts us from the real world. The Victorians complained that young people spent too much time reading books. Television and video games have constantly been blamed for corrupting teenagers. Perhaps the phone zombie is just another example in a line of media distractions. Before smartphones, commuters were hiding behind newspapers on their journey to work. And maybe the only reason the man in the picture is looking at The World was because on that day, his battery had died.