As the name implies, the Internet of Things, or IoT for short, describes sensor-enabled objects that share data. It could be easy to forget that at the center of the IoT is a person for — and around — which the it is created.

Computing technology can be embedded into a variety of everyday objects for a variety of purposes. In England, by texting the word ‘hello’ and the unique lamppost identification code, people had the chance to learn more about their surroundings. The lamppost would response with a question or a bit of information. In Finland, while waiting for the bus, people were enticed to identify malaria-infected blood cells to train detection software. Results indicate these people were about as accurate as paid workers on Mechanical Turk. In each of these cases, physical objects in the world are embedded with some smarts. There isn’t a reason why the objects themselves need to be stationary, though.

Quadrotors, or tiny flying robots, are becoming increasing available and more capable. They hold the promise to conduct a range of activities, from humanitarian missions to bomb strikes, with unprecedented efficiency and response times. They have prompted the question: Are they taking over the world? Currently, the answer is: No, they’re not taking over the world. They are, however, providing us with some incredible views of the world. With a quadrotor and a GoPro camera, Nicolas Doldinger created “First Flight of the Phantom.” Hovering over Time Square and gliding through Central Park, Doldinger makes us believe for a moment it is we who are embedded with microelectronics, allowing us to fly through parts of New York that no helicopter or plane can access. Perhaps we are already starting to include the biological components in our IoT.

Tracking animals in the wild is not new, but I think Blogging Birds is a seemingly small yet fundamental departure. Often, we think of the IoT as our made objects sensing their environments and communicating with each other and us while alternating their behavior (and ours). Blogging Birds is an attempt to connect the natural world not just with specialized research scientists but also with the public more generally. As we learn about how their movement patterns change, we might find ourselves sympathizing with animals we rarely glimpse. We might even feel compelled to become one of these animals. Swarm! aims to leverage pro colony behaviors, like those found among ants, among people by equipping them to virtually become ants. In the game, “players seek out virtual resources to benefit their colony, such as food, and must avoid crossing the trails of other colony members.” The developers claim that such a technology could help city planners improve transportation systems.

The IoT will continue to evolve. Currently, it exists primarily as a playground for the technologically savvy, but as it matures, it must make clear the benefits and risks it affords people.

We have to design products that are intuitive to install and easy to understand, giving us feedback in a human language that tells us things that matter in our everyday lives. And while we’re at it, we as designers have to take responsibility for the fact that exposing data that’s been previously hidden will shape social mores and privacy considerations from now on.

Perhaps one way to accomplish these goals is to think of the IoT as something with a person at its center. I am not suggesting to think of people as things, rather, let’s think of them as The Thing. Devices communicate with each other; nature communicates with people; people are embedded with sensors. In these cases, we move away from the traditional human factors dichotomy of human-and-system and begin seeing people as an integral component of the system.


Photo credit: Howard County Library System

(This article first appeared in 2013; updated in 2018.)