What's your IoT device's superpower?

As the IoT gets consumerized, people are playing with various theories about what will stick with the public and what will fade away into fad territory. Following is one man's very interesting idea.

amazon dash touch
Credit: Amazon

As I picture myself using Amazon's forthcoming Dash button, I feel this sense of power (for once) over my housekeeping. Briefly, Dash is a button-shaped gadget that can be placed just about anywhere and used to order household items that routinely run out. Amazon announced Dash at the end of March, and the news was eyebrow-raising enough that some thought it was an April Fools' joke.

So … that midnight discovery that the laundry detergent has run out the night before a morning event I must attend, hopefully attired in clean clothes? BOOM! No more, with the all-powerful and all-knowing Dash. The printer cartridge that fades to a lesser shade of black the day I am holed up, working on a big deadline? ZAP! Be gone, hurried trek to Staples.

Headed for mass adoption

Much has been made of Dash, as it is one of the first consumer-oriented IoT apps out of the gate that could well see mass adoption.

It is purportedly easy to set up (so far users are by invitation only). As Amazon describes it, the app uses a home's Wi-Fi connection. A single press automatically places an order of the product in question. (Amazon is starting out with a handful of partners and their products.)

Dash's launch — and presumably its eventual success — also backs a theory that Richard Banfield, CEO of Fresh Tilled Soil, has about how IoT will unfold in general.

His take on this burgeoning space is that the user experience design will probably be a key competitive differentiator as more of these offerings come to market.

Supermom to the rescue

But by user experience, what he really means is that the IoT gadget's interface should make people feel like they have superpowers. As in bionic sight and supersonic hearing and extrasensory perception of what is happening miles away.

"Suddenly, we can see across time and space and check in on our kids at home, or know when to water the plants, stock the fridge or sync our future car-charging needs to the ideal times in our calendar," he tells me.

Banfield is backing this theory with long-standing research: namely, that when tech products mimic biological systems, humans adopt them very quickly. Designing IoT products with this concept in mind will keep them from becoming a fad or peaking too quickly like many gadgets have.

Take for example your house in winter, he says.

"Wouldn't you love to know the temperature of your house before you get home? What if you could tell whether your kids were home from school and if their favorite snacks were in the fridge? Using IoT-connected thermostats, fridges and voice-sensitive devices like Amazon's Echo, you can extend your senses into other places."

Commercial developments in the market also show this is true, Banfield says. Tilled Soil has worked with such companies as Intel on this concept. "Their RealSense tech allows you to interact with your devices in the same way you interact with other humans — with facial recognition, micro-expressions and gestures," he says. "Technology like that can be transformative, because now we can have fundamentally human interactions even when we're separated by significant time or space."

He goes on, inching into what is sci-fi territory at the moment. "We're very close to subtle but important conversations with our devices that respond to pitch-perfect voice commands, or light- and sound-sensitive devices that dial their intensity up and down depending on your facial expressions," he says.

The upshot will be that, as machines learn to respond to, and mimic, the familiar cues normally associated with biological interactions, "we'll find ourselves feeling surprisingly close to our machines."

The anthropomorphism of machines, of course, is a concept that has been thoroughly explored in many movies and books over the years, but Banfield's concept is a little more down to earth than these depictions — he is basically referring to being able to get enough timely feedback to make these interactions worthwhile. Ultimately, the creators of successful IoT products will be those "who see their products as biological amplifiers and not just fancy gadgets packed with tech," he says.

All hail the corporate overlords

Now, one final note about Amazon's Dash that comes from The New Yorker's initial take on the announcement.

It wrote:

The sinking feeling that comes as you yank a garbage bag out of the box and meet no resistance from further reinforcements is also an opportunity to ask yourself all kinds of questions, from 'Do I want to continue using this brand of bag?' to 'Why in the hell am I producing so much trash?'

Translation: don’t turn Dash into something akin to an auto-deduction on a credit card that requires multiple calls to shut off.

In short, if these connected and supersmart products are going to be our little helpers in the field of home and work, it is important to design them so they will be on our side and not our machine overlords the company's.

Sorry, some of those books really can paint quite the picture about what our lives will look like with smart, ubiquitous machines.

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