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The Appification of Things: Smart Attributes

Last post, I outlined a series of product-app combinations introducing ubiquitous computing to our world: The Appification of Things. Further in the future, we can hope for embedded intelligence in environments or objects to be quiet, helping us along through subtle interactions. In the short term though, apps like those we now use everyday will mediate the fuzzy data and intelligence behind products.

There are two primary reasons apps are helpful in regards to our use of smart things. First, we just “get” apps. In fact, we’re so enamored with them on our phones and tablets that it was recently announced that 30 billion apps were downloaded through the Apple iTunes appstore alone. This works out to a remarkable 5 apps downloaded per person in the entire world, if everyone owned an iOS device. This doesn’t count the explosions of app downloads across the Android, Amazon and Windows mobile platforms. I don’t believe there is anyone who could argue that trends support more, not less, apps are coming.

Second, apps allow us introduce a set of “smart attributes” which help humans interact more successfully with products. These are the ways in which apps extend a smart product or, in the words of Mike Kunaviasky, provide “services” to “avatars”. When creating smart products and companion apps, be sure to consider and embed these five smart attributes.

Five Smart Attributes:
Measurement - Apps reveal Measurement of human behavior and activity tracked by smart objects. An example is how Nike’s FuelBand uses a series of accelerometers to measure movements which are then translated through “oxygen kinetics” to a variety of data. These include steps, calories and Fuel on the band itself but the band, as often with smart objects, has a limited display. A much larger and longitudinal data set is communicated through Nike’s various iOS and web apps than the device itself.

Visualization - Visualization is key to making the measurement of data really useful. The Nest Learning Thermostat’s iOS and Android apps are visual and informative, delivering energy use in a format that can make anyone a conservationist.

Optimization - Building on both Measurement and Visualization, apps should help us modify behavior and activity. By setting goals in context of longitudinal data, our app-enabled smart products help us Optimize outcomes and results. The VitaDock app and related smart object product line by Medisana is an especially interesting example as it rolls Measurement and Visualization of a suite of health measures into a single interface. These currently include blood pressure, weight, blood sugar and temperature monitoring with goal tracking a part of most. As Medisana says on their website, “By setting your own target values, (you’ll) receive helpful feedback with each measurement.”

Communication - Given the need for display of Measurement beyond limited displays, Visualization and assistance with Optimization, it should be apparent that it’s irrelevant to deliver “smarts” to an object without Communication. The reality is that we need our objects to send and receive messages. Apps can help us facilitate this communication. Twine is a fantastic example as the device itself has no display and isn’t automatically connected to anything. Instead, it achieves Communication through a web app called Spool, which allows you to put together rules to trigger messages with a palette of available conditions and actions. Sensors enable a range of Measurement while Communication is delivered through a suite of pre-built actions, firing off messages via:

  • Pebble E-Paper Watch
  • Twitter
  • Email
  • Text messaging
  • Configurable HTTP Request

Distribution - Delivering Connection as an api with a single web app, as Twine does, might be enough for tinkerers. In reality though, the general population is looking for more fully developed offerings. Given customers and users own a wide variety of devices, this justifies Distribution of an app across a range of platforms. Withings Body Scale just does that as it monitors your entire family’s weight and then distributes the data across iOS and Android devices as well as the web.

These examples of smart objects and their related apps are by no means the final word in ubiquitous computing, but they do represent its first wave delivered at scale. Smart objects on their own are just too obscure and too opaque. Providing companion apps embedded with Smart Attributes helps mediate the fuzziness of the intelligence in things.


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