I spent the latter part of last week at the RE:WORK Internet of Things Summit in London. It was an impeccably organised event, with a great venue, super facilities, sharp and intelligent facilitators with a real understanding of what the event was about…and rather good catering too. The presentations were almost all informative and entertaining, ran to time, and contained lots of things that I didn’t already know. The event was chaired by David McClelland of Planet of the Apps, and he was engaging and enthusiastic, and in his questions to the speakers displayed what can only be termed a Wikipedic level of knowledge into whatever was being presented.

There was lots of appropriately wacky content – not just the usual bunch of suits talking about how the IoT needs more standards/cloud hosting services/government subsidies. Instead, there were showcases (not literally, sadly) of applications and deployments. Not all of these made sense, of course. The rather wonderful Adrian Cheok, Professor of Pervasive Computing at City University, brought the house down with a smart umbrella that made samurai sword noises, audible only to the umbrella’s owner via headphones, when swished about; the apparent justification for this was that the ‘gamification’ of umbrella-carrying provided users a reward for carrying the damn things on days when it doesn’t rain. As if a justification for an umbrella that makes samurai-sword noises was needed.

The sword-umbrella was easily the most sensible of his prototypes, though, which also included a connected rubber bulb to be held in the mouth which could electrically stimulate the tongue and therefore produce communicated taste sensations without the need for chemical synthesis. There were others that allowed users to send smells (yeah, smellyphones) via direct stimulation of the olofactory nerve at its location above the soft palate, and also kisses – he’d started out making a surreal set of sensor-laden rubbery lips, but it seems that users are happier kissing, and being remotely kissed by, a cuddly toy than a pair of disembodied human-like lips. Who would have suspected? Both the professor and at least one other presenter showed off a device which allowed hugs and cuddles to be sent over the internet; and all this without mention of teledildonics, or of any kind of ‘Fifty Shades’ use cases for the IoT. And while we’re on the subject of touch, there was a great presentation from Sriram Subramaniam of Ultrahaptics, on touch as part of a UI which included some automotive case studies that I found really interesting.

It wasn’t all like that, of course. There were some really sensible (but still interesting) presentations about how the IoT could enhance business processes, including a memorable one about the construction industry by Raphael Scheps, CEO of Converge, and an intriguing use case for Bluetooth Beacons in retail by Jonathan Berlin, CEO of Iconeme. There were some good panel sessions (one of which included your correspondent, on ‘critical challenges to enabling IoT across Industry’, at which the super-smart Priya Prakash of Design for Social Change proposed that what was really missing were good stories and mental models for IoT). Other panel sessions featured Larissa Suzuki of UCL and Arup, and Claire Rowland, independent UI designer, who I’ve observed before is great value for money).

There was, predictably, lots of stuff about wearables. Some of this was very definitely up the sensible end of the spectrum, with presentations on safety clothes from Christian Dalsgaard, CTO of Ohmatex and on clothes that light up for visibility from Andrew Kimitri, CEO of Fhoss Technology. Some of the others seemed to edge quite close to parody, and the pair of designers from CuteCircuit who presented on their clothes that light up in response to Twitter activity could have stepped straight out of Zoolander or Nathan Barley. They showed a clip of Katy Perry wearing their Twitter-dress at the Met Ball, with the celeb merrily burbling that she was living the dream of the future, just like in the film ‘Blade Runner’. Err, doesn’t she know that Blade Runner is supposed to be a dystopian nightmare?

And that leads rather neatly into my problem with the whole event. The very clever and articulate people who presented all day seemed to focus all their brain power on the ‘how’ of the IoT, with very little left over for the ‘why’. Sarah Campbell of SenseLab, whose bio says she focuses on breaking down corporate barriers to innovation, talked about embedding IoT sensors into trees so that…well, I couldn’t make out what the purpose was (you try). I listened to the discussion about innovative business models for the internet of trees, and all the time the line from the Joni Mitchell song was going round in my head: “…they took all the trees, and put them in a tree museum. Then the charged all the people a dollar and a half just to see them.” There’s a business model for you.

Joshua Bower-Saul of Jabil, in one of several articulate interventions from the floor, envisaged a future in which the London Ambulance Service would be “uber-ized”. Again, like Winston Smith in 1984, I understand how that could be done, and how the IoT would help; I just don’t understand why anyone would think it was a good idea, or even why anyone would let it happen. During the recent terrorist shootings in Sydney the price of an Uber ride away from the incident epicentre shot up, exactly as it ought to under the Uber business model. Who wants this sort of thing to happen in the event of a major incident? No-one, of course.

It was the same with the presentations on air quality sensing, of which there were two – BuggyAir from Hugh Knowles of the IoT Academy, and AirSensa from Jonathan Steel, CEO of Change London. Both were focused on how to fund, build, deploy and connect better sensors so that there would be a better picture of London’s air quality. But we already know that London’s air quality is abysmal, and that it makes lots of people – especially the most vulnerable, including small children and the elderly very ill. And we know that the regulations designed to prevent this are routinely ignored, and that the politicians who supposedly represent us don’t care very much about fixing it, and that the media doesn’t hold them to account. What on earth is the point of adding detail or ‘granularity’ to the information we already hold about air quality?

It’s time to focus the IoT effort on meeting real and pressing human needs, rather than on making stuff that we don’t need at all or supporting new ways of doing things that will make life worse for everyone. 

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