Oxford is an excellent place to work if you’re interested in digital media, with lots of events for hearing new ideas and meeting new people. I’ve attended several meetups organised by UX Oxford, some specifically about the discipline of user experience and others looking more widely at what’s going on in the digital world. This month’s talk, by James Bailey of Bunnyfoot, was about the ‘Internet of Things’.
Put simply, the Internet of Things is based on the notion that anything can be connected to the internet: all you need are computing sensors, wifi, and an IP address. This allows the ‘thing’ in question to capture and store data and to share it over the internet. And like most advances in technology, it’s already happening without most of us realising.
James started by citing Kevin Kelly’s 2007 talk ‘The next 5,000 days of the web’ and the idea that in the future everything would be part of ‘a single, global machine’. This rather chilling prophecy put me in mind of E M Forster’s dystopian science fiction short story The Machine Stops, which demands to be more widely known. The story (originally a riposte to H G Wells) was written over a hundred years ago but feels very pertinent to the current age.
I wasn’t the only one to feel uneasy about this: the consensus from the floor during question time was that this technology is ‘exciting but worrying’ (most of the worries were about data security).
Once you get away from the grand theories, things become more down-to-earth. While the technology is still in the early stages at consumer level it’s already in use in industry, where data gathering can improve safety and efficiency (in agriculture, knowing when fields need watering; in public transport, providing maintenance alerts).
For the general public, the best known applications are to do with health monitoring (through wearable devices) and home automation (turning on the lights remotely). As an interaction designer, with a professional interest in user-centred design, James chose to focus on the ‘people’ aspect of the subject and the importance of designing things that fit into people’s lives.
The possibilities are endless, of course, and not all the developments are commercial. I was excited to hear one attendee talk about the Oxford Flood Network, ‘a citizen-led flood detection network using the Internet of Things’. James had talked about people power in his presentation: there it was in action.