The Internet of Things is a subject that demands your attention because it has the potential to change your world. With it comes the possibility of incredible benefits, but major perils too. The UK will play its part in this phenomenon from both the provider side and the early user side – so what does the British public think in 2014?
Kevin Ashton, the former P&G brand manager who first coined the phrase Internet of Things (IoT) back in 1999, more recently described it thus:
“If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things—using data they gathered without any help from us—we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best”. That is a very rational summary of what the IoT is about and why it is so important that governments and corporations are investing billions in it right now. I’d like to bring in the more human, emotional dimension to the discussion.
In a fascinating 2012 TED talk Dr John Barrett of the Cork Institute of Technology declared that by 2032 each individual could be connected to 3,000-5,000 everyday things; if this scenario comes true it will mean that we truly will have entered the era of ‘technocracy’ – a world truly shaped by tech companies. Tech companies are comfortable working on the tech because they are usually dominated by engineers and an engineering mindset; this means that they sometime unwittingly (and other times wittingly) launch products or services which overstep the mark with regard to personal data privacy.
Pros & Cons
On the upside, connecting everyday objects to networked systems will give us potentially huge benefits around a more ‘efficient’ everyday routine (leading to saving time, that most precious of commodities), a feeling of greater control and preventative, probably even life saving telemedicine innovations (although headline grabbing, these health applications will be relatively niche in the grander scheme of the Internet of Things).
On the downside, moving to a super connected world throws up huge technical hurdles for providers over security (i.e. hacking) and complexity – the number of operating systems to cater for – unless one provider can establish pre-eminence and give us the ‘God Platform’. Consumers will be faced with an initial trade off to consider: improved daily ‘efficiency’ versus increased daily complexity, plus niggling concerns over privacy and whether they really are in control of these newly connected objects.
So what does the British public think about all this in late 2014? We surveyed 1,415 UK smartphone owners, introducing the ‘Internet of Things’ as ‘the idea that everyday objects, animals or people can be given a unique identifier and the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human interaction’; we then asked interest in a series of recently launched IoT products followed by a question around benefits and concerns of living in a super connected world.
Interest in connected everyday products
Encouraging from a provider’s point of view is that around 1 in 2 smartphone users have declared that they are very or quite interested the majority of the example product ideas shown. Key is that these items are all relatively easy to see yourself using, and have obvious benefits. As expected, the more ‘techie’ you are, the more interested you will be in all of these (apart from the smart nappies!) as that will generally dictate your comfort levels towards and willingness to experiment with new technology.
The smart watch has surprisingly low interest, perhaps because it is seen as overlapping in functionality with our smartphones and offering a smaller, less inviting screen. Also in terms of design most have been quite unattractive with the exception of the recent Moto 360 or Apple Watch, and watches are still pieces of jewellery for most of us, as we discussed in an article in The Times in 2014.
Some of the other products do have wide age appeal too: over 65s expressed above average interest in three items: the WiFi remote video doorbell (so I can see who’s there even when I’m not), the physical GPS tags (to stop me losing important things) and the connected implanted medical device (to predict when I or a close relative might be getting ill).
Those with children under the age of 5 (the permanently haggard and time poor amongst us) were much more interested in several of these products (not just the smart nappies). This could be a desire to regain some sense of control and to create some vital extra minutes of down time – the WiFi kettle was especially popular (59% interest among these parents) as it would give you five extra minutes in bed!
Benefits & Concerns
So how do the benefits trade off against the concerns of living in a super connected world? Although the IoT is an area that most of us have thought very little about up to now, in 2014 security fears were readily envisaged by 70% of consumers in our survey. This was just as much an issue amongst the more techie consumers who are the most likely to early adopt these connected products.
Stories about hacking into all sorts of connected items abound – such as taking over cars, thermostats, refrigeration systems, alarms, baby monitors and pacemakers (note Vice President Waldron’s demise in Homeland, season 2).
Rather worryingly, this is backed up by the security industry who point out that IoT hackers will potentially be causing physical rather than digital harm, and that the “jump to an Internet of Things is huge, and so is the leap in security thinking that will be needed to make it safe” (Jeff Williams, Aspect Security CEO). The implication is that the security is not yet anywhere near good enough, but that it’s a huge priority currently being worked on…
In addition to security issues, telemedicine has potential legal obstacles to overcome. For example, what happens if a healthcare professional who has access to real time patient monitoring data fails to spot a problem in time? Doctors may well refuse to accept access to telemedicine data for fear of possible future liability.
Another potential barrier to uptake is the concern over data privacy (and even visual privacy in the case of networked video cameras). With the ‘digital-only’ internet this was a trade-off most were happy to make (or not even worry about) in exchange for ‘free’ services. However, 1 in 2 techie consumers are concerned about IoT privacy, our research suggests. As previously offline objects are networked up, the dividing line between what’s on and offline will become more blurry and privacy will become a much bigger talking point, so providers cannot assume the old rules will still apply.
On a more positive note, our research suggests that the biggest benefits of networking up everyday products are the potential ability to improve daily routines, give the user a feeling of greater control and gain some time back for other pursuits.
Bringing connectivity and remote functionality to previously offline products also presents a huge brand engagement opportunity for providers; especially so in sectors perceived by consumers as rather mundane or commoditised. ‘Experience design’ should be racing up the agenda and researching this can be done much more valuably with consumer neuroscience techniques that allow us to understand implicit emotional reactions to and emotional engagement with products and brands.
So, the stakes are high – the possibilities for improving people’s lives are almost unlimited but at the same time the dangers are very real too. Mainstream consumers can currently envisage the threats a little more easily than the opportunities, partly due to human nature but also probably because they see their current routines as not necessarily broken and so not in need of immediate fixing. Techie early adopters are excited, but also wary of the pitfalls.
Consumer understanding of the Internet of Things is in its early phase, so providers have a real opportunity to make or break this area for the next few years – if they can strike the right balance of ease of use and security of their offerings, whilst reassuring consumers on privacy – and thus crucially building trust.
To paraphrase Dr Barrett, if this is going to be driven by the technologists then let’s help them make it better!
Consumer research methodology: UK wide online omnibus survey amongst 1,415 smartphone owner/users, conducted 18-19 October 2014.
Many thanks to Bernard Marr’s article The 21 coolest Internet of Things gadgets you will want today for inspiration for the product list