The Internet of (Disconnected) Things

March 26, 2015

Want to experience connected Zen? Grab a Lyft, the ride sharing service fueled by digital transactions.

The first time you Lyft, you will encounter a panic moment when leaving the car. You’ll ask yourself “shouldn’t I be paying?” and “how do I tip?” What you don’t realize is you have already. With Lyft, a simple tap on your screen hails your ride and sets off an automated chain of events that takes care of everything for you. This new model frees us from old taxicab conventions, awkward cash exchanges and processing fees that leave most cab rides feeling, well, meh.

When will other experiences achieve this feeling of awesomeness? Is Apple Pay going to revolutionize retail? Or will swiping your arm to pay at the register prove to be awkward and alienating? Are wearables just a transitory phase? Are these devices destined to hold us over until we get what we really want, whether that be biometric pay or some other futuristic option that’s still decades out?

This is just a sampling of the many conversations that were circling around the South by Southwest (SxSW) Interactive conference halls last week. We are experiencing a modern-day Gold Rush, where crowdfunded startups and big corporate players are developing our futures with technology. Everyone’s chasing the big trends. The only thing that is clear is near-future innovations will be just as messy and intertwined as the SxSW experience.

One of the monster categories that has emerged from this melting pot is connected devices. Wearables are the sexy poster children for this movement, but plenty of others are joining the party including sensor-embedded door locks and flower pots. While these devices continue to gain popularity among entrepreneurs and developers, the mainstream public is still having a tough time finding a place for them in their daily lives. I feel this disconnect stems from a complex cocktail of many things hampering everyday user experience.

From a technology standpoint, these devices are limited by their guts. If your device needs a screen, you’ll need a bulky battery. Bulky batteries create unfortunate, blocky form factors. Bulky batteries mean daily charging. Daily charging eliminates constant activity tracking. If you ditch the screen, you’ll reduce component footprint and open up the design to cool form factors. But then do you sacrifice usefulness? This is just a sampling of the common connected device limitations.

True disruption will happen when experiences become a seamless, virtually invisible orchestration between connected objects and user behaviors.

We have also learned from many of the wearable successes and failures that there is a tricky balance of both aesthetic and behavioral needs. Your fashion changes with the season, trends, or moods you’re in. Connective technology remains a more constant and expensive investment. It’s going to be tough to color coordinate your outfits with $500 smart watches.

So not only does this body-worn technology need to keep up appearances, it needs to eliminate unwanted attention. Google Glass was panned because it not only ignored aesthetic needs of current fashion, but it forced awkward interactions for its users. The only controls are voice, gesture and an integrated touchpad. So when using Glass in public, you’ll either need to talk to yourself, nod your head or tap the side of your face. Not exactly great options if you hope to blend into the crowd.

Other connected devices are experiencing similar existential growing pains, all stemming from a mishmash of technology and user needs not jiving. During one talk, I heard an example of a connected deadbolt user who went back to using his keys because he got tired of waiting to connect to Bluetooth to unlock his door from his smartphone, especially during 10 degree winter nights.

These examples all illustrate different levels of awkwardness indicative of the current state of adolescence this industry is developing through. Smart devices show a lot of conceptual promise, but solutions on the market now are disparate, technologically limited, and restricted by an app-driven model of consumption.

True disruption will happen when these experiences become a seamless, virtually invisible orchestration between connected objects and user behaviors. We will no longer be tethered to our smartphones to manipulate daily tasks as our connected devices will learn and grow with us. While I feel we will soon start to experience more Lyft-like connected moments of Zen, for many products there are many more moving parts to coordinate than arranging a ride share. So it’ll probably be a year or two.

Till then, become one with the awkwardness.