How the IoT is redefining the User Interface
20 March 2015
A trend that is fascinating at the moment is the impact that the Internet of Things is having on user interface design.
A growing number of customers are implementing the user interface for their products using an M2M connection to an App for a Smart Phone or Tablet, rather than directly on the equipment itself.
Consumer electronics is leading the way with stylish, functionally strong and aesthetically pleasing devices, where the user interface has been moved onto a tablet or smartphone using an App.
Two examples illustrate perfectly what can be achieved. The Jawbone UP Activity Tracker is a great piece of wearable ‘wellness’ kit that tracks steps and calories burned throughout the day and sleep pattern at night. The hardware itself packs a lot of functionality into a ‘bracelet’ form factor. It then connects via Bluetooth to the App on a smart phone and/or tablet. If the UI was onboard the device, the bracelet would not only lose its cool appearance but be much more intrusive on the wrist. What makes this product really come to life is the way that the App harnesses the computing power and graphics capability of the phone/tablet to bear on the data collected and adds appropriate web based content management. The ‘Team’ function also allows data to be shared between friends or family members.
Similarly, what sets Sonos apart from the typical speaker is the Wireless connection and the flexibility of the UI. The Sonos speaker uses Wi-Fi connectivity to source streaming content from the Internet. The smart phone or tablet based UI neatly and reliably consolidates the many different audio delivery services available and integrates with and manages other streaming Apps such as Spotify, Deezer, Google Play Music, Napster and iTunes Library. With suitable subscriptions, all the smart phones and tablets in a household can pull down and play millions of songs, access Internet Radio and other sources all from one simple App.
These new consumer electronics devices are significantly smaller than similar ‘unconnected’ or ‘stand-alone’ products and powerful, reliable, user friendly and content rich apps are integral to the experience of using them.
The transition to the professional domain
App technology is ready and available for commercial and industrial electronics designers to take advantage of now. Product marketing teams need to think laterally and widely about how their product is being used, and development teams need to get used to devoting development time to the App and the smart device UI to create an IoT product that will be warmly received by increasingly IoT savvy users.
David Lippold, of LiteIP, is a case in point. LiteIP has developed automatic lighting that turns on and off in response to light levels in an area as well as occupancy. The control interface in the system has been implemented on an Android App, which can be set to feed data to the cloud for access via a web browser. LiteIP selected Android rather than Apple because this platform allows access to the Bluetooth interface. Two hundred commercial premises use LiteIP, and all have welcomed the versatile, flexible and intuitive user interface, which runs on a platform that is portable and cheap to purchase.
David Lippold explains that most LiteIP customers bought an Android tablet specifically to control the LiteIP installation. The App has been able to deliver a very flexible, user friendly control interface on a low cost hardware platform. Developing its own hardware with a touch interface, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity and a long battery life would have been very expensive, and the end product would have cost much more than the £200 or so it costs for a tablet.
By using a tablet, LiteIP eliminated the whole of the UI hardware. The drive for adopting an App is often the opportunity to eliminate the user interfaces. This directly reduces cost but also greatly reduces the number of potential points of failure.
Other applications may still retain elements of the UI on the system, but put the majority of the functionality in an App. In this way, an expensive, delicate and power hungry display can be eliminated, and the number of mechanical switches and buttons can be reduced. This reduces the need to cut apertures in the casing, making it easier to ‘seal’ the unit.
A point to point connection via Bluetooth Low Energy or NFC doesn’t really count as an Internet of Things design, but normally removing the UI is the first step. Having taken the User Interface off the device, it can as easily be managed via an Internet connection as via a local tablet. In LiteIP’s case, the tablet can feed data to the cloud if the user so wishes.
Moving from a point-point connection to an Internet connection does open up the whole issue of security. Vendors have seen the opportunity to provide white label solutions that take care of all of the connectivity issues including security, leaving the developer to worry only about the design of the two ends of the connection: the device and the functionality of the App.
The connection between the App and the system may need to be protected against hacking. Will staff be able to use their own personal devices to control company installations? What if they leave their employment, perhaps under strained circumstances? What if the tablet or smartphone is lost or stolen?
David Lippold’s customers don’t regard security as a major concern. He comments about a discussion at a conference on this issue, and the upshot was that security for commercial lighting installations isn’t really seen as a problem. The tablet itself has security protection. Seizing access to the Wi-Fi connection by itself wouldn’t let you control the lighting and for ultra-nervous customers the devices can be locked to only communicate via a site-specific dongle
In commercial systems, having introduced connectivity and remote management, customers find whole new worlds of functionality open up. They start offering new services, which quite often bring new revenue streams. So the business opportunities are in the services that are enabled by the Internet of Things rather than the devices (or things) themselves. Although we have seen customers in commercial and industrial systems do the same, they have yet to fully exploit this opportunity.
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