Interaction Design, the Superhuman and the Superorganism

Interaction Design, the Superhuman and the Superorganism

At reelyActive, we’ve often poked fun at the smart device (see our previous blog post). It allows us to do amazing things like communicate and share voice, images, videos and data across the globe. You could easily argue that it makes us superhuman communicators. But when you see someone standing frozen in the middle of a busy street, awkwardly buried in their smart device, oblivious to the “meatspace” in which they live, these superpowers are just as easily questioned.

Enter Interaction Design, or IxD, which is about “shaping digital things for people’s use” (thanks Wikipedia). A few months ago, we discovered a great documentary called Connecting, which explores the future of this field. Astute viewers will recognize from the font that this is a Microsoft ‘n pals endeavour, hence the exclusion of some other devices you might expect. Regardless, it’s totally worth 18 minutes of your time.

The Internet of Things features prominently (7:40), with Jonas Löwgren of Malmö University presenting the value of “more of the physical world connected with the digital world”. In other words, the IoT provides our digital world with context about what is really physically happening. And context allows for adaptation and better decision making. He sees the IoT as 5-7 years out.

It goes beyond Things. Andrei Herasimchuk of Twitter explains (11:53) how “people are now actually entering their lives into a digital format”. You could argue that humans are akin to complex sensors of the IoT, representing their experiences online. Twitter is the perfect example for real-time and historical thoughts. He feels, as do many, that we’ll be able to do exciting things in the future with those digital representations.

How does IxD help us become superhuman? In the video, you’ll see people interacting with far more than smart devices. Screens are everywhere. Gestures are recognized. Ambient information is presented to humans to provide context, and to allow for adaptation and better decision making. The physical-digital connection works both ways. Remember our friend frozen in the middle of the street? Amalgamated digital and physical context would allow him to receive the appropriate information at the appropriate time via the most appropriate channel. In other words, likely not on a 4″ screen in the middle of traffic.

But it’s not just about superhuman powers. Blaise Aguera y Arcas goes further to say (15:00) that as a by-product of this intense connectivity, “there’s a superorganism building up in which humans are no longer at the top of the food chain”. Depending on who controls the data and with what intent (see Big Brother and the Identity of Things), this may be a scary thought. But with an open IoT, just like the open Internet before it, this superorganism could instead become the most beautiful evolution of humanity. It’s an exciting time to connect the physical and the digital world.

Helping your smartphone “baby” grow up

Amber Case does a great job of describing, with human qualities, those little rectangular devices we carry around. Watch a few seconds of the video (that we forwarded to the good part), and if you have time, it’s definitely worth watching to the end:

So, although smartphones pack an incredible punch of computing power and wireless connectivity, when asked to conform to the human world, they function at an infant or toddler level. For example, when you take a small child to the movies, you remind them that they need to be quiet and well behaved. Same for your “smart” phone! Moreover, the child will eventually learn the desired behaviour after a few trips to the movies, but your “smart” phone won’t!

Our devices live very happily in the digital world where their roles as machines are well defined. But human society is rich and complex. Our devices aren’t equipped to understand how we live. And, being the versatile, adaptable creatures we are, we tend to conform to our devices rather than the other way around. That’s how it is, not how it should be.

So, how do we get our phones to behave nicely and switch automatically to silent mode (as we expect of our children) when we’re in a movie theatre? Well, we need to provide them with the right information. Digital information. Some people are building applications that use your digital calendar as a basis for rules, and this can work if you arrange to have your real life perfectly reflected in your digital calendar. But wait, that’s us conforming again…

What your smart device needs is real-time digital context at a human scale. It needs to know where it is and who/what is around at a level of proximity similar to that discussed in Physical Expression, Digital Expression, and the Penis T-Shirt. Sticking to the movie example, Amber Case’s so-called invisible button to silence the phone would require two triggers:

  1. location: movie theatre
  2. context: movie is currently playing

Today’s smartphones can achieve sufficient location accuracy to determine that they’re at the movies. But typically, indoor location abilities would be insufficient to determine the exact theatre room. Without that, it’s impossible to look up when the given screening is scheduled to start, assuming the schedule is actually respected. This is where the theatre’s Digital T-Shirt becomes invaluable: it is a simple means to provide all of the real-time digital context necessary to activate the invisible button. It enables technology to work seamlessly for us, rather than the other way around.

In other words, our smartphone “babies” can and will grow up when provide them not just with geographical coordinates but with contextual information they can understand: a digital representation of the world around them at a human scale.

Physical Expression, Digital Expression, and the Penis T-Shirt

Physical Expression, Digital Expression, and the Penis T-Shirt

Where are we going with a blog post entitled “Physical Expression, Digital Expression, and the Penis T-Shirt”? Well, if you’ve ever heard of or used Chatroulette, you surely recall the infamous penis problem: a significant proportion of male users would exhibit themselves via this means of online expression. Why then, in the real world, don’t we see the same proportion of men wearing say, t-shirts portraying a photo of their naughty bits?

How does this relate to reelyActive? For months, we’ve operated a live directory on a flatscreen display at Notman House, a startup space in Montreal. The name, face, company and job title of everyone present and carrying one of our tags is displayed for all to see. It’s a project that has been well received, and we postulated on how it could be improved, for instance by allowing the users to generate their own content for the display.

Do you see where we’re going with this?

We asked ourselves if live directories would degenerate into something like the Chatroulette penis problem if users were in control of their own content. It seemed far fetched to think that the startup community at Notman House would jump at the chance to expose themselves on the flatscreen display. But as students of science, we felt compelled to understand the foundation for our sentiment.

The content displayed on the flatscreen is analogous to wearing a t-shirt: you can (and should) expect everyone in the startup house to see it. Therefore, one’s behaviour in selecting content is guided by the same social contract as selecting what t-shirt to wear out of the house. Of course the t-shirts worn at a startup house are likely to differ from those worn at a concert or a sporting event, but in each case, they’re intended for the context, and subject to a real-world audience, their reactions and any ensuing consequences.

In other words, the principles of real-world social interaction equally apply to “digital t-shirts”. We’ve never seen anyone wear a penis t-shirt at Notman House (N.B. that’s not a challenge!), so why should we expect any different for the digital version? As long as digital expression is curated by physical presence, we would expect this to hold true. Time to test the hypothesis!

Big Brother and the Identity of Things

Big Brother and the Internet of Things

Disney just announced that they will use RFID wristbands for the patrons of their theme parks (simply Google “Disney RFID” for more than you’d ever want to read). The list of advantages is long: combined room key / park pass, cashless payments, VIP services, personalized interactions with characters, on rides and in lines, etc., and it’s totally opt-in. Sounds like the world-class Disney PR team checked off all the right boxes when pitching this, right?

All persons shall surrender their worldly possessions to Diz-Nee Land. Resistance is futile. Stand in line where directed. Silence!

George Orwell’s estate should get a nickel for every bracelet sold. It may soon become impossible to leave the house without being identified and branded for more endless sales pitches through every means available.

You need to relax; soon enough Disney will isolate the gene responsible for free will, and we’ll have no need to worry.

These quotes from the New York Times article on the announcement highlight the pronounced knee-jerk reaction of many to any mention of human identification through technology: it’s Big Brother.

What about the Internet of Things? It’s effectively the Identity of Things: Things that may be found in homes and carried by people. And the Internet of Things, which has only recently become a hot topic, doesn’t have a Disney PR machine behind it. How’s it doing on the Orwellian front? Well, if the recent article entitled Big Brother’s Big Data: Why We Must Fear The Internet Of Things is any indication, they clearly share an older male sibling.

Will these reactions stop Disney from moving ahead with their plans? Unlikely. Will these reactions stop connected Things in their tracks? Of course not. Will these reactions continue to represent one of the greatest barriers to ubiquitous identification and connection technology? Most certainly. In our previous blog post Connected Things: a decade of progress? we concluded that it’s not technology that’s holding us back. Simply stated, if we want this to happen, we have to want this to happen! An opt-in approach with clear benefits may not be enough: Big Brother equates to a fear of who can access and control the information and with what intent.

Connected Things: a decade of progress?

The above video, the infamous Legomercial, is about to celebrate its ten year anniversary. In January 2003, over the span of a week, I built the Lego sets, shot the stop motion using a Lego webcam, wrote the entire score using an Alesis Quadrasynth and produced the video using VideoWave, the rendering taking hours on an AMD Duron 700MHz. We played the video in a non-stop loop for two days at our booth at the Davis Centre of the University of Waterloo as we showed off our fourth-year design project.

The project: a web-connected home automation system. Three engineering classmates and I built a web server, an embedded client, a digital controller and a few analog sensors and actuators. Essentially, you could use a web page to turn electrical outlets on and off in your home. You could read your thermostat remotely. And you could remotely trigger the Ferris Bueller doorbell message to play off of a CD-ROM. And it all worked!

I bring this up because at LeWeb’12 in Paris, SmartThings demoed remotely turning on and off a Christmas tree in Minnesota by using a smartphone. It was a great demo with a sexy mobile app and the audience loved it. But it gave me flashbacks to 2003 when people told us we were late to the game and that X10 already enabled the connected home. So if the technology exists, and people are excited by the idea, why are there still so few connected Things in the home?

Fuck Yeah Internet Fridge asks the age old question “why doesn’t my fridge have the Internet yet?” In the Legomercial, we show the connected oven (Samsung has now built this), the doorbell camera (now crowd-fundable as Doorbot) and the pet feeder (which you can have today as FeedandGo). So there’s been some progress, but contrast that to the following:

  • the mobile device in your pocket today is more powerful than the computer used to create and render the Legomercial and it even shoots photos and videos
  • we had to build and host our own web server for the system to work whereas today you could have that up and running on AWS in minutes
  • in the Legomercial we show the Netscape browser (we avoided IE back then too), Web 2.0 has come a long, long way since then

All this to say that the idea of connecting Things is as cool as ever, but progress lags far, far behind mobile devices, the cloud and the web. So, will 2013 finally be the year of the Internet of Things? Will it be consumer applications that lead the way? Will GE’s Industrial Internet or Cisco’s Internet of Everything lead the way? Time will tell, but one thing’s for sure, it’s not technology that’s holding us back.

LeWeb’12 Paris: Location and Context

LeWeb'12 conference floor

In the photo above you see the conference floor at LeWeb’12 in Paris, aka the place where you go to get food, coffee and wine. The previous sentence demonstrates the importance of location and context. This blog post is about just that!

The theme at LeWeb’12 being the Internet of Things, there was no shortage of presentations on Things that connect to the Internet. Those Things may be sensors or actuators, or, literally by definition, anyThing. Regardless of what they are, in all cases, these Things are exchanging information, they’re creating, consuming and moving data.

Data scientist DJ Patil opened his presentation with a slide of the Internet of Things, with the word Internet crossed out and replaced with the word Data. He argued that it’s not just about connecting Things and generating data, but adding context and putting the data to good use. In fact, that’s quite possibly a greater challenge than connecting the Things in the first place!

Cyborg anthropologist Amber Case followed his presentation with excellent complementary arguments. She spoke of the need for frictionless data correlation. In other words, what good is it if the Data of Things lives in multiple, separate silos? Another key argument: “location should empower people”. Imagine the “invisible button” where the presence of a person (or Thing) is enough to trigger an action. Location matters!

Nokia’s Marko Ahtisaari also spoke of the “importance of place”. He presented the City Lens project which visually augments your surroundings with contextual data. According to the Nokia booth staff, this is equally applicable to indoor environments, which may explain Nokia co-launching the In-Location alliance three months earlier.

Finally, during Om Malik’s interview of Matt Mullenweg, the Internet of Things discussion turned toward the effects of an increasingly connected world on individuality. Fortunately, Om thinks the IoT will create hyper-personalized experiences rather than turn humans into conformist robots. And that is our hope too: by creating more data with full accessibility, and by including location and establishing context, the hyper-connected world becomes a progressive hyper-personalized world for its human (cyborg) inhabitants!

LeWeb’12 Paris: Connecting Things

Notre Dame has nothing to do with connected things...

What Things are being connected and how? Here’s a brief summary from our perspective at LeWeb’12:


SmartThings may look like connected home meets Kickstarter, but at LeWeb they announced a $3M round for a much larger vision: the Open Physical Graph. It’s great to see investors excited about an open ecosystem, and this may very well be the catalyst for major advances that extend far beyond the Internet of Things!

Ninja Blocks

Ninja Blocks is another Kickstarter hardware project that’s making big waves. At LeWeb they announced that they’re opening not only their software but also their hardware. Now anyone can build on an already capable platform that includes a connected computer (Ninja Block) and an if-this-then-that style web interface (Ninja Cloud). While the current examples lean towards connected home, it’s clear that the platform can be applied to much, much more.


SIGFOX is an M2M infrastructure for Things, and it already covers just about the whole of France, requiring only a thousand or so base stations. Things can communicate over kilometers, sending messages of a few bytes. And their target is a $1/year/Thing and a $1 device. If you’ve ever priced hardware and plans for M2M over cellular, you’ll appreciate how disruptive this is! is an open platform in beta that explicitly intends to extend beyond Things, including humans, environments and much more in the mix. SmartThings and Ninja Blocks have far more advanced platforms, but perhaps their twist on the vision will generate traction. They ended their presentation with the tagline “The Meaning of Life”™ (yes, with the trademark), but gave due credit to Monty Python.

Orange MyPlug

The MyPlug from French giant Orange is a connected-home play that has the advantage of easy configuration: it uses a cellular plan with three years of service included in the purchase price of 80 Euros. Conclusion: the carriers can fight SIGFOX’s cost/simplicity advantage (at least for non-battery-operated devices) but, without an open platform, can this ever become more than a novelty/experiment?


Let’s wrap up with the Koubachi, a $99 WiFi plant health monitor. That description alone highlights many of the problems of the present-day IoT. First, if the sensor costs more than the Thing it’s monitoring, the economics simply don’t work. Second, simple sensors shouldn’t speak WiFi (did you enjoy that alliteration?). In fairness, CEO Philipp Bolliger acknowledges this fact, lamenting the lack of a ubiquitous infrastructure for Things. And finally, how will this device connect to and communicate with the open platforms described above?

In summary, it’s wonderful to see so many visions already extending beyond the Internet of Things, but then you have Nest CEO Tony Fadell suggesting that the Internet of Things is a decade away. As is often the case, it’s less an issue of the technology being ready and more an issue of society being ready. The hyper-connected world needs to become far more compelling if we want it to percolate to the top of everyone’s wishlist anytime soon!

LeWeb’12 Paris

LeWeb'12 Paris Banners

The theme of this year’s LeWeb conference in Paris was the Internet of Things, how about that! A few months ago we would have hesitated to mention the term “Internet of Things” as it didn’t seem to mean anyThing to even the technically inclined. Yet today, that term has become a buzzword in the tech and startup communities. Thanks LeWeb for helping spread the word!

Having had the pleasure of attending, I must commend the event organisers, Loic and Geraldine Le Meur, on the execution, the speaker lineup and the catering! It’s a nice touch when the cheese is blue rather than orange. 😉

The biggest news to come out of the event: Instagram’s Twitter card removal. Certainly not a euro-IoT themed story, but it was supported by a fair bit of discussion around the future of social networking and the protectionist strategies of the giants. Probably a good discussion for the IoT to learn from: it’s not difficult to imagine Things being connected to different networks for different reasons all with insufficient integration. At least that’s where it looks like the fledgling IoT is headed right now.

Euro vs. US was an underlying theme, with questions about when Europe will produce a Facebook, if at all. It seems that even with EU integration, cross-border expansion is far from trivial, and labour laws get in the way of the “hire fast, fire faster” mantra. The discussion simply strengthened my affinity for Montreal. It’s good to sit on top of an accessible US market and enjoy some socio-economic advantages as well as cheese that’s the right colour.

And on the theme of the Internet of Things, well, things are moving forward. Several IoT startups had noteworthy announcements, and the list of connected things included lights, plants, electrical outlets, thermostats and even brainwave-sensors. Some very cool stuff, but certainly nothing to make anyone say “OMG this changes everyThing!” Had that been the case, it surely would have demoted the I-can’t-tweet-a-picture-of-my-lunch story from the headlines.

bloggyActive kicks off!

We’re excited to kick off our blog! There’s so much going on right now regarding the Internet of Things, indoor location, wireless Kickstarter projects, social applications of RFID technology, etc., etc.

bloggyActive will be the outlet to share our thoughts which don’t fit into 140-character messages. We, the reelyActive co-founders, look forward to sharing our perspective and insights given our rather unique background with respect to connecting the physical and the digital world. People, places and things are becoming more connected than ever, which makes this an exciting time to be a futurist, a philosopher, an engineer, a developer, a dreamer or any and all of the above! Just imagine what’s next!?!

Shit just got reel silly

To inaugurate the sillyActive blog, it felt like the best thing would be to post the first bit of reelyActive silliness. And here it is:

Shit just got reel


This photo was taken on April 3rd, 2012 (look how pale my arm is!). At that time, reelyActive was a project barely three months old being run through düngengineering, my engineering consulting company. We had working technology, but certainly nothing that qualified as a MVP. We were applying to get on stage at the Montreal International Startup Festival and we knew we were a long shot. So we took this photo of Pier-Olivier and myself, tossed it on our landing page and hoped that when our application was reviewed we’d at least generate some smiles from the Bad Boys 2 fans with enough knowledge of German to catch the nuance that düngen (my family name) means to fertilize, using, you guessed it, shit!

In the end, it didn’t get us on stage, but we still had a great time at the festival. By that time, our webpage had serious content and we set up our landing page to have two options: Serious Site and Silly Site. The Silly Site was simply the above photo. And while we have no scientific data to back up which site was more popular, whenever we went through the access logs, chances were that when someone stumbled upon our website for the first time, curiosity took them to the Silly Site first.

So there you have it. Anecdotal evidence suggests that our visitors enjoy silliness and that’s why our first blog post shall be silly! And we promise to deliver plenty of silliness limited only by the fact that we actually have to run our business, which turns out to be a rather time-consuming affair. 😛