The Internet of Things is comprised of networked objects with sensors and actuators. These objects observe their environment and share the data they collect with each other, Internet servers and people. This data is analyzed and the results are used to make decisions and affect change. Change may come from a connected object making adjustments in the environment, or it may come after the collected information is analyzed further by a person.

Nurun San Francisco has several clients involved in the Internet of Things space and have worked with them in a variety of ways including brand and marketing work, product and service development and connected object prototyping.

We recently lead a workshop with one of these clients, exploring ways that their household products could benefit from being connected to the Internet. Several of their products are already connected to each other and the Internet, we helped them uncover new opportunities to push these products beyond pure utility and to find ways to do and say something new.

To get things started we reviewed four themes that come up most often in our work around the Internet of Things.

1. The quantified self.

At this year’s Planningness Conference, Guthrie (Director of Brand and Strategy at Nurun San Francisco) and I lead a session on Connected Personal Objects, where we explored how the Internet of Things can drive a virtuous cycle of learning and change based on the collection and analysis of data.

Tracking performance as a guide for change is not a new idea. Companies use data to improve business processes as well as product marketing. Athletes and medical professionals collect biometric data to optimize performance and patient treatment. What’s more, an increasing number of non-professionals are collecting information about themselves, looking for patterns in order to positively impact their lives. In all cases, the mechanisms employed range from pen and paper to high-tech devices coupled with data mining.

There is no question that the Internet of Things makes it easier and easier for us to learn from our actions. Many products provide customers with direct access to the information from which they can draw their own conclusions. Increasingly, these products will be bundled with services to perform more detailed analysis and deliver simple, actionable recommendations.

For example, most services that track athletic performance such as running collect data and report extensive information about current and past runs. Future services will take things further. Based on deeper analysis, these services will be able to set optimal diet and workout plans as well as provide real-time coaching based on your individual training goals and performance history.

2. From computers to things.

As sensors, actuators and the technologies that let them talk to each other become smaller and less expensive, more and more objects will be networked. This progression is the nature of the Internet of Things and it’s changing our relationships to computers and information.

Today, smartphones are the most pervasive objects in the Internet of Things landscape. They provide a wide array of sensors and radios for communication in a single, portable package. They run robust operating systems that allow an endless number of applications to take advantage of these sensors and radios in different ways. As miniaturized general-purpose computers, smartphones bear more of a resemblance to PCs then they do to the future of connected objects.

We’re already seeing an increase in the number of connected objects dedicated to one purpose. These objects are custom fit to do a specific thing better and more conveniently than a smartphone app. These items are easily recognizable as digital devices. Not only do their buttons and screens betray their heritage, but they also tend to be dependent on smartphones, PCs and chargers.

As technology continues to advance, everyday objects unrecognizable as hi-tech gadgets will be equipped with sensors and internet connectivity. Objects such as lamps will inconspicuously monitor the conditions of their surroundings, communicate with other objects within their network and act based on their collective knowledge.

Finally, in environments where robust sensors are pervasive, it’s no longer necessary for objects to contain their own electronics or power. These objects are virtually linked to the Internet by other objects that act as their agents. Technologies like RFID and computer vision allow connected objects to identify these objects and display data, information and user interfaces on their behalf. A connected kitchen counter could identify groceries by sight and display nutritional information and recipes that match your tastes.

3. Ambient information.

As the components of the Internet of Things disperse, it becomes possible for displays to become more integrated into our environment. Ambient displays such as the three projects pictured above are dedicated, real-time displays for a small set of dynamic data.

As with this weather clock or this map of bicycle availability, an ambient display may work exclusively with a specific type of information. Others, like the Ugle are designed to display data of your choice in a coded manner, significant only to those in the know.

In either case, these objects can be made with simpler technologies than more complex devices that combine sensing, control and display. They can be made in smaller batches and in a variety of styles to match the environment in which they’re placed. It seems inevitable that stores like Target, Restoration Hardware and Bloomingdale’s will carry a range of ambient displays in their house wares departments. Furthermore, small boutique shops and furniture designers will sell uniquely designed and custom-made displays. Consumers will shop for displays that match their personal styles and connect them to the information services of their choice.

With ambient displays, people won’t need to grab their phones, launch an app and wait for data to be fetched. At a glance, they will know the weather forecast, if a spouse has left work, or if the doors of their house are locked.

4. Interoperability adds value.
This last trend is relatively simple, but critical: things on the Internet must work together.

Currently there is no broadly used, open standard for how objects on the Internet of Things share information and communicate with one another. Except in the case of peripherals, objects made by one company seldom interact directly with those from another company. When they can directly interact, the objects tend to be part of a closed, proprietary system with a licenser acting as gatekeeper preventing a truly open standard.

In response, web-based Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are being used to encourage interoperability between different systems. Implementing an API does not require that companies expose all of their data or give up competitive advantages. Anyone who integrates their product or service with Facebook wishes that they had more control over what they read or publish through the API; but to give that control to third parties could jeopardize Facebook’s livelihood.

The Health Graph by RunKeeper is one example of a company publishing a subset of their data to an open database. In exchange for providing this information to potentially competitive products, RunKeeper benefits from complementary devices such as the Fitbit Ultra, the Withings Scale and the Zeo Sleep Manager publishing data to the same system. Having one place for all of these products and services to come together provides additional value to the customers of all participating companies.

In cases where a manufacturer does not directly support interoperability with specific products or features, third party systems such as If This Then That will step in and provide an easy way to connect the outputs of one API to the inputs of another. Theoretically, a service like this could allow a house’s lighting system to benefit from knowing that the alarm system has been armed and that everyone has left the house. This sort of interaction between systems assumes that those features have been exposed via APIs and that the homeowner has given each system permission to talk to one another. This scenario doesn’t require that the two manufacturers plan for or invest in this particular integration.

As with popular web-services, we’ll find that Internet of Things products and services that offer APIs and encourage third parties to develop integrated applications will enjoy broader adoption than those that are closed.

Forward looking statements.
These four themes are in no way comprehensive of all the trends influencing the development of the Internet of Things. The work we do largely focuses on personal connected objects and those found within homes and autos. Within this purview, these trends are influencing the design of Internet of Things products and services and the way we interact with them.

What trends related to the Internet of Things interest you? Let us know in the comments below.

This article was originally published on Odopod’s What’s Fresh blog on September 6th.