Connected Objects are Physical Avatars for Digital Services

m1mxswxafgtd_wd1280From a consumer perspective the internet of things is about connecting the objects around us and adding some kind of digital layer to interact with. Increasingly, stuff like our thermostats, coffee makers and store displays will have a digital interface to interact with.

To design these internet of things user experiences we can look at connected objects as physical avatars to tie a digital service to a real world context. 

Apple’s iBeacon and excited retailers
A lot of interest is going towards Apple’s iBeacons. iBeacons are Apple’s implementation of Bluetooth beacon technology. Simply put, it’s a low-energy chip enclosed in a small plastic housing. The beacon can only send data and is generally used to just broadcasts micro-location data.

Retailers are excited about their in-store actions and advertisements becoming more location-aware. Say your in a store and looking to buy a new camera and you stop and look at a specific model. The store’s app on you’re iPhone will then receive the location data from the iBeacon and pull up a discount coupon or more specs about the product hoping that doing so will prompt you to buy it.

So Beacons are somewhat similar to the concept of URLs for the physical world. However, there are much more options here.

Nearables: tying the physical to the digital
A year ago I wrote about a company called Estimote. Back then they just launched their beacon product line with a strong focus on retail. One year later I think Estimote leveled up a notch in the way they think, but also considering their new product: beacon technology in a sticker.

Estimote calls them ‘nearables’ and they are just that. The stickers are avatars to digital functionality and services and become active if the user context is right.


The beacon stickers contain an accelerometer, temperature sensors and an optimized ARM processor with flash memory and Bluetooth Smart controller, all inside a smaller and thinner form factor. And they are just as simple as those stickers sitting on the door of your fridge; simply stick one to a object to turn it into a nearable.

Here are a few simple but compelling use cases:

  • Tag a sticker to a bottle of beer in your fridge to be notified when it’s cooled to the right temperature
  • Stick one to your bike to track routes, distance and current location
  • Enter a movie theater and beacons could automatically silence your phone
  • Move closer towards your coffee maker before 8AM and it starts brewing

What they really get right is the low-entry and simple concept of adding context aware functionality to stuff by just slapping a sticker on it. The service to these sticky digital avatars is the anticipatory functionality layer they add.

A truly optimized user experience for the internet of things is based on contextual interaction. This requires devices, services and information to be embedded (integrated into the environment), personalized (tailored to your needs), adaptive (change in response to you) and anticipatory (anticipating a users intentions without conscious mediation).

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