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I am still seeing too many UIs being designed and developed by developers and that has to stop…

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Jayraj Ugarkar heads the Internet of Things Center of Excellence at Infosys Labs. His focus is on building products and solutions and identifying new opportunities in IoT technology. By virtue of his experience, he is well-versed with the trends in this space, and at eRocks ’13 he will be addressing the audience on how smartphones are becoming the dominant field device in the IoT era. Here is a quick prelude to his talk, gathered over a chat with Janani Gopalakrishnan Vikram.

What do you think are the main criteria/ qualifications for a device to be called ‘smart’ or IoT-ready?

Devices in the IoT are broadly classified as passive, active and autonomous. For a device to qualify as “IoT ready”, it needs to be capable of at least communicating one of three parameters – status, performance and/or location. Both passive and active devices are capable of doing so after varying degrees of instrumentation. For example, a crate of fruits is passive, but can be made to communicate by instrumenting it with an RFID tag.  However, to qualify as “smart”, the device needs to be capable of making decisions locally based on pre-set rules or conditions.

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The smartphone has become more or less the de facto gateway for IoT-devices to connect to the Internet – what changes is this going to bring about in the phone?

Gateways play a very important role in the IoT world. They are the point where data aggregation, data processing and communication with the rest of the world happens. There is still some way to go before smartphones become the de facto gateway in the IoT world and there is no doubt in my mind that smartphones will get there. The primary changes I expect are support for multiple protocols commonly used in the IoT world like Zigbee, NFC, Flutter, etc.

Will this trend bring about any significant changes in the UI of smartphones?

For the IoT concept to succeed, it needs a powerful, handy, easy to use, and ubiquitous interface for humans to interact with things around them. I agree purists define IoT as a world where machines interact amongst themselves, decide and act without human intervention, but the ultimate goal of decision-making and acting on it by machines is for humans to benefit from. It is not for any other reason. There is no device better than a smartphone for humans to use whenever their intervention is required or when they want to reap the benefits. However, smartphone ecosystems need to go through significant changes to meet these requirements. Besides supporting IoT protocols, lots of apps are needed that helps us interact with our car, refrigerator, home security, etc.

What are the basic considerations that one should remember when developing an app that logically connects a smart device to a smart phone and threads everything together into an ‘Internet of Things’ product?

A smart device can connect to a smartphone as long as they both talk the same language (protocol) and as long as there is an app that is capable of making use of that information. However, Internet of Things is a lot more than this. First and foremost, Internet of Things means using Internet technologies to interact with things around us and for things to interact amongst themselves too. The Internet technologies we are talking about are not just http and html, but also include many of the advances in software technologies like rich application, augmented reality, complex event processing, analytics, artificial intelligence, REST, etc. Also includes advances in connectivity technology like Zigbee, NFC, Bluetooth, mesh networks, etc. The objective of bringing these technologies together under Internet of Things is not just to display the information like speed at which you are running or the current temperature, but to provide intelligence and say “at this temperature, your skin will burn if you expose yourself beyond 15 minutes” or “ you hurt your knees the last time you ran at this pace”. The basic consideration one should remember when developing an app that connects a smart device to a smart phone is to go beyond just displaying the information you get from the smart device. Think about deriving intelligence, add context, use analytics, personalize, etc.

How long will the smartphone remain the medium for IoT-devices to connect to the Net? When do you think the devices themselves will become intelligent and capable of coexisting with humans (with natural/ friendly UIs, etc.) without requiring a smartphone app to act as an interface?

Rome was not built in a day! I strongly believe devices will become more and more autonomous as we move along. However, the role of a smartphone as the interface between things and humans will remain significant. The reason is we have limited ability and patience to deal with multiple devices. It is like dealing with multiple remotes, nobody wants that in life. I don’t want to interact with my garage door, security alarm system, coffee machine, hot water system, etc. individually. When I come home or leave home, I want to have one interface through which I can tell what I want each of the devices to do.

And when this does happen, what should designers keep in mind when designing the UI of such devices – nobody wants to be surrounded by devices clamoring for their attention!

This is easier said than done, but simplicity in the UI is the key. I still see too many UIs being designed and developed by developers and that has to stop, especially when you are talking about a cutting-edge field and where the user involved will come from all hues of life. Designing human-machine interactions is part science and part art and not to be treated as an afterthought.

You will be talking in detail about the changing role of the smartphone in the IoT era, at Electronics Rocks. What will be the key takeaway for engineers attending this session?  

It is fairly common to see smartphones being used for IoT related activities in consumer space. However, from my experience in talking to enterprise customers, I still don’t see this thought to be common. For example, large fleet owners today install expensive OBD systems to track their vehicles, driver behavior, alert in case of accidents, etc. when they can do all this with a simple inexpensive smartphone that has GPS, accelerometer and gyroscope. This is also true for pay-as-you-go insurance providers. Remote health monitoring systems still use expensive home gateways instead of a smartphone that come at much cheaper prices with more functionality than home gateways. The Internet of Things concept is still in its early stages with huge opportunities for decades to come. In many of these opportunities, smartphones will play a very important role, be it as a gateway or as a device that has over 10 sensors and capable of providing almost any ambient information like location, temperature, speed, vibration, etc. or be it as device that provides intelligence rather than just information.

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