Posted by Vicky Spengler on , last updated

By 2015 it’s estimated that the average person will have 7 objects connected to the Internet. We are already seeing the changes the Internet has brought about to the traditional broadcast model, and consumer demand for TV and radio content on mobile devices is rapidly increasing.

At BBC R&D we think that new types of connected device have the potential to offer audiences new and better ways to interact with media and experience stories. For instance, toys like the TV controlled Dalek prototype developed by BBC R&D in 2011 could react to a Dr Who broadcast in front of the viewer in their own living room. Another example is the connected fob, a simple one-touch device that we have prototyped for saving and sharing interesting moments on the radio whilst out and about or in the car.

However, The Internet of Things is still a new movement, especially for media and entertainment companies, who have up to now only dabbled in this frontier country. IoT has been described as being in its ‘Geocities’ stage, with too few creators getting their products to market, and many simply playing around on the fringe. As the sector matures, we need to learn quickly from early failures and successes. We need to continue to share our resources and platforms, so that future ideas can be built, tested and eventually find a way into people’s homes.

On 9th September we hosted an Internet of Things (IoT) workshop at Brunel University, as part of the British Computer Society’s Human Computer Interaction (HCI) Conference. For this conference workshop, we invited paper and demonstrator submissions from academics and practitioners on the subject of ‘Interacting with Media in Connected Environments’. We also invited guest speakers who are experts in the field to help us explore how we could help people design and build connected devices.

Participants included BT Research and Innovation, The Raspberry Pi Foundation, BERG London, Fluxx, Lancaster University and University College London (UCL).

What it was about

The Internet of Things as a field encompasses a broad range of skills and experience from electronic engineering, product design, web development and manufacturing.   At the moment we are working with a mish-mash of tools and methods from different disciplines.  We wanted to identify what makes designing IoT products so difficult, and try to create a toolkit that will help overcome those challenges.


What we did

We began the day with short talks from authors and guest speakers. Emotion, personality and empathy (in technology) emerged as themes from the talks.

“Making Technology More Human” was the theme of Adrian McEwan’s talk. Adrian is CTO of Goodnight Lamp a family of Internet-connected lamps - you use the Big Lamp as a light, and give the Little Lamps to loved ones anywhere in the world.

Adrian explained that the lamps are designed to be polite and unobtrusive, and they build on existing behaviours – turning on a light is a natural thing to do, and turning on the Big Lamp triggers a notification, lighting up the Little Lamps.

BERG’s Denise Wilton explained the importance of giving the Little Printer a face and a personality - If you don’t use the printer for a while it misses you.

Rachel Rayns, artist in residence at Raspberry Pi introduced us to Zoe Star, a robot gardening system. Zoe proudly tweets pictures of her garden when it’s healthy and in bloom, but takes to social media to ask advice when her relationship with her plants takes a turn for the worse.


We then asked our participants to sketch and explain how they go about designing connected things. What are the typical stages they go through? What activities helped them turn their ideas into reality? What obstacles did they frequently find blocking them?

We grouped the challenges that people reported into five main areas. These are listed below, with some examples of the related challenges.

  • User centred approach - There’s a tension between user need and technology. Does an idea always have to start with a user need? How can we integrate innovation and go beyond the obvious? How can we understand where a completely new product idea fits into the market?
  • Product manufacturing - How to break out of the ‘maker loop’ and how to turn something into a product. There isn’t much information available about manufacturing connected consumer electronics. Practical aspects like testing for health and safety is a closed box - it’s difficult to know where to go for help.
  • Prototyping - Testing prototypes outside of the lab in a domestic setting where they might be used. How can we create a vision of what it might be like in 5 years using today’s technology?
  • Communicating value - How can we explain the Internet of Things to consumers? What are the ways to effectively tell a story that resonates with people?
  • Team - IoT needs the skills of multiple disciplines. Individuals learn skills ‘just in time’ as they discover they need them, but there is an active community of creators online. Is there a better way to anticipate and plan for what skills you might need to make key decisions?


We brainstormed these problem areas in more depth, to find ways to overcome them.

Finally, our discussion closed with how we might create something collaborative and open source, which could be widely adopted. What would it look like and how would it be used by the research community in industry, academia and start-ups?

 We voted on the areas in most urgent need of a practical toolkit:

  1. User centered design: A model for user-centred design which can help to resolve the pull between technology, user needs and creativity.
  2. Design for manufacturing: A decision tree to help turn a 3D printed object into a factory producible product, showing what route to take through the manufacturing process, and what questions to ask when building a product at scale.  
  3. Prototyping: How to conduct ‘In the wild’ testing using today’s technology - to understand how products might fit into peoples lives and how they might be used over time. Also, practical ways to create the experience that has presence is cheaper and can be constructed with easily available materials.


Next steps

We would like to continue to develop the idea of a toolkit for IoT design as an open, collaborative project, and flesh out the 3 areas above into a proposal for further research. We are also seeking partners and funding to move it beyond the proposal stage.

A full list of authors and links to accepted workshop submissions are on the event page.