'HEALTH' OF SMART OBJECTS

This is the dissertation project of my master's degree. This project is set within the theoretical context of object-orientated ontologies, in which we can begin to say that Smart objects now have agency in the world. The project investigates the ‘health’ of the everyday objects that are connected to and communicate through the Internet, which are designated part of an Internet of Things (IoT). Constituting a divergence from most existing IoT research, the project investigates the meaning and condition of ‘health’ for Smart objects from an object-oriented perspective. The research aim was to explore the meaning of health for a Smart object (Thing), by discussing the human-object relationship and revealing the design opportunities of (Smart) ‘object health’ associated with the context of a data-driven system.

CONTEXT
 

Bogost (2012) introduced the notion of a ‘flat ontology’ that included in alien phenomenology (object-oriented ontology or OOO) and positioned Things (Smart objects) at the centre of being in a state where everything that exists has equal status. The notion prompts us to rethink the value of non-human factors without the intervention of anthropocentrism and a human-centred viewpoint. Following this approach, the research adapted philosophical theories into practice in order to investigate ‘object health’ through design methods. The fieldwork in the project reflected the challenges associated with describing and perceiving ‘object health’. The final artefact (a response to the result of the fieldwork) was designed to provide an empirical discussion raising people’s concerns about ‘object health’ through human-nonhuman interactions.

IDENTIFYING THE DEFICIENCIES
 

Firstly, the research reveals the limitations of the current condition of data-driven health-products in IoT service based on exist literatures and raises the research challenges.

Threaten to privacy and autonomy
The safety of the data might reduce people’s perceptions of Things to services and functions, and was thus a limitation to understanding the nature of the IoT: through a human-centred view.

Ineffective functions
The ineffective functionality of data-driven health-products (generally related to the development of the obfuscations and algorisms that play an important role in the IoT system) causes users’ negative attitude to and sense of these products.

Recycling of physical products in the service
To develop data-driven health-products in IoT service, all stakeholders are more concerned about the product in use than the product after use.

From human health to object health
If the focus was moved to ‘health’ of smart objects, we could gain a better understanding of the complicated relationship between humans and networked objects, use this to assist a change in thinking, prolonging the lifespan and increasing the sustainability of objects in the IoT system, and creating new ways of interaction between humans and Smart objects.

THEORY
The research unlocks the possible solutions by analysing the theories regarding the existence of Things.

OBJECT-ORIENTED ONTOLOGY
Object-oriented ontology (OOO) (Harman, 2002; Bryant, 2011; Bogost, 2012; Morton, 2013) is a philosophical thought which positions things at the centre of being and insists that everything exists with equal status. By bringing OOO from a philosophy perspective to a design perspective, designers are required to see actants (humans and networked objects in the system) as situated in equally and speculate a view from them.

THE DEVELOPMENT STATUS OF OBJECTS
Sterling divided the development of objects into six categories: artefacts, machines, products, gizmos, spimes and biots (2005). In Sterling’s theory, “things” not only referred to physical objects but also to intangible ones like data, suggesting it is designers’ responsibility to critically build connection between material and immaterial.

FIELDWORK

 

Two pieces of fieldwork were conducted in the research stage of the project to explore the cureent relationship between humans and object. The fieldwork 1 was designed to help to do ethnographic work in order to improve understanding of the elements that might influence ‘object health’; and the fieldwork 2 was aiming to test object-oriented interactions and find out how to raise people’s concerns about ‘object health’. The technology probe was  only gathered data in my residence for privacy concern. The technology probe collected movement and collision data for five days, 24 hours-a-day.  There was a mobile phone with an autographer application installed (which automatically took photos) that was placed behind the lamp to record the scenes in the room from the lamp’s perspective.

FIELDWORK1. PROBING LAMP
 

A base was embedded with an accelerometer and a collision sensor and attached to a desk lamp. The two sensors were connected to an Arduino Uno board (a microcontroller board, powered by a battery box containing four AAA batteries, programmed to store the data of the movements and collisions to an SD card).

Prototype of Proding Lamp

DATA COLLECTED AND ANALYSIS

Data visualisation

Photos taken by the Autographer

FINDINGS

1. Hard to Explain Data. The black triangle in the plot represents the movements of the lamp and the red dots in the plots show the collisions (Image on the left page). The plots show that there were more movements than collisions each day.

2. Data reflecting human actions. The collisions and movements of the lamp over the next four days were more reflective of the activities of the person around the desk. The person’s actions are indicated on the plots. However, the data could not be directly related with the lamp’s ‘health’.

3. Objects in a ‘network’. The photos taken by the autographer revealed the physical relationship between the lamp, the other objects on the desk and the person in the space. Besides the person (who switched it on and off), it touched many other objects around it.

4
. Failure relating to objects’ ‘health’. Although Fieldwork One demonstrated connections between objects and a person sharing the same space, it failed to yield findings relating to ‘object health’. This exposes the need for a more robust method to communicate the ‘health’ of an object, one which exceeds simply detecting its movements and collisions.

FIELDWORK 2. COUNTERFACTUAL LAMP


An IKEA FORSÅ Work Lamp was modified to be a counterfactual lamp replacing its original bulb with a Neopixel LED ring controlled by a Feather microcontroller. There was a 40% possibility that the lamp would automatically blink for 20 seconds after being used for 20 minutes; this was the lamp’s counterfactual interaction. Four participants (two from a design background and two from computer-science background) were invited to use the counterfactual lamp for two days. The four participants of the research were all Chinese postgraduate Design Informatics students at The University of Edinburgh. After using the lamp for two days, they were each invited to an interview.

Components of Counterfactual Lamp

Prototype of Counterfactual Lamp

FINDINGS

1. Attracted by Counterfactual Interaction. The interviews showed that all respondents paid attention to the counterfactual interaction of the lamp. However, after the lamp blinked several times, the participants had different reactions toward it.

2. Unpleasant experience of using the lamp. When the respondents were asked if they felt comfortable using the lamp, all of them said that the lamp make them uncomfortable, but the reasons varied person-to-person.

3. Awareness of object ‘health'. The four participants had different understandings of the lamp as an object and in terms of its ‘health’.


4.Unwilling to sharing agency. In the interview, I introduced the idea of an object-oriented system.  All of the participants said that they would not use the system, because they felt it meant losing human agency and being controlled by (Smart) objects.

Counterfactual Lamp in Testings

DESIGN RESPONSE

A system objects looking after themselves


In the IoT system, all Smart objects in the home, including lights (bedside lamps, table lamps, pendant lamps), kitchen appliances (toasters, microwaves, stoves, kettles, coffee machines etc.), computing devices (mobile phones, tablets, laptops etc.), cooling and heating systems (heaters and air-conditioners etc.) and so on, are connected each other by Wi-Fi. The system design applies a service design mentality that is user centred, co-creative sequencing, evidencing, and holistic. However, the users of this service provided by the system are IoT objects rather than human beings. In the system proposed in this research, each of these objects would two programmes: one to control their fundamental functions and one to detect their ‘health status’ and send signals to each other through the Internet. The identification of ‘object health’ in this of system is made according to whether or not the most important function of an object stops working. Once one object in the system is detected as out of order, the other objects in the system would start counterfactual interactions with hosts (human users) until they find fix the broken object.

ARTEFACTS & INTERACTIONS
 

A lamp, a toaster and a microwave were connected to each other through Wi-Fi, and counterfactual interactions were programmed to occur when an object in the system was defective. At the exhibition, visitors could choose an object and place it upside down to simulate breaking an object (resulting in its ‘unhealthy’ status), prompting the other two objects to initiate a counterfactual interaction: the lamp would blink, the toaster’s push button would move and the microwave would light up. When the object was returned to its upright position, the three objects would all return to their normal status.It was hoped that, through playing with the objects, visitors would understand the system and think about the idea of ‘object health’.

The Interaction of Artefacts

Final Artefacts

Video demonstrating the interaction of artefacts

INSIGHTS
 

Difficulty of defining the ‘object health’ of IoT objects
 

The project presented a possible method for people to define the ‘health’ of objects in a data-driven system. The designed system provides an empirical example of attempts to identify ‘object health’ in an IoT service. It reveals that ‘health’ problems in an IoT system are more complicated than with normal material objects.

Sharing agency with objects

 

The system (where the objects worked counterfactually when one of them was ‘broken’) was designed to communicate the idea of objects ‘looking after themselves’ and prompt thought about objects, by allowing objects to have agency in order to manage their own ‘health’. It proposed a new version of things in an IoT system, a version where objects have more agency.

Disruption of human-centred design


The research investigated ‘object health’ from an object-oriented perspective that challenged the notion of human-centred design. The method was inspired by philosophy and design that allows Things to play a central role. Approaching these issues from a completely new perspective might help designers identify more design opportunities, particularly in terms of tensions between humans and nonhumans.

Artefacts displayed at the ECA Degree Show 2019

Artefacts displayed at the Design Informatics Pavilion 2019

FUTURE DIRECTIONS
 

1) Objects are proxies of their designers and often simply embody the designer's intentions and biases. Research might investigate if the objects’ needs actually reflect the intentions and biases of designers, and what the influences of this are on our techno-society.

2) Beyond the IoT, the human-nonhuman relationship is most relevant to the idea of sentient objects (artificial intelligence). In this situation, a higher level of health (a ‘hierarchy of needs’ for non-human agents) than the fundamental functions of objects are worth investigating.

3) In a similar vein, future research might also discuss the power relationships between humans and Smart object, such as the ownership of the technologies, the IPs and what effect they have/might have on democracy. How will our social structure be radically changed by the emerging human-nonhuman relationship?

REFERENCE LIST

 

Bogost, I. (2012) Alien phenomenology, or, What it’s like to be a thing. Posthumanities ; 20. [Online]. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Bryant, L.R. (2011) The Democracy of Objects. New Metaphysics. [Online]. Open Humanities Press.

Harman, G. (2018) Object-oriented ontology: a new theory of everything. UK, Pelican.

Harman, G. (2002) Tool-being: Heidegger and the metaphyics of objects. Chicago, [Ill.], Open Court.

Morton, T. (2013) Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality. Ann Arbor, Mich, MPublishing, University of Michigan Library.

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