Why Can't I Google My Shoes?


By 2020, there will be 25 billion connected objects, about 3 times more than people in this world according to technology research firm Gartner. London-based startup Evrythng is one of the firms aiming to connect every single thing out there – from parking lots to guitars to trees.

Evrythng provides a software platform for manufacturers that helps them to manage their connected products and their realtime data streams. It creates digital profiles for every product that can be utilized to build smart applications and individual services for consumers. In the run up to DLD15, we talked with Niall Murphy, co-founder and CEO of Evrythng, about the potential of all things connected and ensuing challenges, from divergent protocols to the future of privacy.

You have worked on the development of web infrastructures for quite some time: you founded one of the first Internet service providers in Africa back in 1994 as well as the WIFI network The Cloud in 2003. When did you start thinking about the Internet of Things as a concept and business opportunity?

I'm a computer scientist by background, so I've always been interested in pervasive and ubiquitous computing. I started thinking about the concept quite a long time ago. One major influence was Bruce Sterling's work on design and his book Shaping Things. In a talk, he raised the question: "Why can't I google my shoes when I can't find them?", which I thought was a really nice encapsulation of the gap between the physical and the digital world. In 2010, I started researching the technology opportunities and challenges of the field. The decreasing costs of semiconductor technologies were allowing the Internet of Things to move from being a theory to becoming a reality.

Evrythng provides a platform for manufacturers to create digital profiles for their products as well as data-based applications and services. Can you explain how this works by sharing some use cases?

I give you two examples. We are currently working with a lighting business called Aurora. They are a large producer of LED lights. They first wanted to build a very basic application for the consumer to switch a light on and off with an app or with another device. But now the light has further capabilities, it can detect motion, temperature and CO2 in the air. By extracting this data from the light, you can enable a lot of interesting applications. Taking motion detection the light can for example act as a burglary alarm. The online identity collects the data and can trigger a security application in case of a certain event. We are also working with a global beverage company right now on providing individual content experiences for the consumer. Each product will have its own digital identity and if consumers interact with those personalized experiences are driven. Both examples reflect a core idea of Evrythng: Providing a digital identity for a product and making it connectible, changes the very nature of the product itself: It becomes an interface between manufacturer and user, a point of service delivery and a point of realtime data collection.

Manufacturers profit from learning more about their consumers and their market space, but what is in for the consumer?

The consumer hopefully gets a more personal experience. In the physical world products used to come with instruction manuals so that you can learn how to use a product. The product doesn't learn how to use you. But in the digital world we got quite used to websites personalizing themselves based upon our preferences and what they know about us. This kind of dynamic personalization is something we can start seeing in the physical world, too. Products can optimize themselves according to what they have learned about you. Secondly, the ability to connect information from one product to another can deliver useful value and efficiency. And finally people are increasingly interested in the stories behind products, they want to know where the products they bought come from. Getting background information on an item and being able to talk to its source is a value to consumers.

In the light of the Snowden revelations and the NSA surveillance scandal why should people trust that the data being collected will not be misused?

I think that part of our responsibility is providing platforms that have pretty sophisticated ways of encrypting and encoding data. Most of the hacks that we see today exploit bad practices on the parts of companies. Most recently for example in the case of Sony, a file called passwords got hacked containing a long list of passwords – this is not a particular good way of managing data. There's a requirement on parts of product manufacturers to look for real industrial expertise and technology and how to manage data in a particular way. If you are dealing with institutional spying you have of course a different problem. There's nothing in the world that is absolutely secure. There's obviously a risk. As we have seen with the NSA disclosures you are dealing with a regulated degree of surveillance where companies are required to provide information and I think that's more a democratic issue than a technical one.

However, I think the basic question is: Are consumers concerned about privacy? Yes, they are. How does that manifest itself? They might use that concern to determine which brands they are willing to work with and which they aren't. However, are consumers in general withdrawn from or engaging in providing personal data? The statistics show that they are increasingly providing more personal data. I personally don't believe that there is some event on the horizon that will stop people from doing that. If there's a large enough group of people though who are concerned about privacy someone will make a business out of servicing that.

Do you think there will still be the possibility to opt out? Even if it's technically possible to switch connections off, it might become more or less mandatory culturally to use connected devices. For example, if you have fitness wristbands, health insurance companies can make it mandatory or give incentives to people who wear it and prove to look after their health.

Yeah, you are right. It will become very difficult for people to opt out. I think that product functionality is going to increasingly depend upon the digital services tied to those products. So I think this is just going to become a fact. You can have a smartphone but you can't really use it without having a connection and that formula will extend to many other products.

Your co-founder Dominique Guinard recently called the Internet of Things a rebellious teenager. What will it take for IoT to mature and become a responsible adult?

(laughs) It's got to realize the consequences of its actions. It has to make itself cost-effective for people to work with it. It's got to recognize its responsibilities in order to become trustable - not just in terms of handling personal data. If a big brand is going to make millions of products depending upon a piece of software that software better be very reliable. And finally: Can our rebellious teenager go out and converse with the rest of the world? Can products talk to other products, applications and businesses? We got to get a standardization of languages and methods bolted down.

What do you think will be the next wave in the context of IoT?

I think that the interaction with products is going to improve on different levels. I am very excited about the development of low-energy bluetooth technology, it allows us to connect with things around us easily and takes away the need of registering a product first. We will see these technologies appearing in mass market consumer products very shortly. In the next ten years, I think we are going to see a big transition in the product manufacturer industry from being a business model that is based upon manufacturing, marketing and shipping to a business model that is based upon manufacturing and servicing. Services will become a major value factor associated with products. I think a whole new service revolution is going to appear.

Niall Murphy will be speaking about Everything Connected at DLD15.