Speaking at the recent RE.WORK Connect Summit, entrepreneur Haomiao Huang explained what he believed to be the basis for any connected object to become popular: providing hitherto-unavailable information and enabling users to act on it easily.

How can you explain why users are instantly attracted to some connected objects, while other inventions are condemned to fill the cemetery of promising devices that never quite make it with the public? Haomiao Huang, co-founder and CTO of Kuna Systems – a Burlingame, California-based startup which has developed a break-in prevention system for the home – tried to provide the audience at the RE.WORK connect summit, held in mid-November in San Francisco, with the answer to a very basic question: ‟How can you distinguish useful connected objects, which create real value, from those that simply add a technological veneer? In other words, how can you tell what really belongs to the Internet of Useful Things?” he asked, underlining that “merely connecting an object doesn’t make it useful.

To illustrate his views, Haomiao Huang took three examples. Firstly a device which collects data on your night-time behaviour so as to enable you to analyse your sleep. ‟This object is very well designed and it provides an innovative, useful service for something that affects everyone”. Nevertheless, he had stopped using it after just a couple of weeks, he said, while his Fitbit wristband and his smart scales, each with a much simpler design and less exciting output, both continue to meet his needs on a regular basis.

Information and action

Haomiao Huang argued that a ‘smart’ object must do two jobs: collect information and enable the user to act accordingly. Based on these criteria, he went back to his three examples, explaining: ‟The device which analyses my sleep tells me how I have slept during the night. But I already have that information as soon as I wake up. I feel tired and I’m struggling to get up, so it’s perfectly obvious that I’ve slept badly.” Moreover, he pointed out, even though it may be quite interesting to obtain an analysis of the various phases of your sleep, you have no way of acting directly on this information. “Sleep quality depends on a wide range of factors: have I been drinking alcohol, have I eaten a heavy meal, am I going through a period of stress, was my wife moving around during the night, and so on. I can’t just start immediately doing something simple to improve my sleep patterns. So it’s not really clear just how useful this object is in my daily life,” he told the audience.

By contrast, the Fitbit wristband tracks the number of steps I’ve taken during the day. I can’t get this information without this device or another smart object. This data tells me directly whether I’ve done enough exercise and if I haven’t I can do something about it right away by going for a walk around the neighbourhood or getting into my sports gear. So this device gives you useful information plus action that you can easily take. The smart scales tell you your body weight, your body mass index and other information on your physical health – variables which you can act on easily by taking more exercise or changing your eating habits. In addition, the object provides you with ongoing charts and graphics so that you can actually observe how effective your actions are.

Dynamic, evolving uses 

Huang also pointed out that a connected object can serve to increase your power of action in relation to another piece of equipment. An example of this is central heating, where you can control the temperature in every room at your house through a single device. Now with the Internet of Things you can also do this remotely, i.e. you can keep the heating turned off during the day while you are out and turn it on again from your workplace an hour before you go home.

Haomiao Huang’s startup, Kuna Systems, is positioned in this niche. ‟Today, there are many security systems that can alert you remotely if someone has broken into your home, so that if this happens you can call the police immediately. This is useful information which you can act upon easily. However, we wanted to go further, we wanted to enable users to know if someone was about to break into their home, and so prevent them from doing so,” he told the auditorium, adding that this did not imply taking any violent reprisals, but was based on the observation that ‟most thieves aren’t big-time criminals, they’re looking for easy targets. Often they’ll just knock on the door and if they think someone’s at home, they’re quite happy to run off.

The smart device developed by Kuna Systems is an outside light fixture with an integrated camera, which is able to detect any suspicious movements in front of the user’s house and send an alert on his/her smartphone. Customers can then use the phone to switch on the light, play a pre-recorded message, speak directly to the would-be intruder, or set off the alarm.

Last but not least, Haomiao Huang pointed out that a connected object will not necessarily have one fixed use. People are quite likely to find uses over and above what the developers had originally intended. He cited the example of one of his customers who used the Kuna Systems light fixture to speak to delivery people who came knocking in his absence. The company has since highlighted this use of the Kuna system in its customer documentation. 

By Guillaume Renouard