ThingsCon Takeaways

This May Berlin hosted the second ThingsCon, a event about the internet of things and this year, refreshingly, about the ethics thereof.

Jon Rogers and I ran a workshop called “Design Frictions”, where we made networks with lots of household objects and then negotiated contracts among them. Here’s a summary of how that went down and an agenda if you’re interested in trying it out. [link forthcoming]


Warren Ellis spoke about the non-glamorous yet necessary role of customer support. In an era where people love to fail fast and fail often, we also have to keep in mind the people who are buying iot products and ensure they are not left holding a stinking bag of disconnected silicon.

“There’s no dopamine hit in utilities. The victory sound of infrastructure is silence.” — @warrenellis

Designers and developers united to write an Internet of Things manifesto. Using analogies from doctors and architects, @Bopuc rightly noted the document is more aptly called a Code of Ethics.

It includes many principles that resonate with me, and there was much discussion around how as the makers of technology, which master do you serve: the client or society? I’m keen to see where it develops from here:


With the rise of wearable electronics like the Pebble, Fitbit and Apple iWatch, we spent some time in a workshop designing notification systems that use vibration.

Iskander proposed that we are seeing the emergence of a new layer of services, the notification layer. The phone is no longer the hub of all notifications. Instead, we’re seeing notifications leaving the phone and showing up on your wrists, your desk, your kitchen, etc.


In the workshop, we used a simple vibrating motor on our wrists to make notifications for each other. We realized that basic vibration patterns communicate messages like, “Alert!” or “Success!”. Notably, these patterns were based on cultural melodies or sounds we associate with those emotions, such as the sad trombone’s “waa-waa” for rejection.

To build more complex messages, we can add more dimensions to the notifications. This variables include using more motors, changing the duration, placement on the body, and other factors to signal different things. We may soon learn to hear more haptic messages, just as we have been trained to know that a vibrating phone means we’re receiving a call or text.

Furthermore, we realized that different parts of the body are suitable for different kinds of notifications. On the one hand, certain areas are more sensitive to haptic signals, like your fingers, feet or tongue. They also vary in levels of publicness and intimacy, so where your hands may be quite public, your stomach is intimate. Inevitably, we also talked about teledildonics and what we can learn from that field.


Jon Rogers ran another workshop called “The Connected High Street” where we played with a simple, constrained internet. Jon has set up a prototype with local shops in Scotland, and they have started communicating with one another with small printers, sensors and others interfaces.

The idea was inspired by a market in India, where someone set up a network just for the marketplace business. Thanks to the constraint and relative privacy of their communication, the local network flourished.


Crappy robots also fought each other in the ThingsCon edition of Hebocon, a tournament format from Japan that pits poorly built robots against each other:


Bruce Sterling gave a great closing keynote. The time as come, he said, to not just create the internet of things, but to actually live with it.

He shared his latest project to do just that, Casa Jasmina. In an old factory in Torino with “Massimo Banzi and the Arduinoistas,” Bruce and his wife Jasmina are setting up an Arduino Open Source Home.


Importantly, he sees this as an alternative to the corporate versions of our connected homes. He invited the world of tinkers and open source activists to stay in the home, and to build and live with the connected objects in there. I’m buzzing with joy to visit the home together with Alex Deschamps-Sonino and Peter this July.

All in all, Things Con was a delightful event. Hosting and participating in the workshops was a highlight, not to mention the rounds in the beer garden getting to know fellow thinkers and tinkerers of things.

Photos from organizers and participants posted in the ThingsCon Flickr pool

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  1. Pingback: [Free eBook] Understanding the Connected Home - Putting people first

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