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IoT Guest Post No. 2: The TOTeM Project – Rethinking the Traditional Linear Consumer Process by Dr Chris Speed

This post provides an insight in to a Digital Economy/EPSRC funded research project that has offered a very social dimension to the IoT debate. Whilst large corporations such as IBM and Microsoft work hard to brand what the Internet of Things might become by offering us YouTube clips, it is critical that the field remains open to many forms of interpretation and manifestation. This post extends a short piece of writing for Drew Hemment's Future Everything conference and book and is linked with the ACM Interactions paper "An Internet of Things That Do Not Exist".


In April 2010, a group of trans-disciplinary academics launched the web project TalesofThings. The site offered a simple but novel approach to recording social histories and a playful critique of the tagging culture that is associated with the emerging concept known as the ‘Internet of Things’. Our platform allows anybody to attach web content (text, image, video and audio) to an artefact through the generation of a unique QR barcode that the owner is encouraged to stick to their thing. When scanned by somebody else using a smart phone, media is launched and the object can be seen/heard to tell a story about the memories that it is associated with.


(Image via)


Our reasoning was simple, that the existing public use of tags (RFID, traditional barcodes and two dimensional) is based upon a ‘read only’ relationship. And although the web savvy amongst us can generate a QR code and associate it with web-based media, for many people the scanning of codes is a practice reserved for people working on super market checkouts and in passport control booths. As well as offering a place in which unique codes are generated and allow stories to be associated with artefacts, TalesofThings allows any other beholder the ability to ‘add a tale’ to someone else’s ‘thing’. By scanning a tag through the phone App, or by visiting the website, artefacts become ‘writeable’ and ‘open’ to further association. This is a critical dimension to the projects politics, that lessons learnt through Web 2.0 should be integral to any Internet of Things.


Following our launch last April the website began accruing stories that were associated with peoples actual material artefacts. However as the immaterial database grew it became clear that we needed an event that allowed the material artefacts to become an interface to our internet of things, rather than online repository of stories. RememberMe at Future Everything offered this context. The RememberMe artwork was a collaborative project with the Oxfam shop charity shop, in Manchester. During FutureEverything 2010, a research assistant based in the shop, asked people who dropped things off to tell a brief story about one of the objects into a microphone: where they acquired it, what memories it brings back and any associated stories. These audio clips were then linked to an RFID tag and QR code and attached to the items as they joined the shop’s stock. Visitors to the shop, including conference delegates were able to use bespoke RFID readers, or their own smart phone to browse artefacts that were displayed amongst the many thousands of other objects. Labels highlighted the RememberMe objects and once triggered, speakers located in the shop replayed the previous owners story, evoking a ghost from the past. Once tagged the objects were in the public domain for purchase by other members of the community, and the project’s iPhone and Android apps allowed new owners to access old stories but equally importantly, add their own.


Annie Lennox recording and playing back a memory in the Oxfam Curiosity Shop, Selfridges, March 2011 ( via ). Watch the YouTube clip to see it in action.


This material ‘turn’ in the life of the project readdressed the balance of where the immaterial data was located. Instead of being accessed through a web interface, the RememberMe work explored the potential of the TalesofThings project to manifest a social Internet of Things that is situated in the event based context of exchange. An exchange of things and stories that contests many of the habitual consumer practices that have formerly defined concepts of value, quality and the destiny of artefacts. This year we wanted to exploit the projects ‘write back’ feature and see if we couldn’t tip the balance between immaterial and material in favour of the former. In RememberUs, the team has set up two shops that act as supernatural portals to the Internet of Things. Visitors to the Oxfam Emporium are invited to ‘let go’ of memories that are associated with particular things by attaching stories to our memory vessels, moments later in the Oxfam Originals shop just down the street, people will ‘pick up’ your memory and the memories of others when they are associated with another ‘thing’ that they choose buy. Leaving the shop with what may be perceived to be a second hand item, shoppers will take with them many, many memories that have been associated with their new shoes, trousers or dress, exploding the assumption that a rolling stone gathers no moss. In a network society every ‘thing’ is part of a vocabulary of exchanges, in which artefacts are increasingly becoming hosts to multiple meanings and values. Keeping each thing open to interpretation may prove to be a critical role that consumers can play in resisting the determinism of vendors who would have us believe that a rolling stone has only one purpose as it travels downhill toward its grave.


The memory shed for RememberUs at FutureEverything2011. The white objects gathered memories that were transmitted to the Oxfam Originals shop 100m down the road (via).


The Tales of Things (TOTeM) project at large has many facets to it, but what is central is the acknowledgement that life in the network society is no longer governed by the clock. Networks and the devices that allow us to connect to them, keep us in constant touch with people allowing us to negotiate time and space. No longer do we need to agree a specific time and place to meet, but instead we text, email, watch others on FourSquare and move toward each other when we are ready. Our adherence to the ticking of the clock has relaxed and we're beginning to realise that time is a highly relative concept for everybody on the network. This means that we don't all share the same sense of what is the latest thing - we're not all running the most recent iOS on our iPhones and not all of us care to have the latest near-field technology on our Android phones. Sometimes this is because we can't afford to stay a pace of the latest thing, but in many cases people don't feel that they need to because their relationship with the network simply doesn't require it.


Traditionally for SME's, keeping in touch with the latest technology may have been crucial, but in a context in which the cutting edge is very wide there may be many more opportunities for engaging with the Internet of Things because not all 'things'or 'streams' of data are being received at the same speed. The Tales of Things project presents an example of how the association of old memories to secondhand goods can boost the value of artefacts. The RememberMe project also demonstrated in very simple terms how networked data can change the experience of physical artefacts, something that may be key to helping the a broad audience get their heads around the implications of life in the network society.


If the TSB IoT opportunity is to be best understood it should perhaps be to acknowledge that whilst there are many constants in the way that we live our lives, the way that they are connected has fundamentally changed since networks have dissolved the power of the clock. This opens up many more ways to think about traditional consumer processes beyond the linearity of the cradle to grave model that dominated the twentieth century. Given the rise of the Freecycle network, the success of bidding sites such as eBay and the power of the mob through Groupon, consumption on the high street remains largely unchanged. Transforming it requires creativity and insight that may not have to be cutting edge in terms of technology, but instead in watching what we do and thinking through how the implications of being connected to everything thing at the same time can alter how we do it.





The Tales of Things project is supported by a Digital Economy, Research Councils UK grant, and made ‘real’ by our team: Barthel, R., Blundell, B., Burke, M.E., De Jode, M., Hudson-Smith, A., Leder, K., Karpovich, A., Manohar, A., Lee, C., Macdonald, J., O’Callaghan, S., Quigley, M., Rogers, J., Shingleton, D. and Speed, C.


Dr Chris Speed is a research active designer at the Edinburgh College of Art working within the field of Digital Architecture, Human Geography and Social Computing developing new forms of spatial practice that transform our experience of the built environment. He is a Reader in Digital Architecture across the Schools of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the Edinburgh College of Art, where he teaches undergraduate, masters and supervises PhD students.

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