Andy Hobsbawn – a Facebook for objects

What if every object had its own online identity? How could that change our relationship with possessions, and change the way we understand the physical world? Andy Hobsbawm has some ideas.

What if everything was addressable? What if every object had its own life online? Not a model of chair, the specific chair, the object itself?

There’s a gap opening up between the physical and digital worlds. The digital world is getting faster, smarter and more connected. The physical world does not behave that way.

Smartphone are so ubiquitous that they’re becoming a giant internet-connected sensor. As long as our smartphones can interact with our products, then the intelligence can live in the cloud. Smartphones have become a micro hub of the web itself. Think of the idea of a Facebook for things. Our Facebook profiles are digital representations of ourselves. Even though we’re in a room in Berlin, our profile is busy elsewhere. We like this idea of physical objects having their own profile. If everything has its own digital identity, they can be used to trigger products and services.

The object needs an identifier – down to each individual object. E-commerce took off when servers were given identities that could be verified through security services. Social networking took off when people got individual profiles. So it will be for objects.

Now, when you buy (say) a guitar, that’s where the process ends. But imagine if there was an NFC chip, or a QR code that allowed you to checkin to that object, activating a profile in the cloud? Then a whole network of service could be triggered, from music lessons to a network to find potential band mates. The object could seek complementary objects and their owners… The idea of relationships based on products is quite interesting.

If you go on to sell an object, you can sell it with a locker of its history – say the rides your have taken with it. It’s about taking both physical and digital possession of the bike. Lots of products already come with serial numbers – this is not a completely new idea. These items could live in information streams – bottles of beer which know how long they’ve been in a bar, and what music was playing when they were drunk. You could create a master locker room of memories of disposable objects. The memories could travel with the object if it is a persistent object. The things that will work will be the ones that give real value to people.

Clothes are an interesting one – could you have clothes that scan fashion blogs and suggest accessories? Could they do analytics on your wardrobe? “Don’t buy that, you have four similar things you’ve never worn?” Frequency of touch is interesting – you don’t have a deep relationship with washing power – but you might touch it more often than something your really valuable. Adjacency is interesting, too. Margarine isn’t very interesting, but the issues of health around it is.

Could the product be a jumping off point for an app download? Could an oven tell you where to get spare parts or repair? When things break, you have to to the manufacturer’s website, go through a disambiguation process to find out about parts or repair. The product knows what it is, so could help you skip that. A glucose monitor could remind you when to take medicine for diabetes. There are potential anti-counterfeit uses as well.

If you think there’s a lot of communication on the internet today – just wait until the things start talking….

One audience member is scared by the possibilities – could she be tracked by her washing powder?

This is a role for service design. People talk about privacy – but not about how much. Our smartphones know more about us than anything I’ve talked about it. Social privacy is gone – you can’t argue with that – but good service design gives it a fair value exchange. The details is in the service design for permission and trust.