To Hit Fast Forward On The Internet Of Things, Get Personal

Editor’s note: Charles Huang is the COO of Leeo.

Try asking your parents or any friends who live in the suburbs what “IoT” or “smart home” means, and more often than not, you’ll get a blank stare in return. In Silicon Valley it seems like technology is ingrained in every aspect of life, but to the rest of the world, the question still remains, “Why do I want or need that?”

In order to get to the point where smart-home technology is ubiquitous, I’m convinced IoT products must go beyond today’s focus on just improving efficiency or adding more complex features and functionality to the latest gadget, and instead offer simple, clear use cases, and connect to people on a more meaningful and personal level.

Here’s what I mean: A friend told me that his house alarm had gone off for 30 minutes and none of his neighbors called the police — dumbfounding the officers who eventually arrived. But what if that alarm didn’t just send an alert to some nondescript entity that might (or might not) react in time? What if the alarm were connected to neighbors who’ve agreed to watch over each other? Even better, what if the alarm also helped to connect us to the local police, fire departments and emergency medical teams?

IoT technology allows us to build and even extend these bonds in important new ways, so that even when I’m not nearby I can still help the people in my designated community. My brother can let me know his son is alone, for example, and I’m in a better position to help because his house has cameras or sensors that talk to my IoT devices. Motion sensors on the doors of my grandparents’ home can tell me if they’ve stopped moving, so I can have a neighbor check on them. Clinics can monitor, and immediately respond to, at-risk patients living at home.

This call to action is much more powerful than squeezing out more efficiency or saving a bit more money — the main priority of the current crop of IoT products. Don’t get me wrong. Helping people make smarter choices about non-renewable resources will be a huge boon to the health of our planet. But IoT technology allows us to do so much more because it encourages us to look for and care for each other in ways we’ve never imagined. That’s incredibly powerful, and it’s what makes IoT such a game changer.

And that’s why companies entering the IoT market need to think beyond what the machine can do and instead think about what humans need and desire. It always starts with understanding humans as broadly as possible and what they really want. At Guitar Hero, we tried to sell fun. We then asked ourselves “What circumstances lead to the most fun?” We realized it’s when people have friends and family over. In the IoT market, we have to ask questions that are a layer or two deeper, and apply technology to achieve those aspirations.

But by asking those questions first — how to create a product that lets people feel they are healthier, smarter or a better parent, for example — we have a much more interesting starting point. We can then explore the kind of community — the relationships between people — that will strengthen those bonds.

The Internet of Things makes it possible to empower people as few other technologies can. It’s one reason analysts expect this market to be huge. IDC, for instance, estimates $7.1 trillion in worldwide spending by 2020. Cisco Systems suggests a $14.1 trillion market by 2022.

The ultimate dollar size almost doesn’t matter. (What’s a few trillion between friends, anyway?) It’s the “when” that interests me. Putting the focus back on the people whom this technology can serve — rather than just the technology for its own sake — will help to fulfill the promise that the IoT market holds.