Internet of Things Expert: Author, Arduino Team Member and Teacher,Tom Igoe

Digi International
April 23, 2012

One of the best aspects of playing a role in the technology industry is getting to meet the innovative leaders who are making things happen. That’s why we’re bringing you a monthly series: Internet of Things Experts. These are the people that inspire and motivate us everyday, and we hope they’ll do the same for you.

Tom Igoe may be one of the more interesting people you’ll ever meet. He’s a professor, author and a core member of the Arduino development team. He even works with monkeys— more on that later.

Tom Igoe

Tom Igoe, author, core member of the Arduino development team and teacher.

Igoe teaches physical computing and networking at the Interactive Telecommunications Program in the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. He and his students explore ways to allow digital technologies to sense and respond to a wider range of human physical expression. He’s the co-author of Physical Computing: Sensing and Controlling the Physical World with Computers, and the author of Making Things Talk. You may have also come across one of his regular contributions to MAKE magazine.

Igoe is not a fan of the term “Internet of Things.” So, of course, that was our first topic of discussion. After all, we needed to know what to call it. 

“The behavior and communication is what’s important, not the things. That’s why I called my book Making Things Talk not Making Talking Things.” He believes we need a term to help us use the Internet more effectively, enabling a wide range of human behavior. “Instead of calling it the Internet of Things, just call it the Internet. A computer is already a thing.”

Now we were able to get into specifics, like where these physically connected objects will make the most impact.

Igoe first mentioned gaming and leisure activities, like what we are seeing with the XBox Kinect. One attribute that made speaking with Igoe interesting is that he’s strikingly honest. His answers also reflect his expertise in human behavior. “People are focused on the areas where they can make money, which is what the press mainly covers, like 3D printing. It’s already making an impact on the arts, but we don’t hear much about that because it doesn’t make much money.” He mentioned the huge impact that device networking is having on health care, physical therapy and also in transportation, “Who do you know that goes somewhere without a GPS these days?”

“We were expecting the cyber world to take over the real world, but the real world just got on the Internet.” Igoe relates it to William Gibson’s first novel, Neuromancer, where he describes a bartender named Ratz with a Russian military prosthesis arm—the arm just becomes a part of the reality. It’s interesting how a conversation around the Internet of Things (sorry, Tom) can open up a wide range of other conversations. Igoe’s other, very apparent, interest is clocks. Above his computer hangs an electronic clock made of old-fashioned glowing “nixie” tubes.

That got us thinking, what can clocks learn from the Internet?

Igoe immediately mentioned Crispin Jones of Mr. Jones Watches. Mr. Jones is rethinking the scale of time. “Think about why we measure time. For example, think of time in the kilobytes of emails in your inbox—one of my clock projects tied time to the activities we engage in online.” As we talked about how clocks are used to determine subjective activities and coordinate with other people, Igoe shook his head and said, “collaborative time, this might be a future project.”

What can clocks give to the Internet?

“The Internet is based on a time scale. It would be great if my clock knows enough about my actions and could tell me, ‘don’t make that call/send that email/IM’ at a certain time. ”

Clocks should provide coordination with moods. “Not so much a clock, but a I wish my email knew when the best time to send an email was.”  Inbox timing is important. We’ve all received that poorly coordinated email, the one that stresses you out on a Saturday, or the unwanted message that just made your busy day even busier. “The clock tells you something about what time space you’re in by activity.”

Igoe mentioned that we should create clocks that work in cycles, for instance like ITPs 2.5 hour and 30 minute break schedule. “Most communication is done through local networks. That mirrors our lives. I don’t want everything I say to be broadcast to the entire world, just to individual networks.”

So, besides clocks, what else is inspiring and exciting Igoe right now?

Not unexpectedly, the open-source Arduino project is on the brink of more new products that expand the reach of common protocols. Possibly not so predictable, Igoe has started working with monkeys. Taking his study of behavior to a new level, he is working with Anthony Di Fiore, a Biological Anthropologist at the University of Texas at Austin. He and Di Fiore are studying primate behavior in the Amazon, interaction design for wild life. As Igoe put it, “This is for people who don’t want to make the next iPhone. We give people the chance to influence scientific research– it’s a challenge for interactive designers.”

We are so inspired by Igoe’s broad range of interests, and his expertise in human behavior and the Internet. This made us curious– who inspires him?

“Two people come immediately to mind” said Igoe: “Graham Pullin, author of Design Meets Disability, who is an interaction designer that rethinks how we design for disability and why we’ve done so poorly up until now. Also, Dan O’Sullivan, my colleague and chair of NYU’s ITP. Dan introduced me to the term ‘physical computing’ is an inspiration as well as an advisor and collaborator.”

Have a question you’d like to ask our next Internet of Things Expert? Know of an Expert you’d like us to interview? Let us know in the comments below. We’ll choose a couple of reader’s questions for the next Internet of Things Expert interview.