Article Review: IoTT

Internet of Tangible Things (IoTT): Challenges and Opportunities for Tangible Interaction with IoT

Authors: Leonardo Angelini, Elena Mugellini, Omar Abou Khaled, Nadine Couture

IoT systems provide innovative services but still in most cases the user interface is web or mobile phone based. Tangible user interactions, which leverage natural human skills, offer opportunities for better understanding of a system and better trust. The work surveyed (Angelini, et al., 2018) is an attempt to apply ubiquitous computing (ubicomp) ideas for this day and age’s IoT realities. My previous post discussing key paradigms feeding this motivation can be read as prolog.

The researchers argue that effective human-machine interaction is becoming ever more important as things to people ratio keeps increasing. And they see this particularly applicable to smart environments and personal and social applications, in which people directly interact with things. The objectives are clearly stated: first, an extensive literature review to identify eight tangible properties appropriate for incorporating into IoT objects design and second, a card-set to facilitate tangible properties-based design. The card set was further put to the test in an experts’ workshop.

The work is aimed at establishing a new field “Internet of Tangible Things” (IoTT) which marries research in IoT with Tangible Interaction. The authors report a lack of sufficient research on Human Computer Interaction (HCI) with IoT; and that work stemming from ubicomp has not been tailored to the unique challenges presented by Internet connected things. I find this insight interesting and relevant.

Tangible Properties for IoT Objects

The authors recognize earlier work such as Koreshoff, et al. (2013) adopting Atzori, et al. (2010) the Things-Internet-Semantic framework for designing IoT systems with HCI in mind, although such work merely provided HCI guidelines and not a complete framework. The complexity of IoT systems is a challenge for interactive design. Objects’ connectedness or bouts of disconnection require consideration. So does the fact objects connect with other objects. Tangible interactions are proposed in this context to allow the user to experience objects and their interactions in a natural way. Of special concern are peripheral interactions which are designed to work not at the focus of attention.

The authors perform an initial survey of literature and derive eight tangible properties to measure IoT systems by. My review is too short to cover all eight properties. Suffice it to say this list does seem to form a sound basis for an IoTT objects classification.

Some emphasis is put on personal objects, objects which the user cares about even with some emotional attachment, as facilitating long lasting interactions. Work in this area was done both with children and older adults. A related interesting concept is that of “technology individuation”. While I understand the motivation, I also think this approach to some extent opposes the ubicomp principal of a quiet servant. The object being a thing of itself can cause phenomena equivalent to cellular phone addiction. And on the other hand, things which are designed to evoke positive emotion can at some point evolve to evoke the opposite emotion and cause disengagement.

Another interesting tangible property is modeling IoT objects via physical tokens which can be combined in several ways to control the combined behavior of their IoT counterparts with proposed applications in the smart home arena.

Grounding Tangible Properties in Academic Research

The authors explain their methodology in detail. 18 papers were methodically surveyed for their use of the eight previously identified tangible properties to estimate to what extent each of the properties has been suggested, discussed, and implemented. The findings for each of the properties are then presented in a dedicated section and at some length. Overall, surveyed papers are interesting and thought provoking.

For example, in relation to the peripheral interaction property the authors mention the fact that some of the surveyed toolkits enable the use of LED lights for “non-intrusive information awareness” (Angelini, et al., 2018, p. 16). I think it is worth noting here that a blinking light can be very intrusive, such as in the case of a cellphone’s blinking light indicating an incoming message that simply cannot be ignored by the user. The level of intrusiveness is derived from what the symbol evokes in our mind.

In the discussion two observations further caught my attention. First, the usefulness of the three surveyed toolkits for interactive design in the hands of non-technical people. See for example, Mora, et al. (2016), also available here. And second, the somewhat ironic fact that participatory design and user evaluations were not abundant across the surveyed papers, which the authors attribute to the overall exploratory nature of work.

Card Games

Had the paper ended at this point it would have been a very respectable achievement already, but the authors further continued to devise a card-set for the practical consideration of their eight properties in IoT system design. The authors state that while card games were used in IoT before, their intended use for IoTT objects design is new. Besides the tangible properties cards the card-set also consisted of eight IoT properties cards depicting sought after system properties (such as function, power, and connectivity). It should be noted the theoretical background for the second set of cards is only thinly discussed.

Finally, the card-set was used in a workshop attended by 21 interactive design experts which created six IoT project prototypes. Not all participants enjoyed utilizing the cards as part of the design, perhaps because of their expertise, but overall, they were helpful. The authors report the observed links between implemented tangible properties and achieved IoT properties which the resulting projects exhibited. It is my opinion that whether those projects indeed posses those links is a matter of interpretation, which makes this part of the work interesting but not as strong methodically.


Overall, the paper is very well arranged and presented. It is packed with insights and directions for further research. Despite some of my earlier reservations it is apparent the authors are aware of the nuances surrounding the use of tangible properties to achieve a desired effect, and here again there is further room for exploration. With those things in mind, this paper really does lay the ground for an “Internet of Tangible Things”.

List of References

Angelini, L., Mugellini, E., Abou Khaled, O. & Couture, N., 2018. Internet of Tangible Things (IoTT): Challenges and Opportunities for Tangible Interaction with IoT. Informatics, 5(1), p. 7.

Atzori, I., Iera, A. & Morabito, G., 2010. The Internet of Things: a survey. Computer Networks, Volume 54, pp. 2787-2805.

Koreshoff, T., Leong, T. & Robertson, T., 2013. Approaching a human-centred internet of things. Proceedings of the 25th Australian Computer-Human Interaction Conference: Augmentation, Application, Innovation, Collaboration, November, Volume 25-29, pp. 363-366.

Mora, S., Divitini, M. & Gianni, F., 2016. TILES: An inventor toolkit for interactive objects. Proceedings of the International Working Conference on Advanced Visual Interfaces, June, Volume 7-10, pp. 332-333.

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