Evolving IoT device interfaces bring new challenges - Embedded.com

Evolving IoT device interfaces bring new challenges

The connected device interface of today is certainly different from that of yesteryear. Powered by the ubiquity of smartphones and the rise of remote controls, users and vendors alike have embraced the evolution away from physical interfaces with screens and buttons. Instead, the vast majority of contemporary devices now come locked and loaded with companion applications which operate on the user smartphone or tablet.

The move from hardware interfaces to software interfaces is driven by convenience, yet simultaneously grants better user control and lower vendor expense. On the other hand, however, there are security and latency considerations to overcome in this new age of interface design. Let’s compare and contrast hardware interfaces and software interfaces, and what the transition between the two means for IoT designers.

Physical Interfaces, Hardware Programming

It is important to recognize that connected devices have ⁠until recently only used the device itself to display information and enable user control. In fact, I’m sure others like myself recall a time when smartphones did not exist and designers had no other choice. User input during these halcyon days relied on physical interfaces that typically comprised two-line LCD displays. HVAC systems, for example, remain one of the few devices today which continue to use physical displays like this. Later, physical interfaces became more design-intensive as basic touchscreens entered the fray.

Although functional, these physical interfaces lack in comparison to the applications of today. Devices without physical interfaces are smaller, consume less power, and objectively look better. Developers, meanwhile, enjoy the relative ease of creating an app instead of manually programming physical interfaces. Perhaps most important in explaining the rapid move toward software interfaces: It is 10 times cheaper for vendors to create devices with companion apps than to create devices with physical touchscreen interfaces.

The Smartphone (And Software) Revolution

The eventual rise of smartphones paved the way for the eventual rise of digital interfaces for connected devices, and this evolution brought two intrinsic changes to the industry. First, designers could now create interfaces without any knowledge of hardware. Instead, they are empowered by software development kits to quickly create apps and release updates as required. This is a massive time and resource saver for development teams, and something which ultimately brings bottom-line benefits for IoT companies.

Second, remote connectivity completely changed how users interact with their devices. Smartphone apps enable users anywhere in the world to set the temperature of their air conditioning and record from their home security webcam with the click of a screen. These apps are simply much more expressive and intuitive than physical interfaces, enabling users to customize what they like from wherever they are.

It is this element of remote connectivity, however, which presents an issue simply not present with physical interfaces: hacking. Companion smartphone applications present a compromise between usability and security as roughly half of these apps are potentially exploitable through protocol analysis. In fact, this study into companion apps from some of Amazon’s most popular devices found a lack of encryption in one-third of cases and the use of hardcoded keys in one-fifth of cases.

What Designers Must Remember In This Shift

User preference for companion apps is not going away any time soon, so it is incumbent upon device creators and display designers to move forward with any detractors in mind.

It is possible, for example, to ensure commands between the client and the device are not intercepted by any third-party by tailoring the connection type. For example, German smart heating and cooling provider SOREL uses a private connection type peer-to-peer (P2P) interface to ensure its smartphone app communicates without interference. Moreover, the connection offers the company minimized risk since end-users only manage their data on their device.

Latency, meanwhile, is an integral component for digital interface designers to safeguard. Buggy, laggy apps harm the user experience with research showing that any response time longer than 0.1 seconds will prevent users from feeling like their actions are directly causing something to happen on the screen. Creating rich user interfaces with low latency must be the aim of the game for designers in today’s day and age of IoT. This is something which is also possible with connection types which permit direct connectivity.

Overall, the move away from physical interfaces and toward digital interfaces is a win for designers. Apps are far easier and cheaper to design than hardware interfaces, plus they open up an entirely new world of device functionality thanks to remote connectivity. While there are elements like latency and cybersecurity to consider, this should not prevent designers from embracing this industry evolution.


Carsten Rhod Gregersen is CEO and Founder of Nabto, a P2P IoT connectivity provider that enables remote control of devices with secure end-to-end encryption.

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