Each IoT device has it’s own ‘umwelt’ – a self-world – and combining umwelts is the key to successful IoT services.

The self-world of an IoT device is made up of all that it senses and all that it can do. All its sensor data and all its capabilities to change the physical world. Each device has different sensors and effectors, so many diverse devices working together can help each other.

The self-world of a single IoT device is very limited, like the self-world of a tick

Jakob von Uexküll’s idea of an ‘umwelt’ is really useful for understanding the Internet of Things (IoT), either for building a single IoT device, or an IoT app, or for building a whole IoT ecosystem.

If you want to design a single IoT device or a single IoT app then you need to know how it fits into one or more ecosystems. It cannot exist on it’s own. An IoT device on its own is just a device. The potential of the IoT lies in the combined capabilities of many devices working together.

If you want to design an IoT ecosystem – maybe because you want to build a platform, a network or something to help lots of people – then you need to understand how the devices in the ecosystem can help each other.

Whether you are wondering how an individual device can work with other devices or how can many devices all work together, then the umwelt idea helps to answer both these questions.

What exactly is an umwelt?

An umwelt is the ‘self-world’ of a machine, a person or an animal. It is a combination of all that it senses by plus all that it can do to change it self-world.

For example, a female wood tick hangs in a bush waiting for a deer or other prey. When it senses the butyric acid produced by all mammals, it lets go of its perch. If it lands on some fur this impact is the input trigger that makes the tick scurry around. If it then senses a warm membrane, like skin, then that input triggers piecing and sucking actions.

The tick’s self-world has three input signals and three output action. Its sensors are so limited that any warm membrane will trigger piecing and sucking. A rubber sheet holding warm glycerine will give the same input signal and generate the same action as skin.

Humans can see that ticks usually pierce and suck mammals’ blood through skin but the ticks’ actual sensors and are more limited that what humans see and understand. Ticks have a very different umwelt to humans, just as every IoT device has its own special sensors and effectors.

Von Uexkull also helps us to understand how every IoT device has its own perspective. He wrote about the ‘magic journey’ of animals. For example, ticks can survive for many years just hanging in wait for the scent of butyric acid; some birds migrate each year from pole to pole; and some insects just move from one end of a cereal gran to another.

The umwelts of animals are different because of their different sensors and effectors. And what they sense and do is strung together into the very different journeys of their lives. So the magic journeys of animals are hugely different in terms of timescale and distance. This gives each species a very different perspective on the same events.

Devices and applications have different sensors and effectors – different umwelts.

What devices and applications sense is subjective and specific to each one. For example, a phone might have special information because it monitors a particular person’s physical activity levels. That phone has the right sensors – accelerometers and a clock – and only that one is in the right place at the right time to record that user.

Also, the things different devices can do are subjective and specific to them because they all have different capabilities. Phones use screens, audio speakers, vibrators and other effectors to influence you. Cars do this as well but they can also move you. Websites can inform and guide you. And rowing machines can simulate different water conditions or just say when your exercise time has finished.

Devices and applications have different sensors and effectors. So if devices work with other devices they can get access to different information and different ways to help a user.

The secret to successful IoT services

No single device has enough information to help you with anything but the simplest of problems. For example, apps are usually highly specific in what they are for and they usually need you to supply most of the information. And no single device has enough capabilities to guide you using multiple ‘touch points’ and to deal with most of the problems itself.

For example, Sat Navs and GPS apps are best when they integrate lots of data sources and they are indispensable when then they can actually do something about the different problems that come up. A sensible shopper commonly looks at several different retailers’ websites using several different devices, plus some in-store checking, in their shopping journey to buy a high value item.

Bigger problems are solved by solving smaller problems one after the other in a sort of ‘journey’. And each smaller problem requires different information and different capabilities. The more complicated the problem is then the more complicated is the service that it solves. But a single device is too limited on its own. It can only know about its own self-world and it can only change it’s own self-world in a small number of ways.

Real-word problems are complicated. The more that devices can combine their information-sensing capabilities and their abilities the change the real world, then the more sophisticated are the IoT services that they can jointly produce.

The IoT offers the potential for ‘personal Sat Navs’ that use information from a network of sources and that employ a variety of ways to smooth and guide each user’s journey. Journeys in shopping, travelling, education, recreation and work – IoT services can solve the collections of serial problems that we call life.

If you want to design a single IoT device or a single IoT app then think about what extra data you need and what extra capabilities would complement whatever your device or app can do on its own. How do these change along the course of each user’s journey?

If you want to design an IoT ecosystem then think about the mix of data and capabilities that you have access to. Do the devices that produce them work smoothly together and how do they combine to fit the needs of the different users? Including the needs of the devices themselves.

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