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Chapter 1 — The Phenomenon


In the current transition period we are living in, we are building new aspirations that demand increasingly clever ways to use the potentially endless amounts of information we can track, sense, measure, share and produce via the constantly improving ubiquitous technologies.

From both social and technological perspectives, there is a great potential today to revolutionize many aspects of our lives by making our processes ever more efficient and intuitive. It can be medical, logistics, manufacturing, entertainment, food, transportation processes and so on. The transition we are living now is bringing information-fuelled products and services that will be around us as a network whenever we need them. The result of finding (or designing) these increasingly clever ways to use information is what we call Meta Products.

RFID CHIP (taken from Wikimedia Commons)

We chose this term because we are making the shift to a society that is no longer determined by the material multiplication of industrialization (product), but by the information generated by our actions (where a product — in the industrialization sense — may not necessarily be involved). Hence 'Meta', which means 'higher or beyond' in Greek. It encapsulates the idea of the quest to transcend to a higher place. But let's not misinterpret the term, because Meta Products are not products that are better or that have more features added to them. Meta Products are dedicated networks of services, products, people and environments fed by the information flows made possible by the web and other ubiquitous technologies. Our working definition of a Meta Product would therefore be: web-enabled product-service networks.

So far, we've explained Meta Products in the socio-cultural context. In the following sections we will describe a more technical perspective so that you get a more hands-on idea of what a Meta Product is.

Meta Products: Web-enabled product-service networks

The Cloud is a user- and machine-generated stack of data. Like a real cloud, you can't grasp it. Interacting with the Cloud in its most pure form is not really appropriate. We use machines as interfaces in order to read out, understand and build upon this data and we refer to this 'translated' data as meta data or simply put: information. With the advent of WiFi as a wireless communication system, we are able to interact in numerous ways with the Cloud via many devices. However daunting it may seem to some of us, it is technically just a small step from smartphones to any other device. Consumer electronics, industry products, transportation vehicles; they can all be new touchpoints of the web, entry points for communicating with the web, with or without a human operator.

iPOD & iTUNES AS A META PRODUCT courtesy of Apple, Inc.
Companies and organizations that find a way to manage the data deluge and help us navigate complexity will win our loyalty. There is already a huge shift from physical ownership to the sharing of virtual services. Sharing, Co-Creation and Cloud Culture is being driven by a generation used to free downloads and open source approaches. They want to be involved in the process of developing products and services - they demand dialogue! — ANNE LISE KJAER

Roughly speaking, Meta Products consist of physical elements and web elements. The physical elements can have a sensorial function serving as input for the web elements, after which the web elements perform a certain action, such as storage or editing. The physical elements can also have an actuator function, initiated by the web element, such as informing or alerting the user. The Apple iPod was one of the first Meta Products. Let's take a look at how the meta parts are built up here. The iPod itself serves as an interface, enabling the user to play and browse his or her music library. Nothing very revolutionary going on here you might say, but it got more interesting the moment Apple introduced the iTunes Store as the portal to unlimited music from the web. There you have it, the iPod as Meta Product, consisting of a product and iTunes with an integrated web store, offering you the music of your choice. The added web layer shifted the value to the content part of the product, rather than the object itself. The object becomes merely a means to interact with the content/informational part. So designers will have to rethink many of their preconceived ideas, particularly in the sense of paying special attention to the interaction with different sorts of information and content functions using the same device.


Communication streams

A Meta Product may have different communication streams depending on the goals of the communication in the network (e.g. to give you advice on your food intake patterns or to alert you when your grandmother hasn't taken her medicine), and the touchpoints (sensors, web applications, RFID tags, machines and so on) that are best suited to fulfil those goals. To give you an idea of what these communication streams might look like, we categorized them into three basic types: 1. between a touchpoint and the actual world information (e.g. sensing your body's information, the energy in your house, the growth of a plant), 2. between touchpoint and touchpoint (e.g. machine to machine, sensors to actuators), 3. between a touchpoint and the meta data or information (e.g. smartphone connecting to the API of a web service).


Levels of automation

Some years ago people (users) were considered to be passive entities, and much research was put into making systems as autonomous as possible. Today, designers consider people's actions as part of the network they are designing. In fact, in some Meta Products, individuals themselves fashion their own service as they use it. This is not a rule of course. In some cases, the network might require such high levels of efficiency and quality control that it would be better to leave it automated. Magerkurth3Magerkurth, C., Cheok, A.D., Mandryk, R.L. & Nilsen, T., 2005. Pervasive Games: Bringing Computer Entertainment Back to The Real World. ACM Computers in Entertainment, Vol.3, No.3. speaks of system-oriented technologies, which are applications that have the power to 'reason' and exhibit automatic behaviour on the one hand, and people-oriented technologies, in which the applications are dedicated user profiling services (awareness, notification and user interface services for integrating the human in the service), on the other.

OLINDA courtesy of Berg London and BBCM
KAROTZ by Nivrae (taken from Flickr)