Are 'smart' objects the future?

People certainly like so-called smart phones, and almost every home in America has a computer, and making everything 'smart' might be a future trend, say humanities scholars at Penn State University.

 As sensors and computers increasingly become smaller and cheaper, smart objects will appear in more homes and offices and not be hidden or shielded from interacting with people, according to the researchers. For example, smart refrigerators could talk or send tweets to signal when certain food items are almost out, or when expiration dates are nearing.

The scholars want to test what happens when objects talk directly to people in social situations. So they invited students to participate under the guise that they were taking part in a cognitive games study. In addition to watching their reactions on videotape, researchers asked the participants to fill out a questionnaire about the lab environment, including questions on the smart objects. 

Researchers videotaped participants as they reacted to a talking box of tissues that was on a desk in the laboratory. Once a laboratory worker sneezed, the tissue box said, "Bless You." The tissue box also responded with two follow-up messages: "Here, take a tissue" and "Take care!" Participants from two other groups heard the same messages from either a laboratory worker or a talking tabletop robot. 

The participants found the talking tissue box just as human-like and as autonomous as the robot, even though robots are more human-looking and human-acting. In actuality, a research assistant operated both the robot and tissue box by broadcasting the pre-recorded statements to the devices. People seem to strongly respond to the voice of the object, said Haiyan Jia, doctoral candidate in mass communications, who worked with  S. Shyam Sundar, Distinguished Professor of Communications at Penn State. 

Sundar said that the project may also help manufacturers design smart objects that are appealing. While designers tend to want to make robots look more human, many people don't want to go to into that uncanny valley - they consider robots that are too humanlike creepy.

"This study shows that speech is a social cue," said Sundar. "It may be enough to make the objects more social and not necessarily more human-like in appearance."

At least tentatively, Jia said this shows that people will accept smart objects. However, she added that future research should investigate if people will strongly connect with these objects and if long-term exposure to smart objects as social companions may change people's attitudes toward these objects over time.

"Smart objects will become more and more a part of our daily lives," said Sundar. "We believe the next phase is that objects will start talking and interacting with humans, and our goal is to figure out the best ways for objects to communicate with humans." 

Presented today at the 2013 Annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Paris.