Human Factors Engineering: leveraging the Internet of Things and Mobile Sensing Networks with Big Data and Social Analytics


“The ultimate test of a practical theory, of course, is whether or not it can be used to build working systems. It is good enough to use in the real world? […] Almost uniquely among the social sciences, this new social physics framework provides quantitative results at scales ranging from small groups, to companies, to cities, and even to entire societies […] it provides people –e.g., government and industry leaders, academics, and average citizens- a language that is better than the old vocabulary of markets and classes, capital and production […] the engine that drives social physics is big data: the newly ubiquitous digital data now available about all aspects of human life. Social physics functions by analyzing patterns of human experience and idea exchange.”Social Physics by Alex Pentland.


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Back in 2010 I worked on the Amazing Learning Unit, a research project leading to a proof of concept demonstration. The anecdote behind it’s name was that by calling it A.L.U. we played with the fact that those same three letters formed Alcatel-Lucent’s stock ticker. On a more serious note, we partnered with Lego and the Illinois Math & Science Academy (IMSA) to unveil a simulation at Mobile World Congress in 2011, which was very well received.

The Amazing Learning Unit’s concept entailed “Lego robotics” equipped with Touchatag’s RFID readers and Android phones and tablets. As you can see in the above picture, these “mobile units” were designed to look, behave and roam around like autonomous screens, cameras and sensors with wheels.

Driven by human factors engineering principles, the thinking behind the project was centered not on technology, but on taking down the classroom’s physical walls, which can make today’s schools and school districts behave like “geofenced silos”. This is an environment that can constrain kids’ exposure to an outside world that’s growing more connected and diverse. The project’s main goal was to enable boundariless collaborative learning, our technologies being the means to that end.

The concept called for the robots to roam around the classroom and sense what a kid was playing with, or what book she/he was reading. Classroom’s objects and books would feature the Touchatag’s stickers to that end. The result is a mobile sensing network that falls in the IoT, Internet of Things, category.

Leveraging social analytics, we thought of a “serendipity engine” which would then connect the kid with another child from any other school who would be engaged in a similar activity, and whose skill and learning behaviors happened to be a good match for them to play together. The smartphone screens would prompt interactive online activities jointly with video calls engaging them in context-aware and “peer-to-peer collaborative learning”.

We discussed what’s now known as collaborative filtering and matchmaking options to promote role model behaviors and how to adequately display them to help realize everyone’s potential, and to do so in everyone’s best interest. We also looked into sensitive matters centered on behavioral analytics, privacy and the pros and cons of emotional and persuasive design features.

As part of the project’s research, gamification techniques were thought out to incentivize players, such as competitive challenges, progressive skill levels, in-game rewards and scoreboards. Circling back with a recent post on working with personas, the ones created for this project were modeled after our own children and my kid inspired and enjoyed participating in the project’s living lab.

The prototype unveiled at Mobile World Congress showcased some of the above concepts. It is worth sharing that the business goal was to help experience some as complex as the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) in a new and radically light back in 2010. I strived to humanize what can otherwise come across as overlay technical and rather obscure sets of technologies behind network infrastructure, platforms and telecommunication services, the essence of our company’s product portfolio. Therefore, we purposely placed the emphasis on creating new experiences such as the one delivered by the Amazing Learning Unit. Our inventiveness and technologies became transparent and were in place to deliver the magic.

Interestingly enough, this research project led to discussions with MIT and a leading global network operator. That time around, we looked at how this kind of experiences can be applied in enterprise environments to raise productivity and foster collaborative and multi-disciplinary workstyles. Enabling new organizational and decision making cultures in other words. The following phase of the research was titled Immersive Mobile Systems, IMS in short : )


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