Have you ever wondered: What is the real value of a smartwatch? What makes a smart city smart in terms of the human user experience? What is the Internet of Things? And how will this affect you in a positive way that makes your life better?

At the University of Stuttgart, the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO is a “house of knowledge work” helping answer those questions. The Institute is comprised of a series of innovation laboratories housed inside the strikingly modern Centre for Virtual Engineering.

The different labs here, along with a network of sister labs at other Fraunhofer Institute locations in Europe, develop new ways to design digitally connected “smart” environments where people congregate, including office workspaces, meeting venues, hotels, and “integrated urban systems,” aka cities.

More specifically, the labs focus on how humans can engage those environments as an integrated whole, and how the environments can engage humans in return via smart technology. In essence, Fraunhofer Institute is designing elements of the smart city of the future that streamline and personalize the user experience for both locals and travelers.

Those elements will also eventually do a better job at connecting like-minded locals and travelers, which ultimately is the greatest potential benefit from a tourism and economic development standpoint.

Although, after visiting here, you get a very real sense that there’s another purpose behind the smart city of the future. One day we will all inhabit a giant 3D reproduction of the programmatic Amazon purchasing ecosystem, where consumer decision touchpoints are embedded as seamlessly as possible into our daily technology usage to maximize our likelihood to buy stuff.

The Urban Living Lab

Situated among all of the different innovation labs inside the Fraunhofer Institute, the Urban Living Lab is a mock up of an urban environment, which includes a residential living room, bank, grocery store, coffee shop, and Fraunhofer’s sentient FutureHotel project, among others. First developed in 2008, the FutureHotel research led to multiple innovations in hospitality tech including the very first iteration of keyless check-in following the advent of the smartphone.

The Urban Living Lab layout is a microcosm of a technologically integrated city that engages us through what Fraunhofer calls the user’s “digital aura.” Basically, the more personal information that humans are willing to share to expand and contextualize their digital aura, the more the built environments we inhabit are able to personalize our experience within them.

“The future interaction with the environment is based on profiles filled with individual preferences,” says Nikolay Dreharov, head of business information systems at Fraunhofer Institute. “Basically nowadays everyone has a lot of digital profiles on social networks and places like Google, Amazon and Apple. But in the future we think it might be better, where we will have more control over this data, and we will be able to share parts of it that we want with the environment.”

To store and manage that information, Dreharov worked with IBM to prototype a digital aura platform where people can enter personal information about their travel, lifestyle and consumer purchasing preferences. With that information loaded onto the cloud and synced with a person’s smartphone or watch, then the individual’s home and surrounding city environments can recognize when he or she is in close proximity via a network of beacons (small transmitter/receivers that push notifications to devices) and act accordingly.

Presently, many cities are experimenting with beacons to collect and measure myriad data relating to things like human and automobile traffic volume patterns. So the infrastructure is being developed. The missing piece for the smart city concept to fully mature is the opt-in human user profile technology for the city technology to communicate with.

Fraunhofer’s experimental digital aura platform is designed to fulfill that empty space.

“The digital aura is available only in the Urban Living Lab based on prototypic server implementation, visualization and interaction technology,” explains Dreharov. “It allows us, based on today’s technology, to evaluate and experience individual profile-based interaction with selected thematic environments of the future.”

The conceptual smart city travel journey through the Urban Living Lab starts inside the lab’s residential living room. To begin, the smart TV might show a travel ad promoting a specific city like Dubai, for example. A sample Millennial-age male user could then digitally tag that ad in a personalized digital wish list that’s then sent to a specific travel agent and/or the user’s preferred digital travel booking platform, which is all stored in the user’s digital aura.

Or the screen could bring up a TripAdvisor page with suggested hotels based on the user’s preferences, general Millennial-age preferences, and past booking patterns in the digital aura.

If the individual books a smart hotel like Hotel Schani in Vienna, he can book a specific room just like a traveler books a specific airplane seat. He can also choose amenities from a series of options that will be configured in the room upon arrival. Hotel Schani opened in May after a two-year development partnership with Fraunhofer’s FutureHotel team.

As we moved through the Urban Living Lab, the coffeeshop pinged Dreharov’s smartwatch asking: “Same cappuccino as always?” In the real world, if he hits “yes” on his watch, the coffee is waiting for him by the time he arrives at the counter.

At the grocery store mock up, the building knows the sample traveler’s favorite types of wine, so those bottles are illuminated to make them easy to the find. All of this is designed to show how a city could one day potentially personalize itself to each individual traveler. At the same time, it can also offer an infinite amount of possible customized retail options, not unlike programmatic ad banners in a website’s sidebar.

In effect, the Urban Living Lab illustrates the emerging concept of an urban operating system, or city as a platform, which residents and travelers can plug into to customize their engagement with the city in a more immersive and strategic way.

Fraunhofer Institute’s FutureHotel

We skipped a few of the other experience zones in the Urban Living Lab and arrived at the FutureHotel zone.

Because the hotel recognizes a new visitor, it pings the person’s smartwatch with a reminder of the specific room and floor that was booked online. As the traveler exits the elevator without going through any check-in process, a series of lights guide the user down the hallway to a door that lights up in a different color than the rest. Within a few feet of the door, the door recognizes the visitor’s phone or watch and opens itself.

As the guest settles in, the hotel pings his smart watch or phone with a message that says the spa treatments are 20% off during certain hours. The hotel knows this specific traveler likes to go to the spa during late afternoon.

The hotel also has a cowork space in the lobby. The hotel tells the guest that he can book a specific time to use the space and meet other people who are also logged into the cowork space’s app.

The above is a very brief overview of Fraunhofer Institute’s Urban Living Lab and the basics of the Internet of Things, where machines connected to the cloud can share data with each other.

Fraunhofer’s digital aura profile hub is what makes this possible, although the facility doesn’t actually sell any technology for consumer use.

“We at Fraunhofer IAO do not develop products or market solutions for this digital aura experience,” explains Dreharov. “We provide applied research. In the lab we focus on the future user experience, process optimization, and new business opportunities that could be relevant for the areas of our research projects. We want to know today what the future impact of digitalization and personalization could be to our daily lives, and how different and better our interaction with other people and with the environment in selected situations could be.”

Photo Credit: The Centre for Virtual Engineering at University of Stuttgart. UNStudio