In the future, you won't think this is so weird
The Internet of Things
When I started this “iseetbots” blog, I blithely assumed that it was self-evident what terms like ‘Bot’ or ‘Connected Device’ mean.
Similarly, every time I heard the term “Internet of Things’, I blithely assumed I knew what that term meant (and that my interpretation matched everyone else’s :).
Boy, was I wrong. So here’s an informal summary of a quick look-see into the “Internet of Things”. My first, and probably not my last.
As a meme, “Internet of Things” (IoT) has hit the big time. There are lots of blog posts, dedicated media site coverage, top–ten lists, a few conferences, distinguished research labs are hiring researchers, a council, a consortium, analyst coverage, a couple of startups, and – w a I t f o r i t – a Wikipedia entry.
OK, so IoT is here. What is it, then?
The upshot of my quick and non-scientific investigation is that it for many people, at this point in time, IoT describes the emerging mesh of self-identifying objects that helps keep track of things for us (and, in a dystopian world, helps our governments keep track of us). In the short-term, think RFID.
The CASAGRAS (“Coordination And Support Action for Global RFID-related Activities and Standardisation”) council (in the EU) discusses various definitions, including one offered by an SAP Researcher: “A world where physical objects are seamlessly integrated into the information network, and where the physical objects can become active participants in business processes.”
Businesses, especially those with inventory or supplies, etc, need to stay abreast of this trend. Now! The “Internetome” conference announced itself with this warning: “The Internet of Things is here now, and it’s going to get big and quickly…The earlier your organisation gets to grips with the opportunities, as soon as you can identify and plot a journey over the hurdles and around the pitfalls… the sooner you can innovate to maintain and grab competitive advantage.”
IBM seems to have made IoT an important aspect of their “Smarter Planet” initiative / strategy / other, the need for which they motivate like so:
“At IBM, we mean that intelligence is being infused into the systems and processes that make the world work—into things no one would recognize as computers: cars, appliances, roadways, power grids, clothes, even natural systems such as agriculture and waterways.”
A key capability revolves around all that data that’s being generated by all of those devices:
Data is being captured today as never before. It reveals everything from large and systemic patterns—of global markets, workflows, national infrastructures and natural systems—to the location, temperature, security and condition of every item in a global supply chain. And then there’s the growing torrent of information from billions of individuals using social media. They are customers, citizens, students and patients. They are telling us what they think, what they like and want, and what they’re witnessing. As important, all this data is far more real-time than ever before.
And here’s the key point: data by itself isn’t useful. Over the past year we have validated what we believed would be true—and that is, the most important aspect of smarter systems is data—and, more specifically, the actionable insights that the data can reveal.
Anyway, “Smarter Planet” is at a… planet-like scale that only IBM could muster – the SmarterPlanet website is huge and the range of IBM products and services huger. It seems they’ve wrapped their entire business around this concept. More on this later.
- Small, inexpensive means of remotely and uniquely identifying objects over short ranges; in other words, radio-frequency identification.
- A mechanism to precisely locate something on Earth, such as a global-positioning system.
- A way to mine large amounts of data for things that match some given criteria, like internet search engines.
- Tools to virtually construct nearly any kind of object; computer-aided design.
- Ways to rapidly prototype virtual objects into real ones. Sophisticated, automated fabrication of a specification for an object, through “three-dimensional printers.”
- “Cradle-to-cradle” life-spans for objects. Cheap, effective recycling.
This definition covers a lot of ground, and specifies aspects of not just the “things” in the IoT but also the “means” for those things (tools for design and rapid prototyping and fabrication – think RepRap and the like) and methods for dealing with the expected rivers of data coming from them. On that last point: the “OpenSpime” developer network (appears to be defunct) was created to “implement an open protocol for an open internet of things”, based on an extension of the XMPP messaging protocol. (I wonder what overlap, if any, there might be with xAP?).
WideTag has adopted this spime-centric view of the IoT, including a characterization into “Category 0” and “Category 1” spimes.
IoT has some people worried, and may in fact cause a run on tin foil. The Internet of Things council casts the challenge of the age as “transcending the short-term opposition between social innovation and security by finding a way to combine these two necessities in a broader common perspective” and “It holds dangers, but it also holds promises” and “defensive, driven by design principles of control and fear and has in the past six years not been able to create much enthusiasm, on the contrary, it has sparked lots of defensive debates on transparency, privacy and fear mongering”. Besides wrapping your passport in tin-foil, perhaps merchants should proactively ‘blow the fuse’ on RFID tags when the sale is consummated, thus rendering the tag useless for future tracking?
ReadWriteWeb describes a possible future where countless individual pieces of information from your environment is recorded, transmitted, and fused into a larger, all-knowing panorama of one’s activities: “imagine a future where all objects are “social” data-collectors who can report their use, their history, their location, etc. Now imagine the government or corporations accessing that data and taking action based on what the objects’ data tells them”.
As an example of what could be coming… how many optical gyroscopes can fit on the head of a pin?
This RFID focus is a narrow, short-term view of IoT, based on my informal research. The longer-term view is harder to define: “Our future with the Internet of Things is still quite unclear. But initial glimpses of it can be seen through applications of RFID technology” (The Internet of Things Council).
So… a number of folks are thinking about a world where a critical mass of everyday things are self-identifying and perhaps can even sustain a conversation with you or your electronic delegate. In that future, our relationship with those things will be significantly different. Given that Twitter’s 140 character limit has set the bar here, it might not take much for an object to pass itself off as being part of a conversation of some kind, even if it’s being ‘followed’ only by other objects. We are already seeing Tweeting houses, buoys, and what not.
I think Social Node expresses it best:
“Over the next 5 years the web will rapidly spread into the world. This will not necessarily require the abundant, cheap sensors typically referenced in conversations about The Internet of Things (which is more about direct object-to-object communication). Instead, it’s more likely that prosumers will enrich rich virtual mirror worlds and then access them via geo-coordinates at home or on the go. “
Which is what these three companies are enabling: the association of social content – photos, videos, etc – with specific, physical objects, through tags that you attach or otherwise map to the objects:
- StickyBits: “A fun and social way to attach digital content to real world objects”, by mapping a bar code on something – a business car, a cereal box, a car, etc – to your content – a video, document, photo, etc. Someone comes along and scans the code, and ‘retrieves’ what you’ve left there.
- Tales of Things: Proclaiming, “It’s a memory thing”, you can connect “anything with any media, anywhere”. Appears similar to StickyBits except using QR codes that you print on your own.
- Itizen: “a place to tell, share, & follow the life stories of interesting things”… appears similar to StickyBits, except with custom tags that you buy or print on your own.
- pachube: “Store, share & discover realtime sensor, energy and environment data from objects, devices & buildings around the world. Pachube is a convenient, secure & scalable platform that helps you connect to & build the ‘internet of things.” Cool mashup mapping devices from all over the world.
The “ELEARNSPACE” blog gushes about how this eventuality – social objects – will likely have a greater impact than social media (take that, Zuckerberg!):
“As more devices connect to the internet – cars, home security systems, utility monitoring – and as more objects include RFID tags, the physical world begins to merge with the digital world. I can search for my car keys the same way I search for a research paper. Social media is an overlay of socialization on top of our physical worlds. The internet of things is an integration of physical and virtual worlds, permitting the most desirable elements of each to exist in the other.”
Social Node points out that the resultant river of data will be a rich target for monetization:
“There is tremendous business, consumer, and social demand in place to incentivize these flows. This pull force is getting stronger as we collectively discover new ways to unlock the value of this data.”
Which seems to be where WideTag, mentioned above in the splime discussion, comes in: a startup focused on an infrastructure for collecting and analyzing the river of data that’s expect to flow from all the IoT: “WideSpime enables the rapid and scalable development of dependable solutions based on Social Hardware and services. With the addition of WideSpime’s rich set of functionalities, your application’s adoption rate will soar!” (!)
In this IoT space, an underlying theme of environmental action and responsibility is often implied or explicitly called out. For instance, WideTag’s tagline is “Realtime. Social. Green”; while I couldn’t find an explicit explanation on their site, I gather that their take is that “green technologies are going to be an exceptionally important application of widespread, bottom-up, environmental sensor technology” that is implied by an IoT.
That makes sense; if we can follow river levels via Twitter today, then tomorrow, via small wireless devices, could we be following Tweeting salmon (“Hey, who put that damn dam there??”) or glaciers (“Is it me or is it getting warmer around here?”) or ocean currents (“C’mon in! It’s a balmy 38 F!”).
(OK, silly, but you get the idea.)
On the other hand, it could be that the IoT is an intrinsically non-green activity. IBM’s SmarterPlanet initiative apparently projects that there will be 30 billion RFID tags extant at some point. Whether you believe that number or not, that’s a lot of ‘things’ being created and probably not recycled when we’re done with them. I wonder if RFIDs are “RoHS compliant” in the first place… are they even designed to be recycled?
And RFIDs are very simple devices that don’t include batteries and circuit boards made of exotic and hard-to-recover materials, as you’d expect with ‘smarter’ devices. So an aspect of the ‘green’ in IoT may be a proactive reflex to stay ahead of curve on the environmental footprint of the IoT. Note that in the “splime” definition, above, one metric or requirement was: ‘“Cradle-to-cradle” life-spans for objects. Cheap, effective recycling.’
IBM highlights a random list of case studies in the “Sustainability” section of their SmarterPlanet initiative… but it feels like they needed to fill in a marketing check-box.
I tried not to be cynical when I read what the folks running the Internetome conference had to say: “ what’s good for your organisation may well be good for the planet too.”
It’s been interesting learning more about IoT. I’m sure there will be more to write on in future posts. My guess is that my near-term interest area will be on ‘bespoke’ objects that are designed and built to function as 2-way connected devices or ‘Bots in the first place.
I will close with this thought (and just a couple of postscripts!): I think Adrianne Jeffries gets it right when she observes this:
IoT “got to be an overused misnomer even before the technology had a chance to become common”.
- I have to admit that when I run across IBM “Smarter Planet” ads in magazines, etc, my eyes glaze over instantly, rendering me incapable of understanding exactly what they’re selling (which is really what it’s about). Similarly, their pithy taglines tend to leave me a little bit dumber every time I take them in:
- “Intelligence – not Intuition – drives innovation”… I really don’t know what that means, and if I did, I’m sure I wouldn’t agree with it. Would Edison have agreed with it? I think IBM’s point is that the average enterprise or organization needs to be “data-driven” in its decisions and planning, which requires the ability to analyze and view the data from many angles: “The most important aspect of smarter systems is data—and, more specifically, the actionable insights that the data can reveal.”
- “The planet has grown a central nervous system”: Has it, really? Where’s the “brain”, then? I thought the internet was distributed and decentralized? Are we talking about Skynet here? What do they mean??
- “Welcome to the Decade of Smart”. I guess “Decade of Smarter” sounded clunky. And do they know about Diesel’s new ad campaign?
- I just realized that it appears that it’s the EU that’s apparently taking the lead in all of these IoT discussions. Did you notice all those “organisations”? Should I rashly leap to any conclusions based on this? Whatever it is, WideTag has decided to export it: “WideTag, Inc. has been founded by a team of experienced entrepreneurs who, having lived in Europe, Italy, are mashing-up the Silicon Valley’s startup culture, with Europe’s strong values, social responsibility, and design driven life.”
- There’s a tangentially-related conference, “Fifth International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction”, which seems to focus more on interactions with devices, etc: “TEI is the premier venue for cutting edge research on interaction with tangible artefacts and systems. We invite submissions of prototypes and daring ideas, tools and technologies, methods and models, as well as interactive art, interaction design, and user experience that contribute new understandings to the broad area of tangible computing, embodied interaction, interactive surfaces and embedded interactive systems.”
- Even farther afield, and just because it sounds interesting, there’s also the “Smart Fabrics 2011” event: “The conference will cover topics such as the current status of innovative smart fabric technologies in the marketplace, as well as recent application breakthroughs and adoption. The conference will be of particular interest for people involved in electronics, textiles, medical, sporting equipment, fashion, and wireless communication industries, as well as military/space agencies and the investment community.”
- On my IoT to-do list: Watch O’Reilly’s keynote on this topic. Get some of my own devices to show up on pachube.