i see bots

In the future, you won't think this is so weird

Category Archives: Internet Of Things (IoT)

life imitates game

I’m not sure whether this is impressive, surprising, or just cynically ironic… but: what happens when you combine the competitiveness of online gaming with meatspace motion sensors and connected devices? You get: GreenGoose!

With GreenGoose (presumably you can blame the name on the mess that is the .com namespace) you can “Track, your lifestyle”. GreenGoose is a “real-world game platform that automatically measures things that you actually do”… as opposed to those things you do online, in a game world, which we all know don’t count. With GreenGoose, you can track, say, how much exercise you get, how often you brush your teeth, or presumably anything else that one of their tiny motion sensors can detect and report on. The more that you do that you say you’re going to do (“intentions”), the more “lifestyle” points you get.

The competitive aspect of this is, of course, similar to what you’d find in any game, but the “meatspace” aspect is similar to FourSquare, where you’re encouraged to “check into” the restaurants, cafes, and other venues you visit, with the goal of becoming “mayor” of those establishments. It’s “only” a virtual accomplishment, but that hasn’t stopped millions of people (reference, reference) from registering for the service.

I’m not sure how interesting this will be to the average person, but with a starting price of $24 for the kit, it might be an interesting hacking target. The sensors don’t appear to be wireless, though. But the content on the website seems to imply that the sensors are small and perhaps embedded into stickers that you attach to, say, your dental floss container:

With the promise of developer and vendor APIs and partner opportunities, we could see some interesting scenarios: “Got a product with a healthy consumer behavior that can be measured in a fun, helpful way? We’ve got the patent pending sensors and algorithms. Let’s talk.”

PS: Imagine the Valentine’s Day gift scenarios!!

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Blog topic: “The Internet of Somethings” and “G-Force”(the movie) (PLOT SPOILERS)

The opportunity to comment on how The Internet of Things is portrayed by Hollywood doesn’t come along often. I hereby lay down a prediction in this post that when Hollywood does speak on this topic, it will always involve an deranged gazillionaire. Here’s my first point of evidence.

In “G-Force” (IMDB link), several rodents, endowed with human-level intelligence, the ability to communicate, often sardonically, via spoken english, and equipped with an NSA-scale budget and a set of cuddly human overseers, take on an evil corporate type who’s made a global name for himself in the small appliances market.

To avoid giving away tooooo much of what could be described as a “delicate” plot line, let me just say that, apparently, every one of the appliances made by this far-thinking guy has an extra special “something” inside that “comes alive” when a secret communications chip is enabled, creating a mesh of “somethings” intent on doing evil. It’s not quite the Singularity… maybe closer to Skynet meets Mr Coffee, I guess.

There are a couple of extra twists in the plot to presumably adhere to some writers union rules, but otherwise, that’s it: the Internet of Things will hit the mainstream consciousness when our espresso makers start spewing hot lead instead of hot coffee.

More “100”

In my post on “100 bots”, it appears that I unwittingly tapped into a “100” theme. ReadWriteWeb reports that “ThingMagic”, a company that seems to focus on all things RFID, has been building a list of 100 things you can do with RFID. Each entry in the list is an informal blog-like post with a short description of the application, with links to more information and exploratory questions for the reader.

It’s an interesting list, if you keep in mind the fact that it’s coming from a company that sells RFID technology. It is a bit uneven; not all of the “100 uses” are at the same level or carry the same weight. Some of the applications described actually exist, while others are hypothetical.

As I toured the list, I noticed a common thread in several articles describing human-tracking applications… these articles ended with an open-ended question along these lines: do you, dear reader, find this application promising enough to outweigh the privacy concerns that often arise when RFID? Some examples:

  • “Can You See Mi Now?” describes a bicycle-safey application implemented in the Danish city of Grenå: “the city implemented battery-powered RFID readers at busy intersections designed to read RFID tags placed in the steering columns of bikes.  When a cyclist approaches and stops at an intersection, the RFID reader sends a notice to an electronic sign mounted on the traffic light pole.  This notice triggers the display of a flashing ‘cyclist’ image, indicating that a rider is near and drivers should look before making a turn.” The idea is that a motorist would notice the flashing warning and take extra care when turning. The article ends with this question: “Does addressing a real safety issue – like reducing bicycle related deaths and injuries – move you past privacy concerns you may have with RFID?”
  • “India’s National ID Card Program” entry outlines aspects of India’s initiative to store fingerprints and iris scans for all of its citizens, with the goal of, among other things, delivering better services while reducing fraud. This initiative is apparently accompanied by RFID-equipped national identity cards. This article ends with the question: “What are your thoughts about the growing use of RFID and biometric-enabled national ID cards?  Do the proposed benefits of modernization, reduced fraud, and security outweigh the potential risks?”
  • “RFID-Enabled Smart Displays” describes a new kind of synthetic vision-equipped public area display that are smart enough to tailor advertisements and other information based on what clues they can discern about of the person standing in front of it … such as gender, age range, and height. The article teases out how that customization could be ever more interesting if the person was wearing an RFID tag which allowed the display to access more “personal preferences”? The article ends with this question: “Share your thoughts about the evolution of smart signs.  Where will they work?  Where won’t they work?  How are personal data security issues best addressed?”

It’s commendable that these articles point out the potential for privacy concerns when it comes to tracking people via RFID technology, even if solutions are not proposed. Elsewhere on the ThingMagic site, privacy is described as a future topic that needs to be addressed:

“New technical and policy approaches will have to solve the real privacy and security concerns identified by industry analysts, technologists, and public watchdogs. If not, restrictive legislation or public backlash could thwart widespread acceptance—and limit the powerful benefits that RFID offers businesses and consumers.”

There’s also a “Dead Tags Don’t Talk” discussion, about how retailed-purposed tags – such as those embedded in clothes, for inventory purposes – can be disabled at the point of sale, so that their owners aren’t trackable afterwards.

I did wonder, however, why “privacy” wasn’t one of the 136 tags with which these articles were tagged.

My take on today’s RFID is that it’s great for things but not yet ready for people, outside of job/organizational security applications.

100 Devices

Imagine that at some point in the not-too-distant future, you’re the owner of a ‘smart’ house, which, you’re told, contains 100 smart devices. That’s a lot, you think to yourself. What are they all doing?? Here’s an plausible inventory:

  • Security devices: one device per window, to detect open/close/breakage, and a number of motion sensors, for a total of 30 devices
  • Survellance cameras: one for each entrance, one for each side of the house, for a total of 6 devices
  • Thermostats: one for each room, for a total of 10
  • Smart light switches: one for each room and hallway, and several more for outside lights, the garage, etc, for a total of 25
  • A/V and Control wall panels for most rooms, for a total of 5
  • Devices representing main controllers for automation, security, A/V components, VOIP, personal computers, file servers, routers, access points, and broadband modems, for a total of 10

The above adds up to 86 (see Note 1), and while I’m writing this post, I’m sure I’ll think up ideas for 14 more. (see Note 2)

And I didn’t include devices that get around, such as:

  • Mobile phones, which aren’t tethered to the house but may spend a good portion of their time in the house.
  • Portable music players (iPods, etc) and other portable personal devices
  • Your cars or trucks (I’m not sure that it counts as “news” that the new Chevy volt has an IP address, but it’s interesting that it’s part of the headline), and significant components in/on your vehicle, such as: the tire pressure monitoring system (but be careful!), the A/V system, etc)
  • Stuff you might wear, such as a smart watch or telemetry-sending exercise shoes

If you ponder this future for a moment, you might arrive at these conclusions and observations:

The number of devices that we’ll rely on, for a wide range of ‘personal scenarios’, will exceed our ability to directly manage them. We’ll know they’re there, working on our behalf, but we’ll likely forget the details about how to manage or configure them outright, reminded of the need only when one stops working or it needs some maintenance (see note 3), or you need it to do something out of the ordinary.

And even if you did try to individually manage a device, it’s likely that you’ll do it remotely, via a web page or specialized application: the device itself will be too small to support direct manipulation (lacking, say, a display and buttons), or the range of options and configurations will be too complex to adequately manage via the simple display and buttons that are on the device (example: thermostats), or the device is unreachable because it’s physically embedded into the house (such as wireless security sensors for windows).

For these reasons, I think we’ll see an architecture where the devices are proxied by a device portal or manager which aggregates basic information such as state and health, enabling a user experience that supports views based on filters over state, alarms triggered on state or health, etc.

The device manager will know, for some classes of devices, such as those which are TCP/IP-enabled – how to directly interrogate them directly or how to subscribe to updates. Other kinds of devices, such as those which aren’t TCP/IP-enabled, may require an intermediate hub or subsystem to broker the communication between the device manager and the devices themselves, such as with a security system (where the window sensors may be simple switches) or a 1-Wire bus, which requires a hub to communicate with.

It may also embody some basic configuration/management, such as “reset”, and then link off to a device-specific management page, served up by the device itself or by a type-specific device hub.

The device manager will represent the devices to the outside world, at least for read operations, isolating them from frequent requests for updates (early Proliphix documentation recommended restricting the API request rate to “a few requests per minute”). You’d want the manager to offer an RSS feed, not the devices themselves. The device manager could also implement some level of security/access permissions.

It’s more than a simply proxy, however… I’d expect it to also know the assigned name, location and type/intended purpose of each device, and provide views/filters around that: “Show me the state of all of the security devices on the second floor”. This implies a device registry or directory. My guess is that you wouldn’t expect or want most devices to handle this metadata on their own.

Finally, you’d also expect that the device manager would implement some level of APIs and scripting, for sophisticated eventing and notifications. Thinking this through, it’s clear that the device manager would need to implement ‘psuedo variables’ representing it’s view of the current state of the devices it’s managing. And, furthermore, what’s just been described here could be approximated by any of several Home Automation systems… depending on the approach, it wouldn’t necessarily be as elegant as you’d like, but it could be done.

USE VS CONFIGURE

In this discussion so far, I’ve not made too much of a distinction between the kinds of access that you’ll need to your devices. Sometimes you want to “configure” a device, and sometimes you want to “use” it. For a thermostat, “configuration” means things like: setting up the kind of heater (single-stage / double-stage, heater only or heater/AC, etc), the setback schedule, and so on. “Using” the device is typically a simple affair: override the current setpoint, for a specified period of time.

You’d generally expect (but I’m not sure I can prove it) that the number of “configuration” options to be at least equal to, or greater than, the number of “use” options, especially as the level of capability of the device increases: more functionality implies more state, and possible actions based on that state, which implies more configuration.

You could imagine entirely separate paths for “configuration” and “use”; in fact, in many cases, it may be very desirable to ensure this. Adhering to the “simpler is better” maxim, you’d want to keep the UI for “use” as simple as possible, and keep “configuration” UI, which might require different paradigms for efficient management, separate.

REMOTE UI

With the Proliphix Thermostats I use, you “configure” via embedded web pages. The configuration experience, delivered via browser, is fairly sophisticated (for a thermostat!). On the other hand, the on-device display and associated 5 buttons are focused almost completely on what the end-user needs: what’s the current temperature, what’s the current setpoint, and how do I get some heat? Some of the UI is dedicated to read-only access to basic configuration info (such as the current IP address), but that info is there to help the user provide good hints to the maintenance team.

In any case, it would be very hard to imagine an on-device user experience for, say, specifying setback schedules for specific days of the month or holidays using the on-device display and buttons. As the designer for the device, you wouldn’t even try. Being able to “express” yourself – as the designer of the “configuration” experience – via web pages means you can expose a lot of useful features in a natural way.

The inverse is probably true, too: don’t build it in the hardware if it can’t be configured by the admin. The embedded web server, while adding $20-$40 to the build cost of the device, means you can offer a lot more functionality and charge for it.

(An aside: what about the “blinking 12:00 AM” VCR clock problem of years past? What this solely due to poor UI design? Or should we just blame the user? Later-model VCRs learned to pick off a time signal from the TV signal, which apparently eliminated the problem for most folks. But if you had this UI challenge in front of you today – not just getting the user to set the correct local time, but also, say, the task of programming the VCR to record a program – would you push it off to a web-based experience, even if it increased the hardware costs of the device by, say, $50?)

So, even though the device in this case is relatively small, the configuration experience is ‘outsized’. Even as devices decrease in size while increasing in capability, they could offer an ‘outsized’ user experience.

If the device (or its hub) supports APIs, you could imagine more than one flavor of UI, in support of various scenarios: beyond the built-in “configuration” and “use” UIs, multiple other “use” UIs could be supported, via APIs, in the form of other web experiences or apps. A device manufacturer might leave the heavy-lifting – the implementation of an elegant end-user UI, for instance – to third-party developers who specialize in that sort of thing.

A colleague of mine imagines a “Facebook for Devices”, a kind of third-party portal where you can see recent updates from your devices and others of interest – and casually pivot on the data in various ways, potentially offering you an easier way to keep track of your 100 devices.

These third-party or extended experiences don’t have to be limited to web sites; imagine a display-oriented device with the sole job of displaying RSS or Twitter-like feeds from multitudes of other devices.

A PIVOT TOWARDS THE CLOUD?

If all of the devices you care about are under one roof, then you could imagine using dedicated device to act as the device manager for all of your devices. It could be implemented via a low-end PC or embedded PC, running headless, with a connection for the local area network, and perhaps dedicated I/O connections for specialized types of devices (such as 1-Wire). You’d access its web page via your LAN. Its device directory, and device data archive, could be based on permanent storage on the device itself or elsewhere on your LAN.

An alternative approach might be for the device manager based in the cloud. You’d likely still need a local agent to connect your home devices, likely stuck behind a firewall/NAT, through to the cloud, and, of course, to ensure that non-TCP/IP-based devices are proxied adequately to the LAN and then on to the cloud.

The resource requirements for a cloud-based manager are likely to be small (just as those of a home-based manager would be), perhaps modest enough that you could use the recently-announced AWS “Free Usage Tier“, which offers a non-trivial level of resources at no cost.

Going to the cloud might mean improved reliability… if your home-based device manager falls over, it’s up to you to detect it, diagnose it, fix it, and get everything running again, while, say, in the AWS cloud, if a disk dies, you’re never supposed to notice it. They have professionals on the case.

Accessing your cloud-based device manager – the UX or the APIs – may be more performant than a home-based manager, especially if you’re outside your LAN, since it’s likely that the cloud-based manager has better peering and connectivity than the slow-ish uplink of your consumer-grade broadband connection. And if it’s possible that your device manager might experience multiple simultaneous requests on a regular basis, putting in the cloud may yield better results.

A cloud-based approach also feels more elegant when the scope of devices goes beyond “the home”. If you include your mobile devices, or devices from your business or other organizations (such as local weather stations or similar services representing virtual devices that you use for more sophisticated eventing, etc), having a cloud-based device agent will make all of this easier, for the reasons already listed: reliability, bandwidth (lower latency, higher thruput, more simultaneous connections), as well as: the availability of an infinite amount of CPU and disk resources, as well as services or capabilities that may be too complicated to contemplate for home hosting. (My same colleague suggests that in-home cameras could serve up images or video that is shipped to the cloud for sophisticated vision processing that couldn’t be done either by the camera or by any software/hardware that’s likely to be installed in the home.)

Of course, a possible downside is that if your home’s broadband connection fails, the Cloud-based portal may miss device updates and therefore may not fire important events. Perhaps a hybrid model is in order, where critical events are handled locally, with the cloud portal handling most other events.

This suggests a future architecture where the cloud is the central management point, with local support – in the form of hardware/software – in the home to handle the vagaries of getting all of your devices connected to the cloud. Again, there are legitimate concerns regarding loss of connectivity, and perhaps security.

Moving some or all of the management of a device mesh to the Cloud is an interesting enough scenario that I’ll be trying it out as soon as I can. More on this later.

A PIVOT TOWARDS “SERVICE AVATARS”?

OK, so we’re now used to the idea that our devices are talking to the cloud, updating their Facebook or Twitter status. In the discussion above, it was the devices that connected up to the cloud, in pursuit of new scenarios that made the device more valuable. But what if the intention involves going the other way? What if cloud services extended down to the devices, in service of new scenarios?

Mike Kuniavsky in his book, “Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design” (Amazon) describes “Service Avatars”, a term he coined that conveys the added value a focused-purpose device can bring to a service. He holds up the Apple iPod as a prime example of a Service Avator… while it wasn’t the first music player, it was the first to successfully deliver a service-based scenario – a cloud-based music store – down to a device. The device was cool, but it became so much more important when connected to its music service. (We can safely elide certain details, such as the fact that for full functionality, the device requires an intermediary “hub”, in the form of a Mac or PC running the iTunes application).

Notes

#1: I just checked my router. It’s managing DHCP addresses for 15 devices (PCs, fileservers, phones, a VOIP adapter, access point, A/V components, weather station, and a printer). I’ve assigned fixed addresses for another 11 devices (thermostats, Ha7NET, camera server, security system, etc). That adds up to 26 IP addresses, and 26 corresponding devices. If you throw in the other devices of varying smartness…

  • 1-Wire temperature sensors (5)
  • Security sensors (10 or so)
  • Z-wave light swithces (10)

… as of now, I’m up to at least 51 devices. So 100 devices isn’t too far a stretch for a “smart home of the future”.

#2: Wait! Here are 20 more “smart home of the future” devices:

  • Connected exercise equipment (1 per house)
  • Roving security or health robots (1 per house)
  • Connected appliances, which report energy usage, low supplies, or general health statistics (oven, microwave, refrigerator, dishwasher, washer, dryer, furnace, hot water heater) (10 per house)
  • Resource-monitoring equipment, such as: water metering, electricity metering, natural gas or oil metering (oil tanks that report when they’re nearly empty, or leaking!) (3 per house)
  • Smart sprinklers that only water when absolutely necessary, and never after a rainfall, and only when given the OK by the local water board, augmented up by soil moisture sensors (5 per house),

#3: I’m writing a portion of this post on the eve of that date in the Fall in the US where we “Fall Behind” with our clocks. How many devices in the future home will need resetting every Spring and Fall? You’d hope the answer is “zero”… I take a small perverse pleasure in noting, with each passing Fall and Spring, whether the number of ‘things’ around the house that need to be manually pushed back or forward an house, is decreasing.

1-Wire

1-Wire” is the name for a device bus protocol designed to be inexpensive, easy to connect, and easy to interface with.

The name “1-Wire” is a marketing take on the fact that data is conducted over a single wire. You still need a ground connection, but “2-Wire” presumably didn’t sound as interesting. In this configuration, devices on the bus operate in “parasitic” mode, storing power accumulated during bus transitions. In reality, I found it more reliable to operate in “3-Wire” mode, where you send some power along a third wire. The specification was originally introduced by Dallas Semiconductor, which was subsumed into Maxim via acquisition.

See Maxim’s list of devices and bus infrastructure. The DS18S20 temperature sensors I’m most familiar with look like your average transistor (image from here):

A given implementation of a 1-Wire bus, which Maxim refers to as a “microlan”, is composed of a bus controller or “master”, the physical wire segments of the network itself, and the “slave” 1-Wire devices attached to those segments. The bus controller can be: a dedicated hardware device, which connects to the 1-Wire bus on end and, say, an RS-232 port on the other, and implements the requisite bus protocol. Or, you can directly connect the bus to a PC’s serial port via a simple circuit, and work the bus in software on the PC.

In theory, any number of 1-Wire devices can be attached to a 1-Wire bus, since each device has a 64-bit unique identifier burned into it, which the controller/master uses to track the slave devices. However, there are important topological considerations to take into account, given the electrical characteristics of the wire segment of the network, which, due to impedence “weights”, can introduce signal reflections. Maxim covers these topics in a design note (here), to help explain which network topologies to avoid (such as “star” networks), and which ones to favor.

I started using 1-Wire nearly 10 years ago, because I found an inexpensive weather station from AAG based on 1-Wire devices. I mounted the weather station on the roof and ran a couple (ok, 3) wires down to the basement, which is where a Midon Design bus controller (at the time, “TEMP05”, but he’s up to “TEMP08” now!), connected via RS-232 to an always-on PC, was located. On the PC, I ran Homeseer: a script would pull ASCII weather data generated by the TEMP05 and log it, and I had other scripts to graph weather trends. The weather station used a 1-Wire temperature sensor for measuring outside temperature, and other 1-Wire devices to transmit wind speed and direction. That setup worked for quite a few years, until our Pacific Northwest weather did it in. I’ve since graduated to a David Instruments weather station – more on that later.

Along the way, I also hooked up a couple of DS18S20 temperature sensors, mostly out of curiousity, and it was through these experiments that I learned a bit about best practices – for my house, anyway – for implementing a reliable 1-Wire bus. I wanted to use, where possible, the existing CAT-5 home-run wiring I had installed in the house… but given that I had a single bus controller – the TEMP05 – I knew that a star configuration would not work. So I had to daisy-chain together the network segments, including the long run to the weather station on the roof. I found that this configuration didn’t work reliably under parasitic power, but fortunately, the TEMP05 device makes it easy to provide the +5V Vdd needed to power the microlan.

This helped, but it still wasn’t rock-solid reliable. In most cases, it didn’t matter, given that I could poll for temperature readings every minute or so and average the results. Adding reflection-dampening resisters (per Midon Design advice) helped some. But I didn’t like the idea that I had to custom-tune the network every time I changed or added devices. A more robust and easy-to-get-right solution seemed to require multiple controllers, perhaps one per physical network leg?

Along that line of thinking, I tried out a relatively inexpensive ($29) bus controller, the “CK0110” four-channel kit from Carl’s Electronics, which seemed to be able to support 4 microlans. That helped.

At some point, I stumbled upon Embedded Systems’ TCP/IP-based bus controller, the HA7Net, which does this: you connect up to three microlans to it, add power, and patch it into your LAN. It looks like this:

You can then point a browser at it and query the devices that it is managing on any of the three microlans. Furthermore, you can connect to it via a telnet session, which is how I integrated it into Homeseer (via the Ultra1Wire plugin, a newer version of which can be found here). I liked this approach because it meant one less RS-232 serial port to deal with (although this turns out to have been a temporary phenomena, given the approach I took to integrating with A/V receiver and monitor – see this post for the details).

The scenarios supported by these 1-Wire temperature sensors had expanded at this point to include:

  • Turn on bathroom fans if someone is taking a shower, run for 10 minutes after shower ends (this one took a while to pull off, but now it seems perfectly commonplace)
  • Turn on Kitchen fan if high temperature  detected over the stovetop
  • If temperature in computer rack  gets too high, warn

(See this list for a complete list of implemented and planned scenarios)

Those scenarios required 5 or 6 sensors, which means that, with the HA7Net’s support for only three microlans, I would have to daisy-chain a few of the sensors, all of which were hanging off the far ends of CAT-5 homeruns, in the various corners of the house. The approach I took was to wire up a daisy-chain junction box, located in the basement. Here’s a photo:

At each device, one conductor brings the DQ signal line “in” to the device, and another conductor takes it “out” to the next device down the line. All devices are wired to the same power and ground conductors. The junction box down in the basement contains RJ-45 sockets into which patch cables, each one representing a device, are plugged in. One end of the chain goes to the HA7Net.

The “Uplink” cable connects to the HA7Net. The patch cables connected to sockets labeled “1”, “2”, and “3” connect to various 1-Wire temperature sensors, via the house patch panel.

Here’s a schematic:

This is the setup I’m using today. It’s reliable and easy to work with, and the availability of a well-built Homeseer plugin (the Ultra1Wire mentioned above) makes system integration very easy.

If I were starting over now, I would probably end up with a similar arrangement, despite the proliferation of cheap TCP/IP-enabled hacker boards. It’s hard to beat the <$5 price for a sensor-cum-network adapter. And the HA7Net bus master, while not cheap, is reasonably priced given that it’s TCP/IP-enabled and, since it supports three microlans, effectively means that you’d only need one in your house. (You could also substitute an Ardruino, using the 1-Wire library). If I were to try to build a network of temperature sensors that, for instance, is based on TCP/IP instead of 1-Wire, the per-device price would be much higher –  for instance, the Arduino ethernet shield goes for $39$45.

This would be a good point to make a general point about the world of devices or the so-called “Internet of Things” (see overview post)… while TCP/IP will be the dominant protocol at the high-level, since that’s how our top-level controlling computers are connected, down at the leaf nodes, where cost and size factors are important, alternate special-purpose protocols, such as 1-Wire, will be in abundance. Other examples include: the ZigBee wireless protocol, with low-power boards starting at $23, Bluetooth for $45, and the “Nordic” nRF24L01+ series, starting at $34… while some of these prices approach that of, say, the TCP/IP-based WiFi protocol, their physical size and complexity is much less so in comparison.

Even as the cost of TCP/IP-enabling devices drops in price, the lower-boundaries (size, cost) will also continue to drop. I think the thing to focus on is that 1-Wire devices are addressable, given their unique IDs, and ability to connect to a bus that can be bridged (via devices like the HA7Net) to the TCP/IP and therefore the Internet. Thus: not every connected device in the world will have a TCP/IP address, but you’ll still be able to talk to it, learn its state, and issue commands to it. That’s OK, I think.

NOTES

  • Carl’s Electronics offers an inexpensive RS-232-based 4-port 1-Wire bus controller kit.
  • Quozl (http://quozl.us.netrek.org) is an interesting fellow and offers an interesting site, describing a number of open source projects and hacks. He supplied the code for abovementioned 4-port 1-Wire bus master.
  • Arduino support for 1-Wire: background and library: http://www.arduino.cc/playground/Learning/OneWire
  • More background on 1-Wire, including links to software for directly driving the 1-Wire bus from a PC: http://www.arunet.co.uk/tkboyd/e1didx.htm.
  • Hobby Boards (http://www.hobby-boards.com/catalog/index.php) offers a range of 1-Wire devices and kits, including: temperature, humidity, relays, displays.
  • I used – for the first time – “TinyCAD“, an excellent free schematic drawing tool, to draw the 1-Wire schematic above. I found it very easy to use.

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, topten 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.

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The writer Bruce Sterling invented the term “spime” to describe a class of devices with these characteristics:

  • 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.

(from Wikipedia)

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.

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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?

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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!” (!)

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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.”

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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”.

You think?

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Postscripts:

  • 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.