21 April 2010

Designing the Internet of Things

Filed under: Internet of Things, mashup* event, Mobile Monday — David Wood @ 2:10 pm
  • Computers; smartphones; … smart things.
  • The Internet; the mobile Internet; … the Internet of Things.

These two epic trends tell aspects of the same grand story.  First, computing power is becoming more widespread, more affordable, more compact, and more miniature.  Second, networked intelligence is becoming more widespread, more affordable, more effective, and more informed.

As a result, we can look forward to a time, in just a few years, where each of us owns more than a dozen different devices that communicate with each other, wirelessly and transparently.  That will take the number of wireless modems in use in the world to upwards of 50 billion.

Going further, there are forecasts of no fewer than one trillion wirelessly connected “things”, where this time the connection will often involve simpler connectivity such as RFID.  As reported recently in Wireless Week:

There will be 1 trillion devices connected to the Internet by 2013, said Cisco Chief Technology Officer Padma Warrior during her Wednesday keynote address at CTIA.

Warrior argued the boom in connected devices, applications and mobile broadband would change not only the wireless industry but society in general.

“The Internet is no longer just an information superhighway, it’s a platform,” Warrior said, citing the increased adoption of M2M technologies and the exponential growth of apps…

To prove her point, Warrior moved through a series of technology demonstrations with a Cisco colleague that detailed what it would be like to interact with next-generation mobile technology.

The pair showed off augmented reality in a subway system; location-based advertising and mobile coupons; and a mobile telepresence app.

The next big revolution that will happen is the Internet of things,” Warrior said…

Evidently, the ever lower costs and increased quality of computing and connectivity are opening all kinds of new opportunities.  It’s easy to speculate on possibilities:

  • Distributed arrays of sensors that can more reliably – and more quickly – highlight the changing concentrations of volcanic ash;
  • Luggage tags that know (and can report) where your luggage is;
  • Air conditioning units and heating units that can coordinate to act in concert, rather than independently;
  • A handheld toothbrush that can let you know if you’re not putting enough effort into cleaning the innersides of your lower right molars;
  • Smart sticking plasters that detect microscopic changes in skin condition or blood flow;
  • A monitor that can detect if you are too distracted (or too dozy) to drive safely.  (Even better, put the driving intelligence into the car itself, rather than rely on human drivers.)
  • Surveillance cameras that can analyse what they are filming, being alert for security abnormalities;
  • Audio recording devices that can understand what they are hearing;
  • Smart glasses that can interpret what you’re looking at;
  • Smart digital signs that change their display depending on who’s looking at them;
  • And all of these devices connected together…

Does this sound good to you? We can debate some of the points, but overall, it’s clear this grand technology trend has great power to improve health, education, transport, the environment, and human experience generally.

So why isn’t it happening faster? Why is it that, as an industry colleague said to me recently, this whole field is in a state of chaos?

It’s chaotic, because we don’t know what’s happening next, nor how fast it’s happening.  The use cases developers identify as important at the start of a project often turn out to be less significant than ones that turn up, unexpected, part way through the project.  (That’s not necessarily a problem.  It is, of course, a large opportunity.)

In short, although lots of the underlying technology is mature, the emerging industry of the “Internet of Things” is still far from mature.  The roadmaps of product development remain tentative and sketchy.  Speedy progress will depend on:

  • A few underlying technology issues – such as network interoperability, smart distribution of tasks across multiple processors, power management, power harvesting, and security;
  • Some pressing business model issues – since not all existing players are excited by the prospects of cost-savings which would in turn reduce their profits from existing products;
  • Some ecosystem management issues – to solve “chicken and egg” scenarios where multiple parts of a compound solution all need to be in place, before the full benefits can be realised;
  • Some project development agility issues – to avoid wasted investment in cases where project goals change part way through, due to the uncertain territory being navigated;
  • Some significant design issues – to ensure that the resulting products can be widely accepted and embraced by “normal people” (as opposed just to early adopter technology enthusiasts).

These are some of the themes that I will seek to explore as one of the speakers at the mashup* event in London on Tuesday 4th May, entitled “Internet of things: Rise of the machines“.  In addition to myself, the other announced speakers are:

Many thanks to the mashup* team for organising this get-together!  I hope to see you there.

Footnote: The ReadWriteWeb publish a useful series of articles about the Internet of Things.  At time of writing, the most recent article in this series is “Internet of Things Can Make Us Human Again“, which highlights the ideas and work of David Orban, Founder of WideTag.  Here’s a brief extract:

Orban’s dream is that thousands of years of human subservience to machines will end because we will teach our machines how to not only take care of themselves, but how to take care of us as well…

These new machine networks will be so redundant and reliable that we will be freed from most of our machine-operating duties. We will get to be human again…

Extending these ideas, David recently spoke on the theme “Free to be human” at Mobile Monday Amsterdam.  It’s a great introduction to many Internet of Things ideas:

By good fortune, David will be in London this weekend, since he’s one of the speakers at the Humanity+ UK2010 event.  He’ll be addressing the Internet of Things once again, along with some thoughts on the progress of the Singularity University.  In my experience, he’s a fascinating person to talk with.

1 Comment »

  1. Hi David, I’m doing ReadWriteWeb research for the IoT Mashup this week. Looking forward to learning what you have to say. Also if you have any suggestions for how to best cover the event please let me / us know / .

    Comment by Deane Rimerman — 3 May 2010 @ 7:46 am

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