Interactive Media Mobile Picnic08

Picnic08 – The Internet of Things

Picnic is a large ‘creativity’ conference held annually in Amsterdam. I’ve been here as a guest of n8 talking about the notion of ‘open museums’.

Here is another set of notes (with only a minor cleanup for the sake of timeliness).

Day Three was full of clashes and I was out at Westergasfabriek terribly early in the morning – even before the free (sponsored) barista coffee opened. But getting in early meant securing a table and laptop power outlet to catch some of The Internet of Things workshop.

The notion of the ‘Internet of Things’ was best summed up by Rafi Haladjian from Violet who are best known for their Nabaztag, the Internet enabled rabbit. He described how technologies always become pervasive starting out as highly expensive and shared by many (clock tower), to then being shared by a few (expensive private clock), before becoming personal (pocket watch), commodified and generic (the disposable digital watch), and then making the leap to becoming pervasive (even your microwave oven and TV now has a clock). The Internet is in the ‘personal’ stage with the mobile web and the iPhone – where the Internet is available pretty much everywhere in the highly developed world. The big shift will come when every device that has a microchip in it is also connected ambiently to the Internet – so rather than having special devices to access the Internet, all our devices connect to the Internet and to each other. At this stage the Internet is not a ‘separate place’ as in the 80s/90s conceptions of ‘cyberspace’, but is fully integrated into everyday life and you no longer go out of your way to ‘connect’ – you just are.

We are already seeing examples of this.

Oliver Christ from SAP talked about some of the megatrends affecting the developed world. The ageing society that we are going to find ourselves in means that healthcare will no longer ‘scale’. Pervasive technologies will become essential to keep citizens out of institutional healthcare for as long as possible by allowing connectivity to health care professionals all the time, ambiently. Need to change your medication? Your pill dispenser will already have downloaded the next prescription from your health consultant and sent back your bio data to them. This is also going to be driven by an increasing service economy – moving form selling products to solutions (Christ gave the nice example of moving away from selling drills to selling ‘holes’ which is typified by SaaS but is not just limited to the technology sector).

We are also seeing the possibilities of pervasive computing with car to car communication in some new models of car. Here cars communicate silently with each other to alert drivers of hazards up ahead, using data sourced from cars already ahead of you. Not only this, because your car is silently communicating with others on the road without your intervention, better decisions about speed, tyre pressure etc can be ‘assisted’.

There are already examples of ‘pay as you live’ insurance schemes which offer significantly discounted premiums and policies if you allow yourself to be tracked and thus assessed as to exactly how you behave rather than the current inaccurate ‘modelling’ applied at the moment. Norwich Union in the UK offers a policy which uses your car’s GPS data to calculate your risk level (and hence premiums) based on when, where, how fast, and how frequently you actually drive.

All this is becoming possible because the ‘data input’ and ‘data collection’ of pervasive computing no longer need to have the enormous costs associated with them of previous times.

Joe Polastre from Sentilla spoke of how “the internet is lonely” and wants more devices connected to it. Looking at the car industry he showed how already car manufacturers are providing the capacity for your car to email its vital signs back to you periodically to tell you how healthy it is, and how this lets you track fuel efficiency and on road costs more effectively. Polastre used the example of WalMart’s detailed energy auditing to show how pervasive monitoring was able to make enormous reductions in energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and expenditure. For example by being able to identify the particular section of the store that was using the most energy (the lighting section) and make adjustments to operations (replacing all the bulbs in the sample lights with energy efficient bulbs) they were able to save $6m per annum. Likewise the simple act of painting their store roofs white in some states, WalMart saved $30m per annum.

All this relies on pervasive low cost measurement systems. Polastre then went on to discuss the enormous energy reductions able to be made in the industrial processing sector – copper and aluminium production etc – because of better monitoring equipment.

The final part of the Internet of Things demonstrated a number of RFID devices that are coming on to the market – Tikitags, the Mirror – and others. The Mirror is the latest from Violet/Nabaztag which is an RFID reader. It comes with a set of Ztamps which you can attach to anything at all to connect them to the Internet and build a suite of customisable interactions. With them and the Mirror you could have your umbrella tell you the weather forecast for example. This was very nifty and showed the massive drop in the cost of RFID technologies.

Nokia is soon releasing a new phone which will have ‘near-field communication’ capacity built in, giving another way to interact with the growing ‘Internet of things’.