Inside the Web of Things

This is a slightly longer version of a piece I’ve recorded for the BBC World Service

I’ve long dreamed of an Internet of things, where all the stuff in my life speaks to each other instead of me having to the talking. The vision is relatively simple: each gadget is assigned an Internet address and so can communicate with each other, and with a central hub (my, or my computer, or smartphone, or whatever.)

The most obvious one is electricity. Attach a sensor to your fusebox and then you can see which or your myriad appliances is inflating your electricity bill. Great idea! Well sort of. I found a Singapore-based company that was selling them, and asked to try one out. It was a nice, sleek device that promised to connect to my computer via WiFi and give me a breakdown of my electricity consumption. Woohoo.

Only it never worked. Turns out the device needed to be connected to the junction box by a pro called Ken, who tried a couple of times and then just sort of disappeared. I don’t mean he was electrocuted or vaporized, he just didn’t come back. The owner of the company said he didn’t really sell them anymore. Now the device is sitting in a cupboard.

Turns out that Cisco, Microsoft and Google tried the same thing. The tech website Gigaom reports that all three have abandoned their energy consumption projects. Sleek-looking devices but it turns out folk aren’t really interested in saving money. Or rather, they don’t want to shell out a few hundred bucks to be reminded their power bills are too high.

This might suggest that the Internet of things is dead. But that’d be wrong. The problem is that we’re not thinking straight. We need to come up with ways to apply to the web of things the same principles that made Apple tons of cash. And that means apps.

The Internet of things relies on sensors. Motion sensors which tell whether the device is moving, which direction it’s pointing in, whether it’s vibrating, its rotational angle, its exact position, its orientation. Then there are sensors to measure force, pressure, strain, temperature, humidity and light.

The iPhone has nearly all these. An infrared sensor can tell that your head is next to the phone so it can turn off the screen and stop you cancelling the call with your earlobe. (The new version can even tell how far away you from the phone so it can activate its voice assistant Siri.)

But what makes all this powerful is the ecosystem of third party applications that have been developed for the iPhone. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of sensors. There are 1000s of apps that make use of the iPhone’s sensors–most of them without us really thinking about it.

This is the way the Internet of things needs to go. We need to stop thinking boring things like “power conservation” and just let the market figure it out. Right now I want a sensor that can tell me when the dryer is spinning out of control, which it tends to do, because then it starts moving around the room. Or help me find my keys.

In short, the Internet of things needs to commoditize the sensors and decentralize the apps that make those sensors work. Make it easy for us to figure out what we want to do with all this amazing technology and either give us a simple interface for us to do it ourselves, or make a software kit that lets programmy people to do it for us.

Which is why some people are pretty excited about Twine, a bunch of guys from MIT who are working on a two and a half inch rubber square which connects to WiFi and will let you program it via a very simple interface. Some examples: hang it around your infant’s neck and get it to send you a tweet every time it moves.

It may not be rocket science, but if you’ve got an infant-wandering problem it could be just what you needed.

22. December 2011 by jeremy
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