Make yourself at home
A crop of devices that allow almost anyone to connect everyday objects to the internet could be at the forefront of more interactive age.
IF AN email message were a physical object, what would it be? For Ted Hayes, a freelance designer based in New York, itâ€™s a soap bubble.
He decided to connect his inbox to a toy soap-bubble gun using cheap and simple electronics. Hayes had little technical skill at the time, yet he got the contraption to work, spreading bubbles each time he received an email. He says he was pleased that â€œa normally frivolous and cheap plastic object could become interconnected with the worldâ€ .
Hayes represents a growing movement of tinkerers who are merging the online and physical worlds in surprising ways. Instead of waiting for technology companies like
Cisco or Apple to make their gadgets, these â€œmakersâ€ are buying off-the-shelf computer chips, sensors and wireless radios, and doing it themselves. They are transforming their possessionsÂ â€“ from plant pots and clothing to thermostats or cuddly toysÂ â€“ to become smarter, connected and social.
At first glance, many of their creations seem amateurish: after all, they are often made with duct tape and cardboard rather than brushed aluminium and glass. But the bigger picture is that this subculture of makers is driving something far more important.
If history is a guide, what these people are up to today will shape the next stage of the internet, and transform your relationships with your own possessions and home.
For more than a decade, the internet has seemingly been on the cusp of a major expansion, in which physical objects become part of it. Today, you access the digital realm from your smartphone or computer, but in principle, adding electronics and antennas to many of your other possessions could make them part of the same network as websites and apps.
Governments, academics and big technology companies have been promoting this vision of an â€œInternet of â€‰Thingsâ€ for years. Want to know if you are out of milk at home? Use a smartphone app to ask your fridge. Yet despite the hype, the vision has yet to materialise.
Of course, niche successes do exist. Vitality, a company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, makes a smart pill-bottle that can report your medication habits to your doctor over the web. Some high-end household appliances can also be controlled online. So far, however, no one has found a â€œkiller appâ€ that becomes a regular feature of our day-to-day lives.
But where established companies are still struggling to figure out how to connect with consumers, a growing community of amateurs is busy creating thousands of smart devices. And some technology observers believe that all this activity is revealing how to build an Internet of â€‰Things that people actually want to use.
Hobbyists have always tinkered with technology, but what is different about this maker movement is that every year, the technical expertise required to participate is dropping. Much of the current activity was spurred by the introduction of an open-source computer called Arduino. In 2005, a group of designers at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy needed a simple bit of hardware to help design students who had little technical knowledge to create prototypes of interactive devices. They came up with a credit-card-sized circuit board featuring a single chip-based computer called a micro-controller. Crucially, the board also featured easily identifiable sockets for input and output signals, a small amount of on-board memory and a USB connection that made it easy to program via a regular computer.
Students could attach sensors for anything from light levels to sound, to how far a material was bent from its original shape. Then, using a simplified programming language, they instructed their devices to control mechanical motors, LEDs or wireless internet connections.
In the ensuing years, with more than 300,000 units out in the wild, Arduino has become a global DIY phenomenon, giving artists, designers and tinkerers everywhere an accessible way to add interactivity to just about anything.
Hayesâ€™s email bubble gun, for example, is based on Arduino, as is a whole menagerie of other amateur-built devices. Some have even created entire home-automation systems that give them the ability to control lights, gates and doors from a web page.
Take Darja Gartner, a graphic designer based in Geneva, Switzerland. In October 2010, Gartner and her boyfriend participated in a project called HomeSense, run by Tinker, a London-based design firm. Participants were given an Arduino TinkerKit â€“ a set of sensors and attachments for Arduino that further simplifies the design processÂ â€“ and let loose to figure out how to use the kit to make their homes â€œsmarterâ€ .
The participants varied in technical ability, but were largely successful in making smart objects that had meaning and use for them. One person made a coaster that flashes LEDs to remind him to get up from his desk for a break from work; another outfitted a toy robot to remind people to flush after using the toilet.
Gartner and her boyfriend got stuck in, creating several gadgets. One turned off the light in the hallway if it had been left on too long, and another watered the plants when the soil moisture got too low.
Still, the pair also discovered a few limitations of Arduino. They hoped to build a sensor that would help them to stay on good terms with the people in their apartment building. â€œMy neighbours were extremely sensitive about noise, so I thought it would be fun to have a little reminder to tell me when I should lower the music or talk less loudly,â€ she says. They gave it a go, but were not able to make their dreamed-of noise-detector function properly. Arduino may be designed for novices, but programming it still requires wading through lines of code, which is a barrier too high for most people.
A new crop of devices, however, is removing the need for electronics know-how and programming. One example is called Twine, from a design firm called Supermechanical, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Twine is a block of rubber containing a micro-controller, a Wi-Fi radio and internal sensors for acceleration and temperature. It also contains a port by which external sensors for things like moisture can be attached. The whole thing fits easily in the palm of your hand and, crucially, you donâ€™t have to know how it works inside or the code required to program it. Twine sells itself with the slogan: â€œConnect your things to the internet, without a nerd degreeâ€ . For example, if you wanted to receive a message when your laundry is finished, you might place a Twine on top of the washing machine. Then use a simple app to instruct the Twine to send a text message when it senses that the machine has stopped shaking.
To gauge interest in the idea, last December Supermechanical posted Twine on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, asking for $35,000 in seed money. The response was enormousÂ â€“ the two-person company raised more than $500,000. Supermechanical designer John Kestner was surprised, and especially because most of the people who donated and pre-ordered the device are not your typical geeks.
When Twine is officially launched in June, it will surely find many more creative uses than monitoring a washing machine. â€œIâ€™d be lying if I said we had a great idea for exactly what the killer application is for the Internet ofâ€‰ Things,â€ he says, â€œbut give people the tools to do it themselves and theyâ€™ll figure out what makes sense for them.â€
Another new project removes the need for a traditional computer altogether: LittleBits, based in New York City, has created a set of sensors and widgets that connect to each other via magnetic links. They require zero programming. To make a device you simply connect, say, a pressure sensor module to an LED light module. Press the sensor, the button lights up. The concept is deceptively simple, even toy-like, but founder Ayah Bdeir says the modules can fit serious purposes. She says the company is planning to release new modules with more complex behaviours such as remote control and wireless communication. â€œThereâ€™s a limit to what we can do on screens,â€ she says. â€œLittleBits is trying to add a layer of computation and digital control over the physical objects around us.â€
So, given that the enabling hardware is getting simpler every year, it is quite possible that many more people could soon be adding interactivity and connectivity to just about any physical object they own. If that sounds an unlikely prospect, consider that the history of information technology reinforces this idea, and provides lessons for how it will happen.
Today, people routinely create their own websites, Facebook profiles or blogsÂ â€“ usually by assembling pre-existing chunks and without needing to know the underlying code. Last year, London-based artist and interaction designer Andy Huntington made a lot of people in the technology industry sit up by arguing that there are parallels between the current wave of activity among those making their own smart objects and what happened with the digital internet during the 1990s. Before then, our interactions with information and the media were largely one-way. We watched TV, read newspapers, but could seldom join the conversation.
That began to change when the tools to shape the internet became widely available, according to Huntington. One particularly influential site at the time was called Geocities. Without much expertise, the users of Geocities could sign up for a page in one of a number of content-themed â€œneighbourhoodsâ€ , and were then free to build a web page made up of whatever content they liked. Geocities is now credited with helping to democratise the internet and paving the way for the user-generated, social web we know today. It showed the world that many people wanted to build part of the internet themselves, which was not obvious at the time.
That is why Huntington calls the smart, networked objects that the makers are creating the â€œGeocities ofâ€‰ Thingsâ€ . Indeed, many parallels are there: Geocities pages were amateurish, splashed with gaudy animations. Maker projects are amateurish, built with cardboard. Geocities allowed anybody to create a webpage. Arduino, Twine and the like allow (almost) anybody to create a smart object.
So if makers will indeed shape the future Internet of â€‰Things, does this recent history provide any clues as to what will happen next? Perhaps. Once Geocities had paved the way for the user-generated internet and Web 2.0, the arrival of MySpace and similar websites then allowed people to join up the web pages they were creating inside social networks. So it is entirely possible that social connections will play a part in driving the growth of the Internet ofâ€‰ Things, and perhaps more than many companies and governments currently realise.
Look at the activity among amateur makers today, and you will find plenty of hints that this could be true. Tom Igoe, a design professor at New York University and Arduino co-founder, notes that once people get the hang of using platforms like Arduino, many tend to gravitate towards building devices that link them to other people. He calls such interactions â€œremote hugsâ€ Â â€“ a way of using smart objects to communicate a simple message, such as â€œIâ€™m thinking of youâ€ .
It is not surprising that people would do this when you consider that many of our possessions represent social connections already. Social scientist Sherry Turkle at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology argues that the objects we own are â€œevocativeâ€ Â â€“ they anchor memories and sustain relationships. So, a lamp given to you by a loved one, for example, doesnâ€™t just give you light: it serves as a reminder of your relationship with them. This social link could be strengthened if the lamp was connected to the internet and periodically communicated a non-verbal message about your loved one, says Matt Ratto, director of the Critical Making Lab at the University of â€‰Toronto, Canada. For example, if you so desired, you could program it to dim briefly when they switch off one of the lamps in their home. Admittedly, that particular idea wouldnâ€™t be for everybody, but the point is that people can now decide for themselves how to link up their possessions and homes.
Gartner and her boyfriend are currently wiring up their separate apartments to relay their respective activities to each other, so theyâ€™ll be alerted when the other gets home, or goes to bed. â€œWe were thinking about how to communicate to each other in more subtle ways than sending texts,â€ she says. Hayesâ€™s email soap-bubble gun is arguably another example of such communication, giving physical form to a piece of digital social interaction. â€œTo me, whatâ€™s more important than the things or what they do is how our relationships are changed through them,â€ says Igoe.
Some people have already begun to commercialise ideas along these lines. For example, Antony Evans, a strategy consultant turned hardware-hacking entrepreneur based in San Francisco, taught himself to use Arduino and created a shirt that can send a text message if its accelerometer registers that the wearerÂ â€“ such as a grandparentÂ â€“ has fallen down. He rounded up the support of Silicon Valley investors and is currently working to bring the product to market. â€œTransforming a pile of parts into a blinking and working piece of hardware is a magical experience,â€ he says.
Indeed, it is almost certain that the current generation of makers will produce ideas with wider uses than just inside their own houses. After all, there are now thousands of people in thousands of homes all over the world tweaking and hacking their possessions. With so many people innovating, some of the smart objects they build will surely go on to have a wider societal impact.
So whereas the Internet ofâ€‰ Things as originally envisioned felt polished and perhaps a little sterile, the reality is likely to look quite different. It may look amateurish at timesÂ â€“ it may even look like a plastic toy gun that blows soap bubblesÂ â€“ but this world of connected objects will be totally human. n
MacGregor Campbell is a consultant for
New Scientist â€‰based in Portland, Oregon
â€ Give people the tools to do it themselves and they will figure out what makes sense for themâ€
â€ You might program your lamp to dim briefly when a distant loved one switches off their lamp at nightâ€
(c) 2012 Reed Business Information – UK. All Rights Reserved.
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