Unplugged

Calm in the Face of Chaos

November 2010

The “Internet of Things” describes a future in which billions of everyday objects will connect to a massively scaled cloud, serving as helpful digital assistants for everything from knowing whether the milk is fresh to controlling railroads and driving cars. If that sounds like science fiction, look around at the connected devices that have already joined mobile phones as our daily companions. Wi-Fi and cellular game consoles, health and fitness monitors, photo frames, and vehicle trackers are becoming common —forming “personal clouds” around us that exchange information with the “big cloud.” At home, TVs, security systems, and appliances will hook up to the ‘Net, and new services such as home-energy management will reduce our impact on the planet and enhance family and community security. Within the developed world, the Internet of Things is coming, and soon.

While these connected doodads will provide new conveniences and enhance our awareness of the things that matter to us, they could make us crazy, too. Most connected devices provide audible alerts ranging from a quiet beep to a hundred-decibel siren. Each of these devices expects an immediate and individual response.

It’s inevitable that three or four will go off at the same time, creating the doorbell/phone call problem on steroids. Priority usually goes to the alarm that can be shut off the soonest, rather than the one that’s the most important. And when multiple alerts are shut off at the same time, one or more of the events that triggered an alert could easily be overlooked, undermining the reason for the panic in the first place. Should all of the devices in a person’s cloud go off at the same time, it would be a nightmare (or a really great prank!).

What’s needed is a way to coordinate the activities of a group of devices surrounding a person or within a confined space so they support us without making us run around like 21st-century Keystone Kops. Connected devices must both “encalm and inform,” in the words of the late Mark Weiser, a former CIO for Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Weiser was at least 15 years ahead of his time when he stated in his 1995 paper, Designing Calm Technology, “… We believe that calm technology may be the most important design problem of 21st century, and it is time to begin the dialogue.”

Weiser didn’t get very far with the dialogue before his untimely death in 1999, and inter-device cooperation has only recently resurfaced on technology radar screens. There are a lot of ways to coordinate devices: harmonize preferences, provide at-a-glance status, use applications to control and coordinate their actions, and develop protocols that allow devices to identify and negotiate between themselves. Ford SYNC is an early leader, supporting hands-free calling, text messaging, and music content for as many as 12 Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones and media players within a vehicle. SYNC’s obvious safety benefits overshadow some its cooler features, including user-selected headlines, location-based business search and turn-by-turn directions. SYNC can play Pandora’s “music you like” and read your Twitter stream aloud. Even though it doesn’t support non-phone devices such as medical sensors (yet), SYNC is a big step forward.

Solving the problem a different way, “ambient” designers build products that provide realtime visual displays of the information you’re tracking, quietly and without interruption. For instance, The Ambient Orb tells you the status of an online data stream: red if the market is down or traffic is congested, green if the market is up or the pollen count low. The Orb uses the ReFLEX paging network to connect to the Internet, and comes with free access to a set of standard information channels. A premium subscription ($19.99/quarter or $6.95/month) can bring any online data to the Orb, including private streams such as your company’s customer service hold queue or your personal net worth.

Recursion Software’s Voyager Platform takes a third approach by facilitating direct coordination between devices. Several projects are developing protocols to enable devices that use different wireless networks such as Wi-Fi, Zigbee, and Z-Wave to communicate with each other, including the U-Snap Alliance and the Open Mobile Assn. Voyager turns inter-device communication into collaboration by enabling devices to share information and host services locally among themselves, a process which Recursion calls “location-based collaboration.”

In addition to providing “last inch” connectivity for a wide range of devices, Voyager can shift an active collaboration across platforms, such as moving a shared work session from a laptop to a smartphone, to your car, back to a smartphone and then onto an office computer, all without leaving the session. Voyager software libraries, embedded in the programming of a connected device, allow devices to share applications and data locally without backhauling every communication through a carrier network to the cloud—an essential network efficiency we’ll need when billions of devices suddenly strain global networks.

However it happens, turning an unruly hoard of individual devices into a winning team is something that simply must happen. We must understand and address the natural limitations that our humanity imposes on the technologies that surround us. The connected objects in our lives must work in coordinated ways that we can tolerate and control. Otherwise, people will abandon at least some of their connected devices so they can cope, and the idea of a connected world would be hobbled.


Laurie Lamberth won’t rest until all connected devices coordinate well together and reach their fullest potential. Contact Laurie or learn about her strategic business development and marketing consultancy at www.laurielamberth.com

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