Wikipedia broadly defines the IoT (Internet of Things) as a “network of physical devices that enables these objects to collect and exchange data.” A physical device can be a sensor, a car, a building and any other “smart” object. Things that were once considered “dumb” can be made smart by embedding sensors in them. There are now billions of devices collecting and exchanging and receiving data to keep check on our lives, economy and planet. Every smart device is a point or node in a network.

We now see the use of the term “ecosystem” to describe the larger perspective of networked devices, their functional use, and the participants deploying and managing them. Companies that provide the devices, enabling software, platforms, data analytics, use case applications and everything else that makes the IoT ubiquitous and pervasive. Companies and individuals can occupy “niches” or parts of the IoT ecosystem where their specialization gives them a “fit” for survival and prosperity.

It is interesting how the terminology of modern biology has been so readily applied to a non-biological structure.

Of greater interest to me is how the IoT ecosystem is explained visually. Remember the old chestnut that a picture is worth a thousand words? The visual representation the points or nodes of devices, applications, providers and users in the IoT ecosystem has tried to give the viewer a recognizable “big picture” representation of what they enable.

A good example of this is the depiction of a myriad of nodes clustered together to form the image of the Cloud, without which the IoT would not exist. Icon representing smartphones, cell towers, and other devices together form the image of the Cloud ecosystem in which they exist. Click here for the resulting image.

The use of color to paint a picture of the overall ecosystem but represent the various niches that exist within it can result in a highly useful overall perspective that draws attention to niche size and ranking of dominance within the ecosystem. Click here for an example.

As I viewed today’s representations of IoT ecosystems and niches that have been published over the past few years, I had a déjà vu moment. The techniques being used by today’s visual artists were used over a century ago by one of the great post-impressionist artists, Georges Seurat.

He created a technique which is today called pointillism. Seurat was a draftsman by training and he employed the precise methods of drafting to his art. He used pinpoint drops of paint which you can visually see when you are close up to the painting. These points of color were precisely positioned to support the “structure” in which they were used, such as a tree, a face, and every other recognizable node in the painting’s composition. The structures were visible and recognizable only when you moved away from the painting to view it at a distance.

The 21st century of Seurat’s technique can be found in the pixels in your LCD television. Get really close to the TV and you will see thousands of color dots but not the structure. Return to your normal viewing distance and the structures that the dots make up are again visible.

For anyone who sat through an art history class, or has seen a BBC or PBS special on the artists of the late 1800’s, Seurat’s most famous work is a staple item in the catalog. First shown in 1886, it established Seurat and pointillism in French art. The piece is called A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, and you can click here to view it. To many readers, this will be a déjà vu moment.

What we are seeing is really an expression of the ecosystem in Paris at the time, with all the niches, points and nodes that made it up. I have seen it in person, and the experience of viewing the thousands of pinpoint paint drops (pixels) up close, the moving back to see the image of the complete ecosystem come into view is breathtaking.

Today’s graphics applications are technological marvels and produce visualizations of the IoT that are useful and sometimes artistic. They owe a debt to Seurat’s legacy.