Back around 1998, Vint Cerf, a guy touted as “the father of the internet” came to speak at Purdue. (yeah.. I know, I thought Al Gore was the father of the internet. derp.) It was an odd time. The internet as we have kind of come to know it (the web), was just starting out, having only been available for public use since 1993. I’m guessing I was still on some form of dial up at the time.
I only remember two things from Cerf’s presentation. The first was the Beavis and Butthead worthy slogan “IP on everything”. huh huh. (IP stands for internet protocol, a layer of the infrastructure by which the ‘net works) I don’t really recall, but it seems like he must have said it several dozen times. The gist of the phrase was that in the not so distant future, every electrical device would somehow be connected to the internet. At the time, I think this idea was a little more of a stretch than it is now. Why would anyone want to connect their washing machine to the internet? From a pragmatic perspective, I guess I still kind of ask the same question, but at least we have examples of possible uses. Sure, I’d like a text message when the dryer is done.
As an aside, it’s kind of interesting to me to think that the other end of this IP on everything interaction had few interesting prospects back in the 90’s. I think it was kind of assumed that you’d sit down at your gigantic CRT monitored PC (because macs sucked at this time) and wait for the message from your dryer. Similarly it’s also interesting to think about how many roles cell phones now play (and will eventually play) in our data interactions.
For what it’s worth, the other thing I remember him mentioning was having internet on the space shuttle. I think we’ve already achieved that through some terribly slow radio relay.
Anyway, I should probably get to the point. I recently read about a product called electric imp that provides an infrastructure for ol’ Vint Cerf’s idea. It appears to be a system of some stuff mounted in an SD card case, and a socket that’s small enough to fit in most devices.. like a light socket. They use WiFi, so you don’t have to pull a bunch of wire in your house to get it all connected.
This isn’t the first project of it’s kind. “Twine” came along earlier on kickstarter, providing a WiFi-ed sensor platform. Twine’s blocky form and external-ness cause it to strike me as more of a hobbyists toy than something seriously embeddable; not to mention the fact that it costs $100 a pop at the early adopter level. The imp on the other hand appears ready to ship to OEMs for inclusion in products at around $50 a piece.
What can you do with these things? My first thought was along the lines of power usage logging. A little program could easily be written to harvest the data from all the imps and then cross reference it with the current electricity cost. This would show you in dollars what each device in the house was costing you. Possibly, depending on how robust the imp is, you could even tell what times devices were plugged into certain outlets based on current draw.
Really though, just power logging is kind of short sighted. I think the real fun of these is going to be bringing a high level of home automation to the average joe. Having this infrastructure means manufacturers can more cheaply make automatable things, like power curtains that you can set to open and close at certain times, light fixtures that turn on and off, etc. I’m not a systems integrator, so I don’t have a lot of cool examples, but I think you get the idea.
Lauren just brought up the very good point that the electric imp could serve as the hardware basis for an idea that Scott Jenson of Frog Design spoke about at the IDSA Midwestern Conference a few months ago. [View the video here if you are an IDSA member.. I think it only works in ie. OR if you’re like me and don’t think the IDSA membership is worth it, see basically the same talk on vimeo] From the IDSA webpage for the talk :
Mobile apps are on a clear trajectory for failure. It’s not possible to have an app for every device in your house, every product you own and every store you enter. Much like how Yahoo!’s original hierarchy gave way to Google’s search; applications have to give way to a just-in-time approach to applications. This talk will explain how applications must give way to a more universal approach to application distribution: one based on the mobile Web and cloud services. The problem, of course, is that the mobile Web has both hands tied behind its back. Any mobile app today is locked away behind a browser ghetto: in effect, a sub OS inside a larger mobile OS. This isn’t just an arbitrary technology debate. A just-in-time approach to application functionality can unleash entirely new sets of application, ones that are impossible with native apps. This talk will lay out how this problem can be fixed, and what changes need to take place, outside of just HTML5, for it to happen.
Scott Jenson – Why Mobile Apps Must Die – BD Conf, Sept 2011 from Breaking Development on Vimeo.
I think what Scott is pushing for is an ad hoc network of “stuff” in your personal area. In much the way new WiFi networks might appear on your iPhone when you are in their range, WiFi enabled everyday objects would make themselves known to you as well. For example, when I’m in my office building, I might get a phone notification that there is a vending machine down the hall, and it is doing a sale on diet coke. Not only does this bring about a kind of Just-In-Time product/service delivery model, but it also can makes sales more efficient – Ideally, the coke machine would want to sell all it’s stock before it’s refilled, if it has a surplus of something as the refill date approaches, it could make those cheaper to move the product.
Other examples might include getting a notification about bus schedules when you’re near a bus stop. The underlying idea is that you don’t have to search for the information you need, it comes to you.
It’ll be interesting to see where things go from here.