“IoT winter is coming!”
The Internet of Things (IoT) is very much a work in progress, but there are certainly a lot of parties channeling their energies into building it – or at least moulding its building blocks. The question is, are they working off the same blueprint? Last week, Voxxed trooped down the road to Shoreditch Village Hall for ThingMonk 2014 developer day to find out. Organised by analyst company RedMonk, the intention of this year’s event was to unite the disparate tribes of the IoT movement.
Proceedings were started by Chirp.io inventor Patrick Bergel – the pioneer of a system that connects devices by converting web links into audio. Kicking off his speech with a state of the IoT union, Bergel compared the current market to the Great Italian Wars, with numerous factions competing to shape the IoT. It’s not just the concept of embedding sensors in the world around us that we’re talking about – it’s assigning new controls to the world that we didn’t have before. And right now, we’re just in the “banging rocks together” stage.
Bergel also touched on the subject of how IoT devices should work. The technology is there to connect the toaster to the boiler, if that’s your bag, but how do you want it to operate? Nobody wants to feel like they have to babysit their device, inputting data, or having to work to sync things up. Things need to be intuitive, and effortless. As another speaker put it, “We’re building a network of broken things – most things built around the premise a person will be participating in the system.” And that’s simply not something people are going to tolerate.
Then there’s the part where we have to get all these things to talk to each other. In his funny and rather poetic talk, “Conversational Internet of Things”, Nick O’Leary observed that humans have an innate tendency to make connections with innate objects, citing the anthropomorphization of the Mars Rover and Andy Standford-Clark’s Tweeting ferries as examples of the way that we use technology to foster a relationship with the things around us. But all this is only possible because there is someone behind the curtain pulling the strings.
To join IoT systems together, O’Leary argued, the concept of “Seamfullness with beautiful seams” is key. “The desire to present a single view of the system, with no joins, is an unrealistic aspiration in the face of the cold realities of wifi connectivity, battery life, system reliability and whether the Cloud is currently turned on.”
He added that; “Monolithic systems don’t allow users to connect constituent parts -it’s the seams between the joins in systems that help you understand the edges of a device’s sphere of interaction.” Users need to understand how the intelligent objects in their homes are working and interacting with each other, but within reason. Clearly, nobody wants more than one app to control their lighting from room to room.
Whilst an interestingly large proportion of the 150 attendees and speakers seemed to be off-duty IoT enthusiasts, Ian Skerrett can well and truly claim to be immersed in the market on a daily basis in his role of Director of Marketing for the Eclipse Foundation. Speaking about the various IoT consortiums and how well they do on things like adoption and openness, Skerrett offered a frank assessment of the market today.
Ultimately though, in spite of the effort of many parties, there’s never going to be one IoT standard to rule them all. But the ones that will succeed are the ones that, like Eclipse, stay as open as possible. And, as Alasdair Allan commented, “Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is trying to sell you something. We need to worry less about the cloud and more about the Internet.”
Inherently, the IoT and cloud share some big issues: namely security. Privacy was a major theme of the day, with several speakers noting that, in the rush to cobble the IoT together, we’ve let privacy slip by the wayside. For things like auto-heating and smart lightbulbs to function, they need to know a considerable amount of personal data, for example, when you’ll be popping in and out, exactly when you’ll return, and all the other minutiae of your daily routine. Things even the most banal of Facebook posters wouldn’t share with the world – but any potential criminal would find invaluable to know.
As the number of sensors in your life increases, data will too. And if you don’t want it in public domain, then you don’t want to expose your data to the internet. RedMonk’s James Governor summarised this as not just a technical issue – but also one of ethics. How much of our personal information do we really want flying around the websphere, and how much autonomy over what is shared do we want?
And, not to pile on the FUD, but tangible anxiety about a future where we can fully control and hack into the world around us was another recurrent theme, with at least two speakers making the rather dark prediction that the first IoT murder is just around the corner. Watch our interview below for the full story on why astrophysicist and tech lover Allan views this as a grim inevitability:
Alongside these more alarmist topics, there were some inspiring projects at ThingMonk. The previous day, a team from IBM BlueMix and NodeRed had taken the JavaOne interconnected car idea one step further with a full on hackable car that attendees were invited to hack away. Check out our interview with the team for the full story.
There was also a powerful talk by Naveed Parvez around the “Internet of Emphathy.” When his young son was let down by health care services, Parvez decided to form his own company, Andiamo, which utilised 3D scanning and printing to produce top of the range medical supports, at an infinitesimally shorter time span and lower cost than current NHS and private options.
Working on a lean basis, Parvez has put the wheels in motion for national clinical trials to ensure that patients with numerous disabilities and health issues can access this innovative new solution. Whilst we commonly think of IoT devices as inherently selfish gizmos (for example the “charismatic megafauna of wearables”, the smartwatch) and designed purely to make our own lives easier, Parvez beautifully demonstrates what can be achieved in a short amount of time with just a bit ingenuity and open innovation.
Perhaps Governor summed it up best with his statement that, fundamentally, the IoT isn’t simply protocol soup; it’s something that will impact all of our lives – no matter what tribe you hail from.