• The Network of Things, or Where are we at on the road to ubiquitous computing? Pt1.

    In 2008 I completed a masters thesis thats been viewed 7.8K times. Doesn't that just speak to the very different world we live in tech-wise when even stodgy once-paper-only things like a thesis can even have 'views'? Titled 'The Dawn of uLearning', it examined where computing technology was then up to on its journey from stand alone mainframes to becoming embedded, ubiquitous, invisible 'Everyware', and what this meant for Education.

    With the release of the iPhone in 2007, it was becoming obvious by 2008 that the 'PC as digital hub' model of computing was being usurped by three key technologies - mobiles, wireless connectivity and cloud computing - and these were the three areas my thesis investigated. In 2013 however, these are old hat. The Smartphone/ Tablet is now the digital hub of our lives and is the very epitome of the convergence of mobile, wireless and cloud technologies. So where then are we now on the road to ubiquitous computing that becomes as seamless and taken for granted in our lives as previous high-tech like the wheel, farming, writing and electricity?

    One good place to find an answer to this question right now has been Las Vegas. No not because swarms of nano Elvis's have taken over (did I just say that out loud?), but because its played host to the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), reportedly the largest such show in the world which featured over 3000 exhibitors, all spruiking their answer to what is hot in tech right now. Its the kind of crazy amalgam of products from companies worldwide that, when distilled together can serve as little window in where things may be going.

    I'd like to write at least a couple of articles looking at these - and today will start with a trend I'm calling 'The Network of Things'. By now the term 'Internet of Things' is well known - basically where previously unconnected objects like your toaster and microwave gain the ability to join Facebook (I swear thats when I will delete my account). Seriously though, there are signs that ubiquitous internet connectivity is appearing - especially in the area of home automation where there are security camera's with the ability to stream over the internet (if wifi is available) and products like Belkin's WeMo switch allow you to turn appliances on or off remotely via the web. But a true Internet of Things I believe needs to wait until cheap 4G-like connections are built into everything so they work not just from fixed locations.

    In contrast, 'Network of Things' seems a better term for the more localised version that is becoming available to us right now - as evidenced by the wave of previously unconnected objects (PUO's) such as watches, stepometers, soil monitors, forks and batteries that came out of CES. In addition, by hooking up primarily to smartphones or tablets to complete their network, these are all objects that continue the switch that's underway where the smartphone or tablet is replacing the PC as the dominant digital hub in our lives.

    Allow me to elaborate.

    PUO 1. The Watch: I gave up strapping one to my wrist in 2001. Living in London as I was it seemed there were clocks everywhere when needed, so why worry about wearing such an un-converged device that could at most perform one or two functions? But now that tech has reached the point where micro-chips and wireless radios have become small enough, watches can start to become not the full wrist-computers of Dick Tracy fame, but capable '4th-screen' companion devices that are best suited to the kind of computing that fits on your wrist - such as fast access to alerts, info and notifications. Examples include the Pebble (disclosure - I'm a backer via Kickstarter, and hope to review soon) as well as the MetaWatch and I'mWatch.

    PUO 2. Fitness Gear: Another example is one thats crossing over to the mainstream ahead of smart watches as we speak - fitness gadgets (look for them to merge in the near future). The Nike Fuelband is perhaps the best known, but newer examples from FitBit, and now even LG pack a variety of sensors like pedometers, accelerometers, and altimeters as well as Bluetooth into wristband or small clip on devices that sync their data via a local network to your smartphone. You can add to these wearable examples other gear like scales and heart monitors to create a complete picture of your health where the sensor devices hook up to your digital hub (can be a PC, but increasingly needs to be a smartphone).

    PUO 3. Batteries: Yep, a product at CES called Tethercells could make every AA battery in any of your devices into smart cells that you can turn on or off over Bluetooth plus receive power alerts from as long as you are within range (say 30 meters) - if funded (click the link to contribute). Fitting the Bluetooth module into a AA means the Tethercell itself only includes a AAA battery, meaning the downside is gadgets that don't run as long, but seriously, its a remote-controlled battery!

    PUO 4. Plant Monitors: Why just stick a plant monitor into your soil when you can have one that talks back? The perhaps aptly titled 'Flower Power' from Parrot (best known as makers of the AR.Drone) lets your phone know via Bluetooth when your plants need water, nutrients or even more sunlight. Maybe it will inspire a new generation of geeks to grow their own veggies?

    PUO Weird edition: Cutlery: this one does seem purely to be a gimmick/ solution searching for a problem. I'll let you make up your own mind... HAPIfork.

    PUO Bonus item: I've saved the best for last - Stick n Find Bluetooth dots (disclosure - I'm a backer on Indiegogo) that stick to almost anything and let you know where they are if lost, or if you or they have moved to far away. Again, there's no extra Internet connectivity at the kind of price point that makes this kind of 'Network of Things' widely affordable, but the combination of low-power Bluetooth 4.0 and a compatible smartphone or tablet suddenly makes almost any object in your home into an unconnected object no more.

    Discuss: Has the 'Network of Things' section of the journey toward ubiquitous computing really arrived?
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