d(IoT)/dt – Musings on The Internet of Things Thing

iotFestsmallThe other day I attended a gathering at MIT titled “Internet of Things Festival“. If I wrote that ten years ago you would probably wonder what I was talking about (unless of course you worked with or knew Kevin Ashton). In the past few months the phrase “Internet of Things” has gone from obscurity to ubiquity. The issue for me is that people are still trying to get their thoughts around what devices make up this IoT when they should be fleshing out what IoT could really mean. This festival was good in that it had presenters covering a wide variety of technologies underpinning the Internet of Things as well as what futures the Internet of Things might bring about. The list presented in the introduction  as “What IoT is” had line items that included products that could fall in this category, technology that enables IoT, and concepts that are already becoming commonplace like cellphone control of appliances. What Internet of Things should be associated with is not the things themselves but what we will be able to do once we have tracked how we use these things over time. A user experience can be guided and improved by the prior interactions and normal wear and tear on everything we use. It is this combination of the data acquired over time and how it is made actionable that will make the Internet of Things a real thing. Without this we are just connecting lightbulbs so we don’t have to get off the couch to turn them on and off and we’ll never get past the mental model of the remote control. Google did not buy Nest for billions simply to have a connected thermostat. Nest got this idea of collecting data over time and making it actionable. If we want to really make an Internet of Things that is world-changing we need to develop products that use the data from these devices and from that data create a net increase in the quality of our lives.


I’ve updated my portfolio website for the first time in a while. Since the spring I have been involved in mentoring and advising many different companies and individuals. Through my non-stop networking I’ve managed to meet people with innovative ideas that range from a non-profit intergenerational golf program to a wearable baby monitor device. There are many more as well that are either in stealth mode or simply to early to report on (i.e. they haven’t finished pivoting yet!). These innovators are from 14 to 40+, both genders, diverse socio-economic backgrounds…it has been very rewarding to hear these novel ideas come from so many great places. As I continue to search for the next great paying gig I hope to continue to stay engaged with all of these creative people and help in any way I can.

still working hard

I sure am glad I did that last post. After having full-time employment for all of five months I am once again the subject of another layoff and back  in a full-time position of finding employment and staying current. I’ll be using those things mentioned in my previous post as well as some new connections made along the way….and I forgot to mention one other way to stay very busy:

Volunteer Work

There are lots of great organizations in the greater Boston area to fill ones time with “good work”. Here are a couple worth checking out that tie into technology and/or engineering:


Engineers Without Borders

…and my favorite has been working as an advisor and mentor for a local youth group at First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington. We are travelling to Williamson West Virginia to help build some community gardens. You can follow that action here.


spring at the media lab

I’ve had the honor to be a collaborator at the MIT Media Lab for the past couple months. In addition to being able to lurk in one of the coolest technology-centric places on the planet this also enabled me to attend the recent Spring 2012 Member Meeting. This had in previous years been referred to as “Sponsor Week” but under the leadership of Joi Ito it has been re-branded and more importantly opened up to interested outsiders via web streaming of all of the presentations and panel sessions. What the outsiders still didn’t get was the hands on demonstrations and discussions in each of the groups on the many and varied projects underway. My time spent there over the last few months has been focused on one specific project, the Ambient Furniture Project with David Rose as part of the Tangible Media Group. While coming and going I would always see lots of busy researchers but never got a chance to delve into what they were doing. This event enabled me to walk around and see some of these most amazing projects in action. While the “camera that can see around corners” is clearly mind-blowing, there are many additional interesting projects underway, some with some very relevant applications. Here are small sampling of my favorites…. The NETRA project in that same Camera Culture Group has developed a portable and inexpensive solution for estimating refractive errors in the human eye. This has exciting implications for getting quality eye care to underprivileged areas of the world. In the Affective Computing Group the Cardiocam project is a low-cost, non-contact measurement system for physiological signals such as heart rate and breathing rate using a basic webcam.  The High-Low Tech Group focuses on integrating high and low technological materials and processes further enabling the DIY culture that is flourishing around the internet these days. This is also the same group that is developing a build-it-yourself cellphone. The Lifelong Kindergarten Group is getting ready to release version 2.0 of their wonderful development tool, Scratch, which makes it easy for users of all ages to create their own interactive stories, games, animations, and simulations and share them online. There are many, many more deeper and wilder projects. The videos from the sessions (Tuesday & Wednesday)show highlights from many of these and are well worth watching. The Media Lab is an amazing space and seems to often be two or three steps ahead of the rest of the world in technology applications.

Side note – Joi Ito has also assembled an amazing advisory council among whose members include Peter Gabriel. I managed to talk with him on two different occasions and was amazed that even though I was struggling to not be a stuttering fanboy he took the time to ask me about the work I was doing and even apologized to me for not having been able to come by and see it in more detail. This fanboy was very happy.

Neal Stephenson at MIT

ImageI didn’t have it in me the other night to get in line for the microphone during the Q&A with science fiction author Neal Stephenson after his discussion at the Tech Review Science Fiction event the other night. If I had I would have asked him something to the effect of “How can you possibly take the time to sit here and talk with us and still manage to keep putting thousands of pages of densely written prose into each book?”. While Stephenson is certainly a page-prolific writer, he was a soft-spoken man of remarkably few words in the hour-and-a-half-long session. He did have a number of really good sound bites though… In response to the question of why all of his bad guys are men and his women always good he responded that maybe it was because he likes women. Also when talking to the rapid change in technology he quipped that we used to put up with Mac screens with 512×342 pixel displays and now we use that resolution for icons. He was remarkably humble when asked about his predictive capabilities. He says that he feels the whole “predicting thing is rigged” in that it is more of a shotgun approach where all of the incorrect predictions are forgotten. For instance he admitted that he did not see “the whole social thing coming” art all. He went on later to talk about how he feels that the the internet and upcoming alternate reality technologies will be nothing like what was represented in his seminal novel, Snow Crash. He went off on two tangents that were both interesting and fun, one about his passion for lost European sword-play battle art forms and the other for his new-found health improvement technique of doing everything while standing and/or walking. He now uses a specially designed treadmill when reading, writing and presenting. I’m not sure why he kept saying things about us not understanding that he would be tedious…the audience was full of fans of of his writing after all. You can read the MIT Tech Review piece on this event here.

On a side note, the blackboards in MIT 10-250 were arranged in a 3×3 grid, each with some cryptic equation, diagram  or series or glyphs all relevant to the worlds he has created or written about. At least one attendee seems to have cracked some of it.


ImageWhat city in the United States is second only to New York in the number of artists per capita? Unless you live there you probably would not guess that it would be Somerville, Massachusetts. That statistic along with its proximity next door to Cambridge, one of the country’s centers of innovation and technology development, made Somerville a natural choice for a TEDx event. Historically Somerville encompassed many railway and industrial lands and was home to the birth of Marshmallow Fluff, the Bertucci’s restaurant chain and the chain that would become Stop & Shop. Today Somerville is a wonderful mix of students, artists, working class people and demographically it is a mix of long-time Irish-, Italian- and Portuguese- American residents and newer immigrant populations from Brazil, Haiti, El Salvador, India, South Korea and Nepal.

The day-long independent TED event brought more than 25 presenters and at least five different musical acts to the stage at the Arts at the Armory facility, a repurposed armory that now is home to a wide range of visual arts, dance, theater and musical performances. The presenters at TEDxSomerville ranged from the mayor of Somerville, Joseph A. Curtatone, to Joe Grafton, the Director of Somerville Local First, a key player in the advancement of the local movement in Somerville, to Brian Whitman, a co-founder of EchoNest, a music Discovery platform to Monica Poole, one of the organizers of Occupy Boston, to Alex Feldman, performer and comedian who specializes in non-verbal communication methods. The presentation of the concept of “Community Supported Manufacturing” from Chris Templeman was particularly interesting. He talked about a great concept for a community funded cooperative to make every day appliances be much nicer constructions.


The music included contemplative folk from Jenee Halstead, old-school analog experimental synth from Keith Fullerton Whitman, and energetic sounds from both Grooversity and Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band. The “house band” that played between the sessions was the Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library, who wrote an entirely new set of songs, each one themed with the material from the presenters. Sheer brilliance!

The truly eclectic nature of the presenters, the art installations and delicious food from local restaurants (the Chocolate from Taza and the Ethiopian food from Fasika was particularly delicious) made this event a perfect TED experience.og


I continue to be amazed at individuals, especially artists, who find ways to make money using unconventional business models using the hyper-connectedness of the Internet. A couple years ago the band Radiohead infamously offered up their In Rainbows album as a pay-what-you-want model. Admittedly this was a fiscally easy thing to do for a multi-million selling band but clever nonetheless.  Amanda Palmer has also been on the forefront of using these tools to sell her material. Most recently I heard an interview on Fresh Air with the comedian Louis C.K. who got tired of never seeing royalty checks from his comedy specials that would air over conventional television and cable. He’d decided to record his performance and put it for sale on his wind website, no strings or DRM attached – just pay $5.00 and it is your to download and do with as you please. The outcome flies in the face of everything the alarmist labels and big internet stores are wringing their hands over…he made a million dollars on providing content that people wanted. Don’t just try convince people that what you make is necessary for them to buy…..Make something, provide a service, whatever it is you do, if it is something people truly want, which really defines value, you can get money in return. …and the internet is a great vehicle for getting it out there, what ever it is.

mass innovation

Networking can be a lot of work. I spent the evening last night at an interesting event, Mass Innovation Nights #33. This is a monthly get-together for small/just-starting companies to talk about what they do, meet with other like individuals and generally practice their pitches. Two companies stood out of interest to me. The first was Board Prospects, which is a portal to connect organizations with individuals that have interest in and relevant experience for board positions – board of directors, advisory boards, etc. The impetus behind this is to get organizations to break through the normal “who do you know” method of boardroom recruitment and connect with what should be truly qualified candidates. ImageThe second has taken the idea of gaming, leveling up, social media experiences and applied it to bottle and can recycling. Greebean Recycle takes your standard bottle and can redemption machine and adds two great components to it: the first is a touch screen that enables you to log into an account and the second is a backend connection that gets rid of the paper receipt and enables you to upload your redemption value sot a number of sources of your choice. They have a pilot running now at MIT where students can track their recycling stats and compare them to / compete with their peers. I’m going to pay close attention to this one as I think is a great idea.

Lastly it is also good to have these events in a cool place, this time it was IBM’s Innovation Center in Waltham. A very good location for meetings like this with the presentations all set up in and around lots of historical computing displays and information.

collectable rfid

ImageBack in the 1990’s I was working for the Technology and Innovation group at the now-defunct Arthur D. Little consulting firm. At that time we were doing some work with the then nascent contact-less smart cards. Having recently discovered the multi-colored cardboard crack that is Magic: the Gathering, I thought it would be a great idea to develop a contact-less smart card version of the game where a console would be used to read and write the cards that would store all the stats about your play and the monsters and characters represented by the cards. Unfortunately the idea had already been pitched to another client so I couldn’t do any internal development for patentable IP on this one. Fast forward ten years and I am working at ThingMagic, developer of technology for reading and writing the now much cheaper UHF RFID tags. I pitched my idea again there but it was not in line with the core business so it never gathered any steam. Roll forward to my most recent work at FIrst Act where we used toy-class RFID from Nuvoton in the Voice Rockrz voice-changing microphone. The tags are in bling that ships along with the microphone that contains a reader. Tap the tag to get the new effect. It was fun but I of course still wanted to do something with my old idea of the collectable with RFID. ImageThat didn’t happen there either…..and now present day and we see my decades-old idea is on the market from Activision in the Skylanders product. From one review: “Using a plastic platform about six inches in diameter, the figures connect wirelessly to your video game system…As with other games, you still control their characters on the screen. But you need the figures, which store data and transmit characters’ histories to the nearest game console. Each works like a wireless thumb drive for data storage. Connect it to the system, and the game recognizes all that the character has been through.” Sounds very cool…and very familiar….I may need to buy this game just to see how they implemented that idea of mine from way back when.

power stimulus

I went to an interesting MIT Enterprise Forum tonight focusing on portable power technologies. The panel comprised two moderators, one from Mass High Tech newspaper and the other from the VC community, and four industry representatives from Honda, Battelle, Argonne and a startup called Lilliputian. The discussions varied from the technologies themselves (Li-Ion batteries, Hydro-carbon-based fuel cells, etc.) as well as the challenges in growing the manufacturing industries for these technologies in the United States. The main thread was on how companies can possibly take advantage of the $2B of the latest stimulus bill earmarked for this sector. Given my recent growing interest in global sustainability issues and the needs of developing communities around the world (including the “third world” communities we can find in our own back yard) I couldn’t help thinking that there must be a way for corporations to both take this government money and give back to the communities that need infusion so desperately. I think about this sort of thing a lot…any other thoughts out there on this are greatly received.

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