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.

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mentor…advisor…update

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:

YouthCITIES

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.

 

daydream believer

Recent readings have included number of books and journal articles. “The Innovator’s Dilemma“, is a seminal business treatise from Clay Christensen and “Ulysses” by James Joyce (admittedly I’m only a few chapters into that one) is one of the great 20th Century tomes. One might wonder why I would write about these two together in a post. I made a connection when I came across an article in an issue New Scientist I picked up at the Bio conference last week. In the article “Daydream Your Way to Creativity” Richard Fisher puts forth that concentration is overrated and that we need to let our minds wander to reach new heights of creativity. In “Ulysses” Joyce has an amazing ability to capture the wandering mind with his prose. The characters feel like they truly come alive as the dialog is seamlessly interspersed with the distractions and meanderings of their thoughts. I am amazed at Joyce’s ability to capture so closely the “feel” of how the mind wanders. Maybe this “feeling” is due to some of the same ideas in the Fisher’s article…it is just how our mind “wants to work”. It is what is truly needed by our cognitive processes in order to be able to properly cope with the flood of information that is continually coming at us. In Christensen’s work, rather than a human mind requiring the distractions to be able to cope, it is the product development entity of a corporation. In order for a corporation to flourish with continuous innovation, it must be able to be “distracted” by smaller disruptive technologies and markets, all while continuing to maintain it’s core business. I’ve tried to follow this type of development strategy ever since being introduced to the Third Generation R&D concept back at Arthur D. Little. Part of the recommendation there was to always make sure some amount of your budget is allocated to the long haul of developing “the next big thing”, even if it is not contributing to this year’s profits.

I’m not saying that focus is not important. Clearly distractions at a personal and corporate level are important, but like everything else in life, moderation would seem to be prudent. Otherwise we would always…wait, what was I just writing about?

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.

value

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.

second act

Well today I wake up to the reality that First Act has decided to go a different direction without me and I find myself once again on the job hunt. It was a fun two and a half years.  Power Gig was unfortunately not the success we had all hoped for but the guitar peripheral was a great technical feat and I am proud of that. The latest foray was in microphones with the RFID-enabled toy Voice Rockrz and the iPad karoke pair: Soulo and Disney Spotlight. Hopefully they’ll do well for the company over this holiday season. I’ll miss most of the other products as well… Disney and Nickelodeon keyboards, drumpads, etc. and all of the new products we’ve brainstormed, some of which will hopefully see the light of day soon. …and what do I do with my new home-time? spend an hour stacking wood and then crack open my brand new Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, conveniently with a well-rated solitaire play…

change

The needle on the Melancholy gauge is somewhere in the light-blue colored “high” range today as I get ready for my last day at my current job. My experience has been that is far better to leave a job on your own terms than not (I’ve left many on both) but this one definitely comes with some…feelings. I really enjoyed my time at ThingMagic and while the position ultimately did not go where I was headed I felt that I got a lot of good work done there. I like my co-workers and will miss the blend of humor and deep thinking at the lunch table. In a little under two weeks I start anew at First Act. Change is good they say and this one sure will be good but not without a side of sad.

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