Light hears ahead of its time

Back in 2013 when the Internet of Things was peaking on the hype-cycle — and all too often described using contrived smart home examples — this was perhaps our favourite way to explain the IoT:

You find yourself having to relocate from Montréal to San Francisco, but no sweat. Computers have already identified the things in your home you’ll want to take along. Computers have located and procured replacements near your destination. And what can’t be replaced they will ship there as efficiently as possible. Finally, those items you don’t use, they’ve already posted online for sale. Relax and enjoy your journey!

Far-fetched?   Not if buildings were able to identify and locate their occupants, including the everyday items worth moving or replacing!

This week, the proverbial light bulb just went off (yes, brace for more such puns). Lunera announced the transformation of the LED light bulb.

Lunera Smart T8

Is theirs the first smart light bulb?   No.   How then is this transformative? Lunera’s light bulb is the first that’s smart enough to listen.

Today there are billions of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) devices occupying the buildings in which we live. These include the laptop on which I’m typing, the smartphone in my pocket, the wearable on my wrist and even the chair on which I’m sitting! All you need to do is listen, which is what our platform does to identify and locate such devices: effectively BYOD RTLS.

Indeed, our own infrastructure has been listening since 2013. We’ve learned a lot since then, patiently waiting for a brilliant solution to the pervasive infrastructure challenge. What’s so exciting today about being a Lunera launch partner is the fact that lighting is the ubiquitous in-building infrastructure. At the flip of a switch, a building can begin to measure the real world like the web.

Kevin Ashton, who coined the term IoT, defined it as:

computers [understanding] the world — without the limitations of human-entered data

Are BLE and smart lighting not building toward that on an unprecedented scale? Is that not the magic behind our example of the transcontinental move? Is that itself not akin to a Pervasive Sharing Economy?   That’s what happens when light hears ahead of its time!

Creating the next computing industry

How often do you interact with computers in a day? Likely on more occasions than you can count or even recognise! Can you remember a time when you didn’t interact with computers on a daily basis?

We’ve just added to our bibliography The Dream Machine, which recounts in splendid detail the history of interactive computing. It may come as a surprise that the essence of our modern computing paradigm (graphical user interfaces, personal computing, laser printing, Ethernet, …) was in working prototype form by the mid-seventies, the fruit of 5 years of corporate-funded research at Xerox PARC preceded by 8 years of government-funded research across US institutions through ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office.

The first director of that office, and the central figure in the book, is J.C.R. Licklider. Two years prior to taking that office, “Lick” would publish his vision of Man-Computer Symbiosis, envisaging the tight coupling of human brains and computing machines. Given that reelyActive’s vision can be summarised as computing machines understanding the world without reliance on human brains — arguably an extension of his vision — we asked ourselves what lessons we can learn from the history of interactive computing?

Coincidentally, we’ve had the recent pleasure of interacting with two key figures from the book: Vint Cerf and Alan Kay. Cerf’s three pillars for the IoT and his three-pronged call to action, which we discussed in Vint Cerf and the Good Fight for the IoT, resonate even stronger in light of this history. And Kay so eloquently reminded us:

“the goodness of the results is most highly correlated with the goodness of the funding”

Creating a whole new industry, as Kay and his colleagues effectively achieved at PARC, was contingent on good funding served with a good dose of patience: “I’ve never heard of VCs being interested in time frames like that”.

While Kay’s concern is very much consistent with our experiences fundraising as a startup, it is not without exceptions. In our blog post Investing in a Value-First Sharing Economy we highlighted an emerging investment philosophy best described as a two-step process:

  1. create the industry, open to competition
  2. out-execute any competition by leveraging the experience/goodwill gained

Clearly Xerox failed at Step 2 (the book examines this in detail). Incredibly, they’re not even the only textbook case among corporations headquartered in Rochester, NY! Remember Kodak and digital photography? Armed with so many lessons from history, especially concerning the execution of Step 2, would we not again expect good results from good funding, regardless of the funding source?

It has been four decades since the PARC breakthrough. The iPhone has now been around for a decade, today “tightly coupling” (or not!) our primary human-computer interaction through a 5″ screen. It is difficult to argue that this is the culmination of Licklider’s vision, but rather easy to argue that we’re (over)due for the next trillion-dollar computing industry. Goodness! With history as our collective guide, all that seems to be missing is some good funding sprinkled with a pinch of patience!

Fear Not Distribution that Works

We recently attended the inaugural Digital Future of Work Summit at NYU where Michael Chui, Partner at the McKinsey Global Institute emphatically responded to a question saying:

I’m more afraid of income inequality than I am of Skynet!

Two weeks later, we attended the IEEE RFID Conference in Phoenix where Professor Katina Michael equally emphatically responded to a question saying:

I’m afraid that [Skynet] will exacerbate the problem of income inequality!

¡Hasta la vista, middle class! Will that really be the outcome of pervasive computing and the IoT? Because you can argue that we are building the equivalent of Skynet, the collective machine intelligence antagonist in the Terminator film franchise, albeit with the opposite intent — our vision is ubiquitous machine-contextual-awareness at the service of humanity.

What we see instead is the emergence of a Pervasive Sharing Economy which will empower resources, both material and human, to advertise and optimise their utility. And the pioneering spirit of the Internet and its proponents provides cause for optimism, as we argue in our post Vint Cerf and the Good Fight for the IoT.

Ultimately, however, financial interests will determine if and when this vision is realised. That is why we argue for Investing in a Value-First Sharing Economy. Investing in the paradigm of connecting rather than collecting information is perhaps all it takes to reverse our collective fear:

How will we distribute the unprecedented amount of value unlocked through massive gains in efficiency!

The IoT as your Brand Ambassador

Since the coining of the term Internet of Things in 1999 by Kevin Ashton, the IoT has been described in myriad ways. Just as was the case twenty years ago with the Internet, we have a habit of predicting the future of a technology by standing in the present looking forward. But what if we change that perspective and imagine ourselves in the future looking back at today? We did exactly that, as the following video shows.

For how many years have you been building your digital brand on the Internet? Take a moment to imagine your digital self.

In cyberspace, you’re known as your digital self, your digital brand. In “meatspace”, you’re known as your physical self, a brand that millions of years of evolution as social animals has hard-wired us humans to both advertise and recognise. We’ve adapted to live in both of these worlds. And, in our futuristic hindsight, the Internet of Things is arguably the Internet’s adaptation to join us in the “meatspace” world.

Last month we showed how The Physical Web just got Personal, how you can today advertise your digital self on the same scale as your physical self, whenever and wherever you choose. You already have in your hand (or on your wrist) the technology to advertise your digital brand. So when and how will the IoT emerge as your brand ambassador, calmly delivering the right information at the right place at the right time?

Fortunately, we’re not alone in asking that question. In The Bank of Personal Data we discussed how Dr. Roberto Minerva, like us, argues for a broker model. And when you consider how much of your digital brand is locked up in the siloed “vaults” of social media platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn, e-commerce platforms from Amazon to niche brands, VC-backed grow-your-user-base-then-monetise apps, digital health platforms such as Fitbit and, of course, the almighty Google, expect an epic battle between these and emerging players to establish the dominant currency and exchange for this information, your information, in the real world in real time.

We conclude our video arguing that the (post-battle) IoT will make you a superhuman in the real world. It’s not the first time we’ve used that word, case in point our 2013 post IxD, the Superhuman and the Superorganism. Only recently, however, has the “how” come into focus, and we now see “what”, from a human perspective, the IoT may very well prove to be: a personal brand ambassador for each and every one of us.

Investing in a Value-First Sharing Economy

Last month we had the pleasure of reading The Sharing Economy and subsequently meeting the author, Arun Sundararajan, with whom we shared our praise, at the New Cities Summit. The book, which we’ve added to our bibliography, eloquently ties together many of our pioneering thoughts on innovation and economics, which we’ll discuss here, starting with the economics which Sundararajan frames as follows:

The sharing economy, although not politically neutral, is creating a new economic model – an interesting middle ground between capitalism and socialism – that also appears to lend itself to fulfilling the desires and needs of people who identify with the extreme ends of both the economic and political spectrums. More importantly, it has developed an economic model that appears to lend itself to fulfilling the desires and needs of people who identify with neither of those extremes.

Conceptually, it seem paradoxical that a new economic model can benefit both those closest to and furthest from the extremes of traditional models. But, as we highlight in our blog post on the Pervasive Sharing Economy, scepticism wanes as even companies that have been notoriously slow to adapt are defying expectations:

General Motors, a company that long ago conspired to derail public transit to boost private vehicle ownership, just bet $500M on Lyft anticipating the end of said ownership!

In that post we argue that while the current sharing economy is largely limited to higher-value underutilised assets such as vehicles and real-estate, the proliferation of Internet of Things technologies will extend the marketplace to include the majority of everyday things from clothing to tools and beyond. However, unlocking this enormous potential is predicated on a significant investment in technology and infrastructure, a proposition which is today typically met with resistance. But such attitudes are clearly evolving, as evidenced by the book’s citation of a post by Brad Burnham of Union Square Ventures discussing their investment in OB1 which develops the enabling technologies for OpenBazaar, “a free market for all with no fees or restrictions”:

How can a business that is consciously architected to undo network effect defensibility, one that is tearing down the walls and filling in the moats that every paper on market based competition has insisted are necessary for success … succeed?
OB1 will offer a set of value added services to buyers and sellers […] and they don’t expect to have any proprietary advantage over those competitors. As investors, we hope that their familiarity with the marketplace and the goodwill they generate as early sponsors of the open source project will give them an advantage but we understand they must execute very well or be left behind. (link)

While it is both refreshing and motivating, as startup entrepreneurs, to witness this shift in attitudes towards investment, we must point out that it is not access to capital alone which is gating progress. Policies and protocols play an equally important role as Sundararajan’s quote of Albert Wenger, also of Union Square Ventures, this time discussing Bitcoin, highlights:

Policy makers, however, need to understand the importance of protocols for enabling distributed permission-less innovation – that is innovation by many individuals and startups. For instance, the hypertext transport protocol (http) is what lets a browser talk to a web server – as long as the server implements the protocol it can deliver innovative content or services to any browser. HTTP itself builds on many other lower level protocols, such as DNA and TCP/IP. Historically, protocols have emerged from either research projects or from individuals / small groups simply throwing something out that sticks. (link)

Case in point, Vint Cerf, co-inventor of TCP/IP, and currently VP & Chief Internet Evangelist for Google, who we recently had the pleasure of meeting at an IEEE science conference. As we argue in Vint Cerf and the Good Fight for the IoT: “in our opinion, he is one of the few individuals applying a long-term vision to balance what’s optimal and what’s profitable for the still nascent Internet of Things”. Cerf equally argues for permissionless innovation. Without the Internet-enabling TCP/IP protocol he co-invented as a researcher, Google’s highly profitable business could not exist! At reelyActive, we thus stand by our approach of publishing protocols as science, upon which we build our innovative business, driven to execute very well or be left behind!

In the coming weeks reelyActive will celebrate its fourth anniversary. One might say that we’ll celebrate having survived four years (see threelyActive), as indeed our hybrid approach hasn’t made life easy under the existing paradigm. Nonetheless, the recent developments discussed in this post and in the book are enormously encouraging. So, what is the next economic paradigm? On that topic, Sundararajan argues the following, paraphrasing Douglass North:

[H]istory suggests that it is neither possible nor economically viable to simply adopt existing rules and apply them to a new economy. The challenge, then, is to determine what comes next.

What comes next is a value-first approach. Investment in the projects and startups developing enabling technologies, including the underlying open protocols, will unlock massive value, generated through permissionless innovation by their peers; value that will lend itself to fulfilling the desires and needs of people across the political-economic spectrum. Investment in massive value creation is Phase 1. Embracing this approach, investors, be they private, institutional or government, need only find a clever means to collect their fair share of the resultant massive value in order to profit more handsomely than could ever be afforded by the current economic paradigm.

LPLAN as amenaBLE to M2M as LPWAN

This week we attended the Wavefront IoT Roadshow where much of this year’s hype was around LPWAN technologies which allow simple, inexpensive radio devices to communicate short messages with cellular base stations kilometers away. An excellent example of the potential of this technology is the SMOCKEO smoke detector which automatically and securely communicates status and alerts to the Internet via the SigFox LPWA network — without any network configuration required. Curious about their optimism surrounding ubiquitous LPWAN adoption, we asked the final panel of experts when they’d expect such devices to be able to connect seamlessly anywhere in the world, if ever? Crickets…

Indeed, there are several competing standards for LPWAN including SigFox, LoRa and LTE-M, and the panel shared little optimism that any single one would cover all geographies. So for all the hype around long-range IoT, it is, at least currently, still very much relegated to niche applications of early adopters in select regions. And this makes us scratch our head as to why the complementary concept of Low Power Local Area Networks (LPLAN) doesn’t even come up in a Google search! Allow us to explain.

LoRa and SigFox versus Bluetooth Low Energy

Today there are billions of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) devices across the planet:

  • like in LPWAN, these can spontaneously transmit short messages to any receivers that might be in range
  • they use the 2.4GHz unlicensed global ISM band
  • sure, they’re limited to a range on the order of tens of meters, but
  • there are billions of nearby Internet-connected candidate BLE “base stations”, any recent mobile phone, laptop or set-top box is an example

In other words, there are, today, several orders of magnitude more devices technically capable of living up to the LPWAN hype, only with significantly reduced range.

Not convinced on the potential of BLE LPLAN? Consider Tile and TrackR which for at least two years now have in effect operated such (albeit siloed) networks which connect any of their devices to the Internet via their mobile app. In other words, an unpaired Tile will periodically send packets that any BLE device in range can receive and decode. It does so in the hope that the Tile app of any user will be in range, and if so, that packet will be forwarded to Tile’s cloud service.

In fact, reelyActive BLE infrastructure routinely picks up Tile transmissions and forwards them to the Internet. Chances are you’ll see a Tile here among plenty of other similar devices. Your SmartTV and mobile phone could act as BLE gateways just the same. Alas, the aforementioned tracking services are typically branded with limited scope as “crowd GPS”, when in fact, they could spearhead a much broader “crowd LPLAN” or “distributed M2M” (Machine-to-Machine communication) initiative.

Three years ago we published a scientific article entitled Towards a simple, versatile, distributed low-power wireless M2M infrastructure which unveiled our vision of this concept. We’ve tweeted Tile about this. Ditto for FitBit and Flic. We shared our vision with the Bluetooth SIG’s committee on IoT. We created an open library for low-power wireless advertising packets and then published our work in another scientific article entitled Low-Power Wireless Advertising Software Library for Distributed M2M and Contextual IoT. One would be hard pressed to argue that we’ve kept this to ourselves!

The question then again is why with all the LPWAN and IoT hype, if a complementary and underexploited option based on BLE exists, should the latter be subject to such deference? We press on regardless, and look forward to forwarding the packets of the first BLE device provider to request them from us!

Vint Cerf and the Good Fight for the IoT

At the 2nd IEEE World Forum on Internet of Things we had the honour and privilege to hear Vint Cerf, a true role model and one of the fathers of the Internet, present a keynote on the IoT. More than that, we had the opportunity to snap the photo above as we shook his hand and thanked him for continuing to fight the good fight for the Internet (of Things). In this blog post, we’ll conclude on that comment, after we first discuss Dr. Cerf’s three pillars for the IoT and his three-pronged call to action.

The three pillars of IoT

Pillars of the IoT

In short, (1) the IoT will be predicated on novel security and privacy mechanisms that facilitate rather than hinder the exchange of information, (2) will use open standards (much like the Internet itself), and, (3) will be experienced through more natural, human user interfaces. The following are our comments for each point:

  1. This pillar has been top of mind in every decision we’ve made since the outset, and is the reason we’ve ensured that the core of our platform processes anonymous device identifiers in real-time only (no storage). Hence all secure and private exchange of information can employ the emerging best practices on top of this core layer.
  2. Our firm belief in open standards is indeed what encouraged us to pursue science over patents early in our history, clearly an unconventional choice, as we were probably the only non-academic startup to present a paper at the conference!
  3. We’ll go as far to say that the IoT should be about No UI rather than New UI. Since Accelerator Day One we’ve championed presence-based user experiences through what we’d later refer to as invisible buttons, and we feel this is just one of the various means for humans to be seamlessly understood and engaged by technology without any conscious action required on their part.

The three-pronged call to action

Call to Action for IoT

First, we feel that the term permissionless innovation beautifully articulates what will make the IoT as dynamic, inclusive and pervasive as the Internet that Dr. Cerf himself was instrumental in animating. It’s not unlike the quote by George Whitesides that we feel is a simple mantra for the IoT:

“How do we make things as simple as we can, as cheap as we can, as functional as we can and as freely interconnectable as we can? If we make that kind of simplicity in our technology and then give it to you guys, you can go off and do all kinds of fabulous things with it.”

We made a conscious decision to keep our platform as simple yet versatile as possible, and it is one of the reasons that today we have clients and partners around the world innovating in everything from retail to parking to next-generation social networking.

Second, after an extended but patient wait, we feel that the open standards necessary to spark our arena of the IoT are finally in place. Specifically, Bluetooth Smart has emerged as the first global standard for connectionless identification, and the JSON-LD & Schema.org duo has finally (in 2015) been championed by Google, where Dr. Cerf serves as VP and Chief Internet Evangelist. These open standards facilitate the interoperability of devices and structured data, respectively, and now enable us to fully pursue our own vision in 2016.

Third, we agree that identity, access control and data management is an essential new ingredient that should be baked in to the IoT early on. Perhaps we’ll soon see the emergence of The Bank of Personal Data? Without such a mechanism, how could we in fact achieve our mission to unlock the value of the data you choose to share?

Call to Action for IoT

Why did we thank Vint Cerf for continuing to fight the good fight? In our opinion, he is one of the few individuals applying a long-term vision to balance what’s optimal and what’s profitable for the still nascent Internet of Things, and, critically, continues to have one foot firmly planted in each academia and industry. And, from our experience, it’s an essential stance that turns out to be neither an easy position nor balance to hold!

As 2015 draws to a close, we salute all those who will fight the good fight for the Internet of Things in the New Year and beyond!