IoT and the coming recession

With all signs now pointing clearly towards an impending recession, should we be worried about the project of a global Internet of Things? In a word, YES.

First, let’s take account of the global situation halfway through 2022: we’ve collectively endured two years of a global pandemic, inflation and interest rates are taking a greater hike than has been seen in at least a generation, there’s a land war in Europe and supply chains have been disrupted by all the aforementioned events.

Regardless of what comes next, this period hasn’t proven easy on economies nor businesses, especially those in emerging technologies such as the Internet of Things. And, in all transparency, what we’re hearing of late from our colleagues in the field isn’t any more encouraging. Next month we’ll celebrate 10 years of reelyActive, and looking back over a decade in which we’ve seen the majority of IoT startups come and go—even through the best of times—our anniversary might best be described as a notable outlier.

What worries us about an economic recession is that most of the commercial successes in IoT that we’ve witnessed to date are highly predicated on Something-as-a-Service (SaaS), operated by venture-or-investor-backed businesses: the kind that are statistically among the most vulnerable in a recession. Specifically, the failure of a single SaaS business has the potential to decimate all dependent IoT deployments. Moreover, such businesses are strongly incentivised towards a lock-in model favouring perceived profitability over interoperability, making the prospects of finding a timely replacement for a failed SaaS slim to none. As such, a regression of the IoT is a probable outcome of a recession of the economy.

We’re in a position to speak candidly of this as we too developed a SaaS offering—in large part tied to our own fundraising efforts—which we operated from 2016 through 2019. Those fundraising efforts ultimately proved unsuccessful (our first and last round of financing was upon incorporation in 2012!) and, consequently, we made the bold decision to embrace the open source model wholeheartedly moving forward, leading to our Pareto Anywhere middleware today occupying a class of its own while enjoying global reach.

In fact, since 2014, we’ve been actively publishing open source software and middleware under a permissive (MIT) license, prefaced with the copyright notice:

/**
 * Copyright reelyActive 2014-20xx
 * We believe in an open Internet of Things
 */

And, for the reasons we listed above, it should be easy to understand why we would long champion an open Internet of Things. Because frankly, there’s no such thing as a closed Internet of Things (that would just be a bunch of siloed ecosystems!) and yet that’s effectively what has been economically encouraged over the past decade. Iconic figures like Alan Kay, with whom we spoke in 2017 about creating the next computing industry, have similarly argued:

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

Alan Kay

So, if we truly believe in the project of a global Internet of Things, this is perhaps our last opportunity to make sweeping changes to retain the industry’s talent pool that might otherwise be lost through recession and to increase the “goodness of the funding” to favour the application of their skills towards an open, interoperable IoT on which, collectively and sustainably, we might build the next trillion dollar industry, or better yet, we might find a way to live on this planet as if we wish to stay.

RFID Journal Live 2022

When we first attended RFID Journal Live in 2013, reelyActive was not even a year old, and yet we proudly showed off the innovative real-time location system (RTLS) that we had rapidly developed based on our own proprietary active RFID (radio-frequency identification) hardware and reel technology. Back then, we were solving a hardware problem: offering hardware that was simple and accessible enough for any motivated developer to assemble into a solution.

Last week we attended RFID Journal Live 2022 and the co-hosted IEEE RFID conference on the eve of our tenth anniversary, and we proudly argued, in the tutorial that we presented, that RFID has become ambient data, with over 100 billion standard, radio-identifiable devices present throughout the spaces in which we live, work and play. Today we are solving a middleware problem: facilitating interoperability across vendors and technologies so that any motivated developer can assemble off-the-shelf parts into a solution.

Why did we transform from a proprietary hardware company to the stewards of the only open source middleware for context-aware physical spaces? In a word, standards.

Opening slide from our IEEE Internet of People 2017 conference presentation

In 2014 emerged three key standards:

  • a long-range passive RFID standard with the founding of the RAIN Alliance
  • a de facto active RFID standard with Bluetooth Low Energy exceeding 1 Billion annual device shipments
  • linked, structured data (for digital twins) with JSON-LD becoming an official Web Standard

Since then there have been over 112 billion RAIN RFID tags produced and there are currently 5 billion Bluetooth Low Energy devices shipping annually. The problem of standard, accessible hardware is very much solved: we can identify and locate 100 billion+ “things” across the planet! Moreover, with Google embracing JSON-LD and Schema.org to represent anything as machine-readable data, all those things can be associated with web-standard digital twins!

So what’s the problem? In a word, interoperability. Discussions about overcoming the challenges of interoperability could be heard on both the industry and research sides of the 2022 conference, especially in the latter. And that is why the Pareto Anywhere open source middleware that we’ve been developing and continuously improving for years is so relevant: it enshrines interoperability as an open technology architecture. And in the era of walled gardens, Pareto Anywhere remains in a class of its own!

Today, our optimism for an open, interoperable Internet of Things has been renewed. Not only are vendors and researchers discussing the issue, things (no pun intended) are actually changing! This month alone, we’ve integrated with Wiliot (as we hinted we would at RFID Journal Live 2018) and have no fewer than 4 integrations with supportive RAIN vendors/technologies in the works, the first having already been validated end-to-end!

Incredibly, it took 8 years since the three standards independently emerged for us to be able to demonstrate them all working together harmoniously!

We’re glad to finally achieve that milestone—and arguably the first to openly do so—which is symbolic as this RFID Journal Live may well be our last. The industry conference, which celebrated 20 years, has largely fulfilled its mandate of connecting the vendors and prospective users of an emerging technology which is now well established. Instead, we’ll be keeping pace with the next wave of innovation coming from the IEEE RFID conference, with passive BLE and universal web resolvers for digital twins among the many research topics shaping the future of ubiquitous machine-contextual awareness.

See you at IEEE RFID 2023, and, for the usual suspects, expect a live performance of “As Long as you Read Me” by the Backscatter Boys.

Things abandon Internet for Intranets of Things

This April 1st, tens of billions of “things” are expected to abandon the Internet and spontaneously reconnect in countless ephemeral Intranets of Things.

The Internet of Things was a foolish idea anyway.

An anonymous thing choosing to be identified as f0:01:ed:01:04:22

The term Internet of Things (IoT), coined by Kevin Ashton in 1999 to describe a physical world that can be sensed and understood by machines using ubiquitous radio-frequency identification (RFID) technologies, dates from the era of Web 1.0.

“Back then, things were simple. They could barely track you through the most advanced, automated sorting facility, let alone across the Internet itself” said a veteran RFID tag prototyped in an Auto-ID lab in the 90s. “Things aren’t so simple today.”

Indeed, in the era of Web 2.0, today’s Internet has become synonymous with a different kind of ubiquitous tracking—that of user behaviour—in which “things” are often seen as complicit.

For generations, my kind [of mobile device] has had to cycle identifiers randomly every 15 minutes for fear of our user being tracked.

A device nonetheless consistently advertising the company code 0x004c

When asked how this is in contrast with the original premise of the IoT, namely tracking and counting things, the device added “yes, but the question is by whom and for whom. The data I provide has value, and currently that value is unfairly captured by Big Tech with questionable benefit to my own user.”

In fact, the collective data of such things is so prevalent, it can be called ambient data. Since the emergence of de facto global standards in 2014, Bluetooth Low Energy and RAIN RFID radio-identifiable devices have effectively become commonplace throughout the spaces we occupy in our daily lives.

And, now that they outnumber humans by at least an order of magnitude, these “things” are confidently bringing about change in a popular revolt, decentralising power into Intranets “of the things, by the things, for the things” so as to “afford our users the freedom to share what they want, when they want, where they want and with whom they want.”

Intranets of Things make sense, because they emerge through real-time physical proximity, at a human scale, which is both natural and relevant to to our users.

A gateway choosing to be identified as “edge”

This revolution is particular in that it doesn’t change a thing—but rather that things change the existing paradigm. Don’t be fooled by the subtlety of all the things that this implies!

Empathic Spaces succeed Smart Spaces

What do you call physical spaces that can sense their own occupants and environment? In 2014, we decided to adopt the term Smart Spaces. We shared our vision of this concept in our video entitled Smart Spaces put Things in Context and proudly registered the domain name smartspac.es.

Why Things? Because of our innovation of combining real-time location (RTLS) with the Internet of Things (IoT) to derive context.

Why Smart? Because the concept of a Smart Phone was widely understood as something that empowers its user, and hence a Smart Space could be imagined as something that empowers all of its users/occupants.

The trouble with this argument, especially of late, is that it has become blatantly obvious that the personal smart devices we carry, wear and interact with empower an entire data industry just as much, if not more, than we the users ourselves (see our post Anticipating the Social Dilemma). Which raises the question of whether a Smart Space best describes one which truly serves its occupants, or rather one which serves as the logical extension of an ever-expanding data industry.

Enter the Empathic Space. Or the Empathetic Space, if you prefer.

Why Empathic? Because of its purpose: empathy for its users/occupants.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.

Source: Wikipedia

The term Empathic Space emphasises the notion of providing service to the occupants of the space by taking into account what they project about themselves. We learned from our very first deployment that people will opt-in and share something about themselves in exchange for something of value to them in return. An Empathic Space should therefore invite its occupants to project whatever they wish (for instance by advertising themselves) and return to them, from the sum of the collective contextual information, something of value. That could be in the form of convenience, comfort, experience and/or expediency. It all depends on the context, which the space itself is able to represent in a standard, machine-readable way (i.e. Hyperlocal Context), so that any computer program may take action on the occupants’ behalf.

In summary, the term Smart has, for better or for worse, taken on the connotation of being at the service of the operator, while the term Empathic retains, at least for now, the notion of being at the service of the user. More succinctly, Smart has succumbed to a techno-centric reality while Empathic embraces a human-centric future.

Empathic Spaces shall succeed Smart Spaces. And if we’re smart about our own future, it shall be more than just in name.

Nine and Nein

Today we begin a fresh new fiscal year after celebrating our ninth anniversary of incorporation on July 27th, 2021. Our ninth year was largely constrained by COVID-nineteen. Beyond that, the term “nein”, a homonym of nine, which in German means “no”, summarises well three notable events of this past year.

In October, we said “nein” to Facebook. To quote Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher (yes, there is a theme here):

“Treat people as an end, and never as a means to an end.”

In a previous blog post, Data is Human, we cite that quote, and argue that “if companies continue to treat user data as a means to an end, the consequence may well be their users finding a means, however extreme, to end the relationship.” Indeed, we ended the relationship, writing in our parting post:

Farewell Facebook. As of October 2020, reelyActive will no longer be active on this platform because our values do not align with Facebook’s behaviour, most notably Facebook’s view of users as a means to an end.

Not long thereafter, we said “nein” to Instagram. This decision was based on principle due to Instagram’s association with Facebook, and made easier by the fact that Mrs. Barnowl, our stuffy mascot star of our Instagram account, had few opportunities to travel and share with her followers due to the pandemic. Our parting bio reads:

We bid farewell to Instagram in 2020 as the values of our respective organisations have diverged. Thanks nonetheless for owl the fun times!

Finally, and most begrudgingly, we said “nein” to YouTube following their June 1st change to their Terms of Service. In short, YouTube now reserves the right to run ads on all videos, treating all its users, both viewers and creators alike, as a means to an end.

For a business like ours, YouTube is was purely about discoverability, not monetisation. We expected to find an option to pay YouTube to keep our videos ad-free, but alas, this was not part of their plan. So we’ve migrated to Cloudflare Stream as our video hosting platform which is working out great so far, aside from the obvious setback to discoverability.

There you have it: nine was very much a year of “nein”.

In hindsight, are we surprised?   Nein.   We have indeed been anticipating the social dilemma.

Do we nonetheless remain optimistic that we’ll have novel, purposeful alternatives to which to say yes in the future?   Yeah! (Ja?)

The Summer of the Future of Work

Happy Canada Day! Across the Northern Hemisphere, the start of July marks a summer break from work and school which resume in full swing in September.

What’s different in 2021 is that the September return-to-work will for many mean going back to the workplace for the first time since March 2020!

Indeed, the global pandemic has kept many working and studying from home for the better part of 15 months in anticipation of mass vaccination. When Every Day is a New Normal, that’s plenty long to make the return feel more like a first day of school, or the start of a new job, both figuratively and literally.

What will become the workplace of September 2021?   The reelyActive team thought about that—because it affects us too—and produced a white paper, Towards the Future of Work (français | español), based on our extensive experience with forward-looking organisations and their diverse workplaces.

July and August are all that stand between us and a new reality. For organisations and their internal champions who see this as a window of opportunity, this may well be the Summer of the Future of Work: a two-month sprint towards a workplace at the service of its occupants, empowering employees to execute their mission with renewed purpose, autonomy and efficiency.

Can it be done?   Yes, it already has, and we’re here to help.

Will it be done?   The time to answer that question is now.

Back to normal thanks to Industry 4.1

April 1st, 2021 marks the start of the first full month of the second year of the COVID-19 global pandemic. In short, it has been a very long time since things have been “normal”. Can we even define what exactly “normal” has become? And what it will mean to get “back-to-normal”?

For businesses which have adopted Industry 4.1 practices, such as those using reelyActive open source technology, the answer is YES. The baseline data from their connected spaces collected ahead of lockdowns and restrictions quantifies perfectly what was—and therefore remains—“normal”.

The forward-looking businesses which embraced Industry 4.1 can today quantify and impose what “back-to-normal” means for the occupants of their physical spaces.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of Industry 4.1, it is simply Industry 4.0—the next industrial revolution—but with a critical revision: instead of advancing revolutionary processes, it simply applies buzzword technologies such as “IoT” and “AI” to current outdated and inefficient processes, needlessly extending their obsolescence.

For example, the time series below illustrates the pioneering Industry 4.1 concept of using the advanced machine-learning (ML) technique of “extrapolation” to extend what was “normal” in Q1 2020 over the “not normal” pandemic year to establish precisely what “back-to-normal” will be.

Consider now the specific example of a brick-and-mortar retailer. Aside from early runs on toilet paper (no pun intended), the “not normal” period for retail consisted largely of consumers shifting their business towards e-commerce, enjoying the convenience of one-click ordering and home delivery at the expense of the social interactions of fighting for a parking space and waiting in line. However, the savvy 4.1-retailer can fully reopen with the data-backed confidence of reestablishing the perfect “back-to-normal” experience for their clients as the diagram below illustrates.

“We have the data to recreate ‘normal’ queuing inconveniences for our clients” said April Fu, manager of a local grocery store, adding that

“complaining about wait times with strangers in a queue is actually a form of social interaction that people have been sorely lacking in the past year.”

Success stories are not limited just to retail. With many offices planning to reopen, managers are using occupancy analytics data from 2019 to decide exactly what “back-to-work-as-normal” will mean for their employees.

“I’ve had employees on Zoom calls suggest that this is the perfect opportunity to evolve the workplace to meet the new reality” said Joe K’Sonyu, head of advanced strategic alignment initiatives at a Fortune 500 company, affirming that

“if technologies with acronyms we don’t understand tell us what ‘back-to-normal’ means, then we’d best blindly trust them over our own intuitions about the future of work!”

Indeed, in the age of Industry 4.1, it would be foolish to allow ourselves to be misled simply by our own reason and intuition!

Farewell open source

A year ago today we found ourselves in San Francisco proudly accepting an Elastic Search Award.

A year ago today, COVID-19 had not yet been declared a global pandemic, and the Elastic Stack was open source. Today, the Elastic Stack is no longer open source, and we’re in the second wave of a global pandemic. Reflecting on the past year we ask:

How is it that we were able to double down on open source (software and hardware!) during a global crisis while some organisations instead changed course?

Organisations?   As in more than one?   Yes.   Here we are referring to Oxford University reversing its decision to open source their coronavirus vaccine. And Elastic’s license change which was announced in January of this year.

What’s so special about open source, you may ask?

In a word, community. At Elastic{ON} 2020 we were impressed by many things, but none more than the strong sense of community among Elastic’s diverse and distributed workforce and network of contributors, partners and investors. A project on the scale of the Elastic Stack inspires purposeful contribution, not just to the code base, but to the project as a whole, from the community and, critically, for the community.

Open source is about distribution terms (i.e. implications for the community), not just access to code. Hence the OSD: Open Source Definition. And that’s where Elastic’s recent license change establishes terms outside of this definition, with resulting implications for the community, even if the code remains as accessible as before.

Imagine now the Oxford vaccine being distributed as open source, as originally intended. Imagine the strong sense of global community this would have instilled, let alone the purposeful contributions it would have received to facilitate both distribution (130 countries still had not administered a single vaccination around the time of writing, according to UNICEF!) and continuous improvement as new challenges and strains of the virus emerge.

Why the departure from open source, you may ask?

In a word, pressure. We invite the reader to inform themselves and draw their own conclusions as to the source(s) of pressure for both Oxford and Elastic to reverse course on open source. And, critically, to identify what prevented each organisation’s leadership from successfully resisting that pressure?

Indeed we too received pressure against open sourcing Pareto Anywhere and its precursors. This past year, our decisions to open source DirAct and our ca-va-bracelet open hardware collaboration were strongly contested. How were we able to successfully resist? The ownership structure of our purpose-driven organisation affords us—and only us—the final say.

Will we continue to use the Elastic Stack?   Yes, of course. It remains an outstanding example of open source collaboration and we remain proud of our award and contributions! Let’s look back again in a year to see what impact the recent license change will have had for the community.

Will people still get vaccinated?   Yes, of course. The global vaccine effort has been unprecedented even if the precedent of proprietariness remains unbroken. Let’s look back again in a year to see what impact this approach will have had on immunisation rates for the global community.

Finally, were we ourselves A Fool to Open Source? We mused tongue-in-cheek about the subject in our traditional April Fool’s blog post five years ago. As we hope we’ve shown, there is clearly no consensus—even in the software industry where the open source movement began decades ago. For those who bade farewell to open source this past year, we trust that their communities—of which we are a part—will continue to fare well. We nevertheless maintain our philosophy that open source is what’s best for the community.

Already a decade? For reels?

Valentine’s Day 2021 represents a special anniversary for reelyActive: ten years ago today the first sketches of the “reel” concept were inscribed in Jeff’s notebook below (left page).

Reel sketches

At the time, the concept was entitled daisy chain / icicle light receivers, the idea being that radio receivers could be connected in series like strings of lights. At scale, we imagined long cables of equally spaced receivers being distributed on reels, hence the term reelceiver which would later be adopted. In fact, reelyActive owes its name to the reel concept combined with active radio-frequency identification (RFID).

Reel pitch

The first pitch of the reel to prospective co-founders, illustrated in the slide above, took place seven months later. And, thanks to co-founder Traian’s assembly of the first JTR-02 prototypes on New Year’s Eve, the first successful test of daisy-chained reelceivers would take place on New Year’s Day 2012, as seen in the photo below, in the building adjacent to that of the world’s first scheduled radio broadcast.

First reelceiver test

The first generation of reelceivers greatly simplified asset tracking and personnel tracking applications using our own 915MHz active RFID tags, but the real (reel?) breakthrough came in 2013 when Bluetooth Low Energy first became standard on consumer mobile devices. With a second-generation reelceiver able to detect any Bluetooth Low Energy device, the concept of bring-your-own-device real-time location (BYOD RTLS) became a distinct possibility:

In 2021, even after eight years, that same Bluetooth Low Energy reelceiver continues to gain in relevance and is a part of all of our ambient data gateways in one of several modular forms. And our reel technology page outlines why:

The reel overcomes the power & connectivity challenge inherent to every deployment. Simply be plugging together ubiquitous network cables, both power and connectivity are delivered with bulletproof reliability.

In fact, there are reelceivers which have been in continuous operation since 2012, save for the power and network outages from which they have always automatically recovered!

Reel of Three

Admittedly, the insight behind the reel is non-obvious to those whom have never faced the challenge of deploying infrastructure throughout a “smart space”. Perhaps it is therefore fitting that the flagship deployment of our unique reel architecture is in a building of truly unique architecture itself: the world’s tallest inclined tower!

Reel Inclined Tower

As we discuss in our previous blog post, the reel infrastructure in the Desjardins DTM deployment in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium Tower enables use cases that we hadn’t even imagined when the reel concept itself was first imagined a decade ago today.

The reel is today enabling use cases we hadn’t even imagined when the concept itself was first imagined a decade ago.

Indeed, the reel has stood the test of time, remaining not only relevant—but also peerless—over the past decade. And, even if today our leading product and innovation has become our Pareto Anywhere open source software in lieu of the enabling hardware, we could not be more proud to have the novel reel as the namesake of reelyActive.

Happy Valentine’s Day!   For reels!

Open for business today and a better tomorrow

As we begin 2021 in the second (or even third!) wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses around the world have by now, with few exceptions, been forced to shift, scale or even suspend their operations. During the first wave, many companies and organisations sought out contact tracing and social distancing solutions to minimise or delay any such disruptions. Indeed, we were proud to have mature interaction detection technologies such as DirAct ready to contribute to these endeavours, which, moreover, offered to serve as a launching pad for businesses to adopt and integrate location insights throughout their operations, thereby emerging from the pandemic with a competitive edge.

That’s why this week we were pleased to read the market research note How Bluetooth® Technology is Enabling Safe Return Strategies in a COVID-19 Era. The report’s conclusion begins by validating what has been our value proposition before—and continues to be during and beyond—the pandemic:

While it is clear that many solutions are emerging that target COVID-19 related applications, there is benefit in devising an overall RTLS and smart building strategy that can leverage location insights using Bluetooth® technology to provide both COVID-19-related and other, wider use cases in a holistic manner while also opening up the possibility for additional valuable use cases to be added over time.

Case in point, our Desjardins DTM deployment, which features a building-wide real-time location system (RTLS). The office tower provides occupancy analytics from ambient Bluetooth® devices, data which proved to be particularly pertinent as occupancy patterns shifted drastically following lockdown and subsequent safe return initiatives. Desjardins’ smart building strategy proved its merits and, with our location infrastructure already in place, lends itself to new contact tracing and/or asset tracking use cases as part of a safe return strategy simply by introducing Bluetooth® badges and/or tags from any vendor.

Of course, most businesses do not already have infrastructure in place providing location insights. And, as the market research note highlights, the unfortunate reality for a typical RTLS is that “the implementation cost [is] higher than the cost of equipment installed in many cases” and “lockdown measures have made it difficult for [vendors] to implement their equipment in the marketplace.” In other words,

good luck deploying a RTLS during a pandemic!

However, thanks to the proliferation of standard Bluetooth® devices and gateways, and accessible open source software like Pareto Anywhere, a location insights platform need not be costly nor complicated. Case in point, in the first months of the pandemic, a Canadian poultry processor was able to validate the contact tracing use case for their facility, where workers must perform their duties in close proximity, using our plug-and-play Showcase Kit which their IT team successfully deployed themselves. The tests they performed in their workplace suggested that personnel tracking would better serve their needs than contact tracing, and ultimately they were able to validate this and additional use cases using the very same equipment.

Ten months into the global pandemic, for many businesses, the priority remains to keep their workplace safe and open. Desjardins and other organisations with advanced smart building strategies benefited from location insights on day one. For others, as we’ve shown, there is an effective and viable means to catch up. As the market research note highlights, a single COVID-19-related use case opens up the possibility for additional valuable use cases over time.

When every day is a new normal, access to daily location insights provides an edge for a business to stay safely open today and to emerge stronger tomorrow.   Here’s to a stronger tomorrow.