Every Day is a New Normal

In the Spring of 2020, as COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, and as lockdowns ensued, the question of the day was “when will we get back to normal?”

Soon thereafter, as the unprecedented socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic became apparent, the question of the day became “what will be the new normal?”

In either case, these questions suppose a certain stable state: normal. In the former question it is the previous stable state, in the latter it is an expected future stable state. But what if normal were in fact to become an unstable state, as it often has over the course of history, both of our species and of the universe?

What if normal were to become an unstable state?

Indeed, consider the countless individuals and organisations for whom normal has already become anything but stable. Perhaps the question we should be asking today is whether every day will be a new normal?

What if every day is a new normal?

It may well be. And for some time at that. Even if history tells us we can expect an eventual return to stability, there is no certainty in how soon.

For those who embrace change, what an opportunity this period represents!

When every day is a new normal, it is normal to expect breakthrough innovation on any given day. The tireless champions of progressive policies within their organisations may see changes for which they advocated for a decade be adopted in a single decision. Agile, forward-thinking businesses will capture footholds and disrupt even seemingly invincible hegemons, wherever and whenever the incumbents are too slow or indecisive to adapt. As reality changes, so do ideas.

Speed will outpace size as a critical determinant of survival.

We incorporated reelyActive 8 years ago envisaging a radically different—and better—future enabled by technology. Looking back, our greatest challenge was not one of technology, but rather of overcoming resistance to change. To those individuals and organisations who have tenaciously endured this challenge with us, know that we’re with you. So long as every day is a new normal, every day is an opportunity for significant and meaningful progress. Let’s combine our strengths and energies to make the most of every day in this unprecedented period of time in human history.   Seriously.   Contact us.

GR8 changes ahead

It’s July 2020, and today we celebrate reelyActive’s eighth anniversary of incorporation amidst a global pandemic and a tumultuous global climate, both political and planetary. If anything is certain, it is that great changes lie ahead.

After the team flew to San Francisco in March to proudly accept an Elastic Search Award for “making physical spaces searchable like the Web,” within a matter of days, everything changed with the global spread of COVID-19. We abruptly lost our single biggest active client to bankruptcy, and, due to lockdown, lost access for visitors and prospective clients to our new Park Avenue Research Centre (connu également comme Crap), which was core to our business strategy.

We had to change our business to survive. And we did.

Businesses that are adaptive and resilient stand the best chance to survive the indefinite disruption to the economy and to their operations. Moreover, as a “new normal” emerges, such businesses are most likely to see the inevitable changes as opportunities rather than obstacles. Those businesses are now our best prospective clients.

Almost exactly one year ago we asked Are we selling discomfort? The answer is YES, and it is good that we are because buying (and selling!) comfort isn’t a viable strategy for the foreseeable future.

The businesses, organisations and individuals that will emerge the strongest are those that find their comfort in continuous change, embracing a culture of continuous improvement.

And if the “new normal” which emerges is to be led by such forward-thinking actors in critical numbers, is it too ambitious to imagine this as the definitive start of the third industrial revolution, Industry 4.0 and/or catallaxy? Many of the authors featured in our bibliography would surely argue that this essential to the advancement of humanity—if not the very survival of our species!

Again, if anything is certain, it is that great changes lie ahead. From a macro perspective, it is not difficult to argue that such change is both necessary and overdue. It’s a good time to embrace change, and we at reelyActive enter our ninth year with exactly that in mind.

Embrace the ambient data in your space

In February of 2020, we updated the one-liner of landing page to Embrace the ambient data in your space. We did this for two reasons:

  1. observing and processing all the ambient wireless packets in a space is a key differentiator of our technology platform
  2. enhancing the human experience by augmenting physical presence with digital data is core to our vision

This post is about the second. It’s about the human experience. Following the update of our one-liner, we stumbled upon a book entitled Ambient Commons, published in 2013, a year after reelyActive was founded. Having recently read the Jaron Lanier’s prescient Who Owns the Future from the same year, discussed here in our blog, we were curious what author Malcolm McCullough might argue about “attention in the age of embodied information”, the subtitle of his book.

The notion of combining physical location (using RTLS) with digital augmentation (using the Web) is one of the founding insights of reelyActive. Ambient connectivity was already an established concept at the time thanks to widespread smartphone penetration. Ambient location however was a nascent idea, at least at a human scale, and was predicated on the emergence of new technologies.

Why combine connectivity with location? Ambient Commons addresses this from the start:

May the ambient invite tuning in instead of tuning out. May it do so with an emergent sense of a whole, or at least of continuum. Continuity seems lacking in a world full of separately conceived physical entities all competing for space and attention, all without concern for what is nearby, and masked by portals, links, and signs to someplace else.

In short, ambient connectivity creates countless possibilities to divert our attention elsewhere, without concern for what is nearby. This is where ambient location can act as a filter to “tune in” to one’s physical space and context.

Can the purpose of handheld electronic media move beyond communicating for the sake of communicating, beyond tuning out so much of the world through personalizing everything, to helping someone be here now, in the sense of knowing an urban commons?

Indeed! That was top of our mind too in 2013 when we discussed Helping your smartphone “baby” grow up. But alas, despite all the years that have passed, and despite our arguing in 2017 that we might be reaching peak mobile, today in 2020 our smartphones remain as capable as ever at diverting our attention away from our here and now.

How can electronic artifice bring alive a sense of belonging to the world, and not just suggest conquest, distraction, or escape?

Fortunately, two recent technologies offer cause for optimism.

Web Bluetooth Scanning affords a webpage contextual awareness of the people, products and places located in physical proximity of the browser. We created our Pareto Anywhere web app to demonstrate what might be called “physical browsing”, shown here on our IoT Day tour of Parc.

DirAct digitises real-time interactions as we show in this video, so that computers can interpret location as “who is interacting with who/what” rather than “who is where”. Interactions are often a clear indicator of intent, which is arguably the ideal filter for digital augmentation.

The physical spaces in which we live, work and play are increasingly occupied by technologies which serve as potential sources of distraction—but also as sources of ambient data for both location and digital augmentation. By embracing the ambient wireless packet data within a physical space, as made possible by our open source software, one can foster an ambient commons encouraging occupants to “tune in” and engage with one another and their surroundings at a human scale. This ambient commons is accessible through what the book describes as atmospheres, like those we explore in our art, and not just through a mobile app or browser.

In an age of distraction engineering, you have no choice but to manage your attention more mindfully. […] A new mindfulness to context becomes no mere luxury when the world becomes augmented, and the ambient takes form.

Our world has indeed become overwhelmingly augmented, with ever more media vying for our attention. We at reelyActive have always envisaged location as a filter, which today is arguably more a necessity than a luxury. Interestingly, the proliferation of technology engineered for distraction also represents an abundant source of ambient wireless packets awaiting to be harnessed in an ambient commons. That is why we now invite you to reconnect with your here and now simply by embracing the ambient data in your space.

COVID-IoT Day

We’ve been celebrating #IoTDay since 2013, and this year is certainly the most particular, as we and our fellow global citizens all find ourselves impacted by COVID-19, declared a pandemic four weeks ago. Social distancing and stay-at-home measures mean that many people experience a sense of physical isolation, while the Internet of Things (IoT), which today we celebrate, is very much about physical connectivity.

We would have loved to welcome everyone to celebrate #IoTDay2020 in our reelyActive Parc living lab which we share with GénieLab, and that is why our initiative this year is as close to the real thing as we could get: a walkthrough of the space and its many radio-identifiable and connected “things”, augmented by a novel web application which displays their digital twins based on real-time proximity.

What’s exciting for us this year, and as you might recognise in the video, is that for the first time we can share a broadly accessible IoT experience. The reason we can do this is because of standards: there are almost certainly Bluetooth devices around you, these have digital twins (in some form) online, and you have a connection to the Internet and experience browsing the Web. We simply stitched all that together: Web meets IoT. The missing link all these years was Web Bluetooth Scanning, which allows a web browser to radio-identify the devices associated with people, products and places in proximity.

Imagine if that missing link was developed and made available almost five years ago when it was first announced (as Scanning for nearby BLE advertisements)? Imagine if the average person’s first IoT experience was simply clicking a “What’s Around Me?” button while browsing—both physically and online—a shop, allowing them to find what they’re looking for with the optimal combination of both feet and thumbs!?! Imagine if by the Web’s thirtieth birthday it had already extended to the physical fabric of our daily lives.

Imagine if the average person readily embraced the IoT as a logical extension of the Web.

We emphasise that what if? scenario because it is not difficult to imagine how a truly widespread adoption, understanding and acceptance of the IoT would greatly benefit all humanity as we collectively combat the current pandemic crisis. Consider the quote at the top of this article by Kevin Ashton, who coined the term Internet of Things in 1999, in the context of the global situation as of April 2020. Does it apply equally well to the traceability of infected patients as it does to the supply chain of personal protective equipment? It sure does.

And, fortunately, people are taking note and initiatives are taking shape. Countless independent groups have formed to tackle peer-to-peer mobile interaction detection, equipment tracking, occupancy analytics and more. We’re supporting them as broadly as we can by documenting best practices, accelerating our open source software development, sharing experiences, and of course continuing to evangelise our vision of ubiquitous machine-contextual awareness (i.e. Web + IoT) at the service of humanity.

Today, on IoT Day 2020, take the time to explain to a friend or colleague the Internet of Things in light of the current pandemic. When we emerge from this crisis, together we’ll emerge stronger, more receptive and better connected than ever, both figuratively and literally.

Oui, oui. Our office is Crap!

We kicked off 2020 in an awesome new space which we called Parc (Parc Avenue Research Centre). Perhaps because we were so backed up with work in Q1, we neglected to translate the name to French. To kick off Q2, today on April 1st, 2020, we proudly invite you to say “bonjour” to Crap, the «Centre de recherche de l’avenue du Parc» !

Crap:   le centre de recherche de l’avenue du Parc

For those less familiar with the linguistic dynamics of our native Montréal, just over half of all citizens speak French as a mother tongue, one in eight speak English as a mother tongue, and countless other languages make up the significant balance. At the office we typically speak French, when conducting international business we communicate in English and at home, often something else! The beauty of this balance being that we can offer our guests either a tour de Crap or a Parc tour, as they prefer!

That being said, the COVID-19 pandemic means our guests can’t enjoy immersing themselves in our Crap experience for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, to celebrate this Crap announcement, we’d like to share what you can expect on a Crap tour, once we’re back to regular life.

As you pass through the Crap entrance, your senses are likely to be overwhelmed by PP (Présences Périphériques), a generative art installation that transforms ambient wireless packets into sound and light sequences. In fact the entire entrance is packed solid with works by Crap artists, including the imposing face of AI See You, reminding each of us how AI is beyond Crap, pervasive in our daily lives.

Next, as you pass into the open office space, your gaze may shift to the Crap displays which highlight just how much Crap is connected. One displays the digital twins of the Crap occupants, another uses Sniffypedia to display what else our Crap contains. In this Crap corner you’ll find the reelyActive workspace where the team often work on their stools.

We share Crap with our Crap colleagues génielab., and, when their team are making a big push, you can often find their Crap projects spread throughout the rest of the space. We’re not ashamed to welcome visitors in such a Crap state as it is very much part of the Crap culture of a living lab where continuous change and emergence are celebrated, not suppressed. Otherwise we’d be showing our guests the same Crap over and over!

A Crap visit wouldn’t be complete without a peek down the hall into the workshop where one can close the door and literally make Crap without disturbing others. Next door, a sound studio is taking shape from where, once complete, signature Crap sounds will surely emanate. There’s also a Crap conference room, but, for now, it is just that: a conference room. But perhaps that will change if one of us has some Crap idea by the time we are once again able to welcome Crap guests!

That said, you’d be foolish not to add yourself to our Crap waiting list, which has been impacted by the pandemic, so get in touch! We look forward to welcoming you sooner than later at our Crap front door, the movement of which is detected by our Crap technology (really, it is). By then we’ll have plenty of Crap analytics to share with you too!

Crap jokes aside, stay healthy and maintain a sense of humour: Ça va bien aller!

Location and traceability in times of pandemic

Yesterday (March 11th, 2020), the World Health Organisation’s Director General characterised COVID-19 as a pandemic. Today, in Montréal where reelyActive is based, and around the world, many find themselves directly and personally affected by measures intended to prevent the spread of the virus, including business, institution and school closures, as well as travel restrictions and self-quarantine.

In our team’s adjustment to these changes, we are prompted to recall use cases of our technology particularly applicable to the situation in which we, and countless others, find themselves, and which we’ll present in this blog post.

Working remotely but not alone

In 2014, our clients who were developing The Thing System, worked remotely from California and the UK, and devised a clever use of their technology and ours: whenever a team member was present in their home office (as detected by our tech), a light would turn on in their colleague’s home office halfway around the world (enabled by their tech). In this way, each team member was aware, through calm technology, when their colleague was “at work”, so that they could confidently initiate communication at an appropriate moment, whenever required.

Beaming in

In 2016, our clients Event Presence reached out to make their Beam mobile telepresence experience location-aware. Can’t physically attend an event or conference? They offered a means to attend remotely with the ability to move around and interact freely. As “beaming in” to an unfamiliar space can be disorienting, we worked with them to provide real-time location and context to their remote attendees. Working with the Beams, we found them incredibly useful not only for remotely attending events, but also for working remotely on the very deployments we were developing. On many occasions we even found ourselves chatting Beam-to-Beam in the venue, surely to the bewilderment of passers-by, but very much to the benefit of what we were working to achieve!

Tracing person-to-person and person-to-asset interactions

In 2019, our clients at USC deployed the first trials of DirAct, a technology we co-developed, to automatically capture person-to-person and person-to-asset interactions in an active hospital setting. Hospital staff opt-in to wear a Bluetooth Low Energy badge which detects other badges or asset tags in proximity, and which relays this information via our gateway infrastructure temporarily deployed throughout the hospital. Our colleagues at USC collect this information as part of a study to determine workplace stress factors, however it is not difficult to imagine how this same deployment could be used for traceability of interactions between staff and patients, as well as with hand-washing stations, in the context of a contagious disease such as COVID-19.

The measures currently undertaken to curb the spread of COVID-19 remind us of the pertinence of our physical location—and that of others—in our daily lives, especially as these become impeded or restricted.

In these times, it is not difficult to envisage the wide-reaching potential of real-time location technology, as evidenced by the above examples to which we’ve proudly contributed. From wherever you find yourself reading this we trust that you will stay healthy as much as innovative!

Predict not what you can create

We’re all familiar with some variant of the adage:

The best way to predict the future is to create it.

Our first blog post of each of the past three years has been about prediction. This year will be different.

What’s different this year is our move into a new office which will serve as both a showcase and a living lab. We share this new space with GenieLab, a non-profit with which we’ve worked closely over the years. Our artistic collaborations will be among the installations. But most importantly,

we’ll be able to demonstrate what it means to make a physical space searchable like the web.

Our workplace will be the workplace of the future, one which we create! To reinforce that point, we’re calling the office reelyActive Parc. Fitting because it is at the corner of rue Sherbrooke and avenue du Parc in Montréal, but even more so because of the legacy of another PARC: the Palo Alto Research Center.

If you’re not familiar with the story, in the 1970s and early 80s, Xerox PARC incubated many of the technologies we still associate with the modern digital workplace, including:

  • the graphical user interface (GUI)
  • bitmap graphics
  • WYSIWYG text editing
  • the laser printer
  • Ethernet

as well as many more software innovations. Moreover, Alan Kay, a significant contributor to PARC’s innovations is credited with not only saying, but proving that:

The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

In 2017, we were fortunate to have an e-mail exchange with Kay sparking our blog post on creating the next computing industry. We kick off the new decade in our Park Avenue Research Centre with the ambition to do exactly that.

Open hardware: a closed case?

If you’re familiar with our blog posts, you’ll know we never get bored populating them with puns (oof, there they are already). In case it isn’t obvious, the title is playing on the word case: we’ll be talking about enclosures here. Specifically,

why is open hardware so seldom designed to take advantage of an off-the-shelf enclosure?

In other words, why invest the time and energy to develop a hardware board that doesn’t fit in any standard box? For those who are less familiar with hardware development, one of the first steps in designing the physical board (PCB) on which the circuits and components reside is to establish its dimensions, shape and the location of the holes with which it can be mounted into an enclosure. At this point, it would be straightforward to choose a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) enclosure that closely matches the target dimensions, and adjust these and the locations of the mounting holes in consequence.

Why does the board need to fit in a standard enclosure? Again, for those less familiar with hardware development, developing and producing a custom enclosure typically runs in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. A COTS enclosure might cost $5 and will be available in small quantities. The economics speak for themselves, especially when many projects based on open hardware require only tens or hundreds of completed units.

Case in point (pun intended, of course), the first generation of hardware we built at reelyActive in 2012: both our active RFID tag and reelceiver were designed around off-the-shelf enclosures from OKW Enclosures (MINITEC) and New Age Enclosures (3 inch Dongle) respectively. These were economically sound decisions as much then as they are today with all the units we’ve produced to date. And our customers enjoy the benefit and freedom of customising the enclosures (colour, form factor, etc.) either with our help or directly with the enclosure vendor.

And therein lies the philosophical issue with open hardware that lacks a standard enclosure: if one of the principal objectives of the “open” movement is freedom from lock-in, this practice doesn’t sit well (pun very much intended). One may argue that open hardware offers developers the freedom to adapt the design to a standard enclosure, however this requires specialised skills and iterations that significantly extend the timeline. And, if there are any radios onboard, as is typically the case with IoT designs, any such adaptation may engender costly, risky and time consuming re-certification.

Designing open hardware around COTS enclosures is both economically and philosophically sound.

The motivation for this post stems from our disappointment in a recent survey of hardware platforms (both open and closed) on which to develop our own next-generation hardware. While there are plenty of options available, we were unable to identify a single one that streamlined rapid prototyping out-of-the-box, or “into-the-box” as is surely more apt. So, eight years after developing our first “into-the-box” prototypes it seems this task is still up to us—open hardware is far from a closed case. We promise to make our design available to the community and hope it encourages wider adoption of “into-the-box” best practices.

Ask your digital transformation provider…

Would you choose to receive dental treatment from a dentist with bad teeth? Fitness coaching from a coach that is unfit? Change management consulting from an organisation resistant to change?

At the First International Innovation 4.0 Forum this week, we took in multiple vendor presentations about the digital transformation of entire industries, including the services those vendors offer their clients, which, of course, begged the question:

how far along are those vendors themselves in their own digital transformation?

For instance, the conference was opened by Eric Schaeffer, leader of Accenture’s Digital Industry X.0 program, who argued confidently that “business as usual is not an option anymore”, a statement we agree applies to companies across industries. He went on to argue that transformation is a continuous process rather than simply a discrete step:

“Like the tide, it keeps rolling. You have to live with it. That’s the bottom line.”

It would therefore be interesting to understand to what extent Accenture—and their peers—themselves have, internally, embraced a culture of continuous change and ongoing transformation. We wonder because we ourselves at reelyActive, despite having a small and highly motivated team who believe we should practice what we preach, nonetheless find this to be a challenging and demanding endeavour.

Earlier this year we asked Are we selling discomfort? The answer is yes: data from our platform indeed highlights that business as usual is no longer an option for our clients—far from a comfortable proposition. Said differently, vendors selling comfort are selling something other than transformation. Those leading the business of transformation are effectively selling discomfort, both externally and internally. And how many companies are actually comfortable with that?

So, for those advancing toward Industry 4.0, or X.0, or [insert buzzword here], we offer as advice to ask your digital transformation provider how they themselves realised their own digital transformation. There is, quite literally, much to be learned from their answer.

Who owns the future?

Occasionally a book will provide the opportunity for the reader to travel back in time and delve into the mind of an author that was thinking far ahead, at least as far as the reader’s present. What a pleasure to now read Jaron Lanier‘s Who Owns the Future? which was published in the months following reelyActive’s incorporation. Then was a time when we were thinking about humans’ place in a world of ubiquitous radio-identification and real-time location. Lanier was thinking about humans’ place in the evolving information economy. In 2015 we took a critical look back on our first ever pitch. In this blog post we’ll take a critical look back on our history in light of Lanier’s predictions and arguments, starting with the central premise of his book:

The foundational idea of humanistic computing is that provenance is valuable. Information is people in disguise, and people ought to be paid for the value they contribute that can be sent or stored on a digital network.

We’re off to a good start as this is directly in line with our long-established mission: to unlock the value of the data you choose to share. Nonetheless, our mission has often been a hard sell in the absence of a marketplace in which such contributions can actually be monetised. However we’re not alone in envisaging this as we discussed last year in Micro-transactions with macro-implications. And the notion that Data is Human is not without precedent either.

But how will the provenance of people’s contributions be captured and recorded?

Everyone will need to have a unique commercial identity in a universal public market information system. That contrasts with the way things work currently, where machines have unique identities, like IP addresses, but people don’t.

In 2013, the year the book was published, we were hard at work on the premise for people to have unique identities, not unlike IP addresses. Before Apple officially launched iBeacon, we demonstrated how the technology could be used in reverse to serve this exact purpose. A few months later, in a presentation entitled Advertise Yourself, we pitched this concept to industry leaders, including to those of tech’s Big Four, at Bluetooth World in Silicon Valley.

But who will administrate these unique personal identities?

This is one of those cases where you have to choose the least of evils. You might not like the idea of a universal online identity, but face it, if you don’t allow one to come about in the context of government, it will happen anyway through companies like Google and Facebook. You might like and trust these companies now more than you like or trust the government, but you should see what happens to tech companies as they age.

In 2017 we demonstrated how Google could use their Physical Web as a means for users to opt-in to a physical-digital identity, as well as how Facebook could leverage their mobile app to a similar, although likely less transparent, end. A year later, Google had killed off their Physical Web and Facebook was mired in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. You should see what happens to tech companies when they age indeed!

So when might we expect this all to turn around?

Another basic function of the design of power must be to facilitate long-term thinking. Is it possible to invest in something that will pay off in thirty years or a hundred, or is everything about the next quarter, or even the next quarter of a millisecond?

That’s a question we asked that same year in our post on creating the next computing industry. As Alan Kay, veteran of Xerox PARC (which did think long-term) and creator of the Dynabook (which inspired the iPad), wrote to us: “I’ve never heard of VCs being interested in time frames like that.”

So there’s no chance for a startup to bring to life this vision of the future?

[A] startup-driven scenario is not absolutely impossible. A new startup could conceivably gain more clout that Facebook, and then stay true to its original intent, goading a critical mass of other, older Siren Servers into a new, humanistic phase of activity.

A—funded—startup staying true to its original intent is easier said than done, which is perhaps why Lanier seems not overly optimistic about this scenario. However, there are emerging alternatives as we discuss in Purpose, commitment and accountability, specifically around rethinking ownership. It would be fair to say that we’ve embraced the arduous task of actually testing whether a startup-driven scenario is in fact not absolutely impossible.

Should we press on? How do we stay true?

Please do that, but please also stop once per hour and check yourself:   Are you still keeping people in the center?   Is it still all about the people?   Are you really avoiding the lazy trapdoor of falling back into thinking of people as components and a central server as being the only point of view for defining efficiency or testing efficacy?

Taking comfort in our alignment with Lanier’s hypothesis and predictions in this critical look back at our past seven years, we shall indeed press on, continuing to keep people in the centre of our vision for the future.   Who owns the future?   Perhaps reassuringly, there is still no consensus on the answer to that question!