Facebook, you might “like” this

Facebook Live Directory

As finalists of Startup World, we were invited to a tour of the Facebook campus in Menlo Park. At the first stop in the tour, we were greeted by a flatscreen displaying a map and directory (see above). Immediately our eyes grew wide: had Facebook developed a live, interactive directory of everyone present in the building?

Hyla Wallis, our tour guide and veteran Facebooker, explained that these flatscreens, located throughout the campus, indicate the familiar “you are here” dot, list where everyone sits and display which meeting rooms are available and booked (green/red). All but the latter are based on static information. This is where our technology could shine.

We’ve been operating a live directory with flatscreens at Notman House in Montreal for well over a year now, having started as an experiment in our FounderFuel cohort. You can check it out right now, it’s simply a responsive webpage. Our cloud knows who/what is present because they carry a little keyfob device that is uniquely identifiable by sensors we installed in the building (see our technology).

How cool would it be to have this installed campus-wide! What amazing features could Facebook build with real-time knowledge of the presence of everyone and everything at points of interest?

  • Live locator: take the existing Facebook flatscreen application and add real-time information about any person you might look up. Are they at their desk, in a meeting, playing ping-pong, not even on campus?
  • Meeting notifications: did the meeting room you’ve booked just free up? Did the first person scheduled for that meeting already arrive? Last-minute room change? Could be a friendly reminder in the ticker.
  • Friend suggestions: did you spend time with someone new in a meeting, at lunch, at a hackathon? We know! How about you become friends on Facebook?
  • Auto login: did you just arrive on campus or at your desk ready for work? Let the system log you in automatically so that your colleagues know. Leaving campus for home? Log out automatically.
  • The physical Like button: do you like one of the restaurants on campus, or one of their menu items? Like what another department is working on? Enjoy the satisfaction of pressing a real, big Like button. Your presence associates this with your account.

Of course, we’d expect the creative minds at Facebook to dream up uses far more awesome than these. But the point is that all of this is possible today: we would merely provide the tools to identify the presence of people throughout the campus at points of interest so that their in-house team could build the rest using our API. Since there are already network cables running everywhere (see photo below) installing our sensor reels would be a plug-n-play breeze. We’d love to create a custom keyfob design in the shape of the iconic “f” for everyone to carry with their badge. And of course, there’s the potential to add BLE beacon functionality to the Facebook app so that anyone can opt-in and participate using the latest smartphones.

A corporate campus is a hotbed of opportunity for our technology. The Facebook corporate campus takes this to a whole new level.

Facebook Installation

iBeacon: a lighthouse in your pocket?


In our last blog post, Beyond the Beacon: BLE Just Got Reel, we demonstrated an iOS7 device advertising its presence to our hardware infrastructure using Bluetooth Low Energy technology. For many reasons, as we will outline, we were very pleased to validate this functionality, which we were pleasantly surprised that Apple allowed. We spoke to Stacey Higginbotham about the possibilities of this beacon role-reversal which she summarized in her article Loophole in iBeacon could let iPhones guard your likes instead of bombard you with coupons in GigaOM.

Over a year in the making

We kicked off reelyActive at the start of 2012 with a vision to create a simple, accessible active RFID platform suitable for almost any application. Our previous experience in the field taught us that almost all of the applications we encountered boiled down to knowing the unique identity and location of the people and things in a space. This can be achieved by having the wireless devices in that space actively identify themselves to fixed infrastructure. Since the outset, we’ve been following the adoption of BLE since it enables active RFID for everything from inexpensive, low-power sensors to smart devices and beyond.

In the Fall of 2012 we participated in the FounderFuel startup accelerator where we were constantly asked “when will smartphones be compatible with your platform”. Due diligence revealed that the problems were manifold. First, even though BLE hardware was shipping in just about everything since the iPhone 4S and Galaxy S3, the operating systems of these devices provided no facility to leverage the radio for active RFID. Second, the BLE system-on-a-chip we required for our own hardware devices was only available in the form of engineering samples, delaying the development of our prototypes.

While Android 4.3 added BLE support, it did not support the peripheral role which allows the device to initiate the transmission of radio packets. However, iOS7 did support this role and introduced the iBeacon…

Enter the iBeacon

The iBeacon is analogous to a lighthouse: it represents a known location which can be uniquely identified by its signal. When iBeacons are installed in a space, they can be detected by smartphones to assist with indoor navigation or to trigger actions. The smartphone listens for iBeacons similar to how it listens for WiFi access points and GPS satellites to determine its location (see our blog post: Radio location demystified). Since GPS is poorly received by smartphones indoors, and WiFi was never designed for indoor location, beacons are a nifty way of improving the accuracy of location-aware devices like the smartphone. In the presence of beacons, the smartphone can determine its location with confidence and ease.

The interesting thing about iOS7 is that it allows the smartphone to act as an iBeacon. This means that the device can advertise its unique identity to its surroundings like a lighthouse. Of course, any BLE peripheral can advertise the services it offers, but the iBeacon is special as we will now explain.

Here’s the technical part

An iBeacon packet contains the following information:

  • 48-bit random device address
  • 128-bit UUID based on RFC 4122
  • 16-bit major identifier
  • 16-bit minor identifier

Based on our tests, the 48-bit random device address changes every 15 minutes, and there does not appear to be a means for an application to query this address. The other fields listed above are user defined. This means that an app could specify a 128-bit UUID which would be uniquely associated with the device indefinitely. Specifically, this allows the device to act as a glorified active RFID tag and requires only a few lines of code.

When run in the foreground, the app can allow the user to opt-in and enable the iBeacon with a tap. Based on our tests, this results in over 30 radio transmissions per second (per channel). However, when iBeacon is run in the background, there are two important changes. First, everything but the 48-bit random device address is dropped from the packet, and, second, the rate drops to about 5 transmissions per second (per channel). Even with the screen locked, we have found that the iBeacon continues to transmit packets indefinitely.

What does this mean?

It’s possible to create an app that allows compatible iOS7 devices to advertise their presence to their surroundings, and to be uniquely identified. The user is in complete control to opt-in or disable this feature in real-time. In the presence of BLE infrastructure like our reelceivers, the space itself can not only become aware of all the devices it contains, but also estimate their location. In other words, contextual awareness can be aggregated by the environment itself. We will present a scientific paper on this topic and the implications at the International Workshop on Identification, Information and Knowledge in the Internet of Things in Beijing in October.

If the app runs in the background, the device can still be identified and located throughout the space, generating potentially useful anonymous data. However it cannot be associated with a UUID (and hence user profile) unless the user brings the app into the foreground. The periodic random device address changes cause discontinuities which may nonetheless be stitched by a clever algorithm under favourable conditions.

How is this better than the standard iBeacons use case?

It isn’t. Both use cases have their merits. What we’ve presented concentrates contextual awareness with the space itself, rather than in the smart device. This favours interactive applications where the environment reacts to the presence and movements of the people and things it contains. It also works seamlessly even when the device loses internet connectivity, and it is battery-friendly. Periodically transmitting packets consumes a fraction of the energy required to listen for iBeacons, WiFi access points and GPS satellites, and offloads the computation of location to the fixed infrastructure.

Thinking ahead to the tens of billions of devices expected to comprise the Internet of Things, a non-negligible fraction of which may use BLE, there’s nonetheless a strong argument for installing infrastructure that provides both ambient network connectivity and beacon capability.

A quick conclusion

In a perfect world, there would be a facility for any BLE device to transmit BLE advertising packets with a UUID or accessible random device address at an appropriate rate (5-30Hz is overkill: for many applications one transmission per second is sufficient). Nonetheless, we’re pleased that Apple has enabled (whether intentionally or not) the active RFID use case we present despite the constraints we’ve identified. With any luck, soon all mobile operating systems will provide the necessary functionality for the world to enjoy interactive, contextually-aware spaces through experiences like Log in to Life.

Beyond the Beacon: BLE Just got Reel

We are very pleased to announce the successful integration of mobile devices with reelyActive infrastructure using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology. Watch the video above to see an iPod advertising its presence to our new BLE reelceivers, allowing it to be located and uniquely identified, exactly like our existing active RFID tags.

This means that any device with BLE hardware and, critically, the software support to send unsolicited advertising packets, can integrate seamlessly with the reelyActive platform and participate in the Log in to Life experience [EDIT: rebranded as smartspac.es as of 2014]. No longer will a reelyActive tag be required, the smartphone in your pocket will soon take its place. Taking advantage of a reelyActive-enabled space will require no more than running an application in the background.

This demonstration has been a long time in the making. One year ago, Nokia announced the launch of the In-Location Alliance with 22 industry partners, touting BLE as an essential ingredient. However, only last week did we see major indoor location announcements by Estimote and PayPal. The reason is simple: while BLE hardware has been around since the iPhone 4S and Galaxy S3, full OS-support is only just emerging. This summer’s release of Android 4.3 brings partial BLE support, but does not yet implement the functionality we require. However, soon-to-be-released iOS7 embraces BLE and is the first mobile OS to support the unsolicited advertising functionality our platform requires. And, fortunately, the Texas Instruments chip we selected for our reelceiver is versatile enough to support these (arguably) non-standard packets. As we learned from attending the Bluetooth SIG working group in Montreal last week, the establishment of standards among competing vendors is far from an elegant process!

Earlier this year we blogged about the two approaches to radio location. For the reasons cited, we have taken the opposite approach to the companies building beacons, which further include Tod and Tile. Nonetheless, our hardware can implement both approaches simultaneously. In other words, each BLE reelceiver can advertise its own geolocation to mobile devices in range, making them location-aware. At the same time, the reelceiver listens for devices in range which advertise their presence and identity, relaying that information with either the cloud or a local server. It’s the best of both worlds. And, since our reelceivers have perpetual power and network-connectivity, they have the advantage of requiring no maintenance and supporting real-time updates, unlike many of the aforementioned beacons.

Next month we will present a live demo at the 38th IEEE Conference on
Local Computer Networks (LCN)
in Sydney, Australia in conjunction with the scientific article we are presenting on the subject as part of M2MCIP 2013. The reel architecture has proven its versatility by simultaneously supporting heterogeneous radio communication protocols and providing plug-and-play extension of coverage. While we’re excited about the future applications for smartphones, they are nonetheless only a subset of all the devices which support BLE. Many of the billions of low-power wireless devices that will make up the Internet of Things will employ BLE technology, and our reels will be ready to provide them with the low-power ambient connectivity they require.

Bluetooth Low Energy Reelceiver Love

RFID Journal Live 2013

Orange County Convention Center

RFID Journal Live is the largest RFID conference in the world and we had the pleasure of attending the 2013 edition hosted in Orlando, Florida from April 30th to May 2nd. This blog post summarizes our highlights.

The technology is ready, the people aren’t

The opening keynote speech was delivered by Roger Blazek of Bloomingdale’s, a large American clothing retailer. His team have been working on item-level RFID tagging since 2007 largely to ensure that the right items in the right colours, styles and sizes are always available for consumers to browse in store. It has taken several years to get everything in place with several challenges along the way. Roger explained that he expected the installation of technology to be difficult, but in fact it was quite easy. However, the most difficult part, by far, was change management: getting the employees to buy in to the new system and use it effectively. Finally, now that everyone’s on board, it’s possible to stamp out deployments across the hundreds of Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s stores. Takeaway: people play by far the greatest role in a successful RFID deployment.

Following Mr. Blazek’s presentation, a team from EADS (including Airbus) participated in a panel. EADS has successfully deployed both passive and active RFID systems including real-time location systems (RTLS) throughout its divisions in many countries. Similar to Bloomingdale’s, their strategy is to deploy and refine a system in one location and then copy it to other locations. Carlo Nizam, Head of Value Chain Visibility and RFID at Airbus, explained that typically this is as easy as changing the back-end pipe. In other words, the RFID system simply needs to be adapted to feed the enterprise software specific to the installation. And we were very pleased to hear Claude Lorda, Head of Industrial Innovation at Astrium, confirm that it is extremely difficult to calculate the ROI for RTLS, and that typically they’ve simply approved projects based on gut feeling. That has been a successful strategy for EADS, but it’s difficult to imagine that approach going viral among Fortune 500 companies. Takeaway: again people play by far the greatest role in a successful RFID deployment, first and foremost those who approve and champion the project.

Collaboration not Competition

Exploring the exhibition floor, it was great to see and meet many of the companies we’ve identified as complementary or competitive to reelyActive. Some of the people working the floor have been in the RFID game as long as or longer than us, and we’ve all had an interesting ride with great war stories to share!

It was refreshing to see how many companies are leaning towards collaboration rather than competition. There are far more potential applications for RFID than there are vendors with hyper-targeted solutions, so it makes sense to direct any potential client to the most appropriate vendor. On multiple occasions I saw the vendors at a booth point their visitors towards another booth. Mary from AWID even went as far as taking a small stack of our business cards to pass to her booth visitors who needed an active RFID solution rather than their passive!

Competition still exists, of course, and we felt it strongest amongst the WiFi RTLS vendors. WiFi RTLS can leverage existing WiFi infrastructure, an advantage highly touted by vendors against other RTLS systems. But in practice, WiFi RTLS systems often fall short of expectations, a fact bemoaned by many former clients and vendors of other technologies who arguably offered a more suitable solution for the given client. In our opinion, when early adopters receive the best possible advice and deploy the most appropriate system of all those available, the industry as a whole stands to gain from the visibility and the positive customer experience.

Simplicity and Accessibility

On February 13th, 2012, a month after full-time work on reelyActive began, Mark Roberti, editor of RFID Journal wrote the following:

I recently received an e-mail from a person working at an art gallery, who wanted to know where she could purchase a simple radio frequency identification system that would enable her to tag items being moved into storage, so that they could be quickly inventoried and retrieved when needed. Regrettably, I had to confess that I was unaware of such a solution. And I’ve had to give other people that answer as well. I think it’s unfortunate, because based on the volume of calls and e-mails I receive, I know that there is a demand for simple, easy-to-deploy RFID solutions allowing someone to quickly count items and transfer collected data to a laptop or a desktop computer. I’m sure that for every call I get, there are dozens of people who never contact me.

At the time, this statement validated our vision to create simple, accessible cloud-based active RFID, addressing the thousands of use cases like the one above. Did we find a vendor at RFID Journal Live 2013 who offered just such a solution? No.

That’s unfortunate for the industry, because the vast majority of inquiries are, and will continue to be, for small-scale deployments. But, as Bloomingdale’s and EADS have shown, once a small-scale deployment is proven, it can easily be duplicated many times over, providing economies of scale to the client(s) and lucrative business to the vendor. That’s why we continue to pursue our vision of simple, accessible active RFID, and we strongly encourage other vendors to follow suit in the spirit of collaboration. A lot can happen in a year and we look forward to RFID Journal Live 2014!

Rallying around a better M2M solution

Rallye Sanair 2013 Flying Finish

Imagine the following set of requirements: you need to identify and time cars at rally finishes, they’ll be travelling as fast as they can in any weather condition imaginable, often in remote areas. Oh, and you need to send the data to the Internet as well as make it available locally for the control marshal.

That’s exactly the challenge we faced last weekend at Rallye Sanair. Currently it takes at least three people to work a flying finish: one to whistle as the car passes, another to note the time of the whistle (see the photo above) and another to copy this time into the competitors’ route card. The little box you see in the photo can replace the two gentlemen: it detects an active RFID tag placed inside the car and communicates the identity in real-time over WiFi to a computer next to the third marshal. And in practice, it works great as long as there’s line-of-sight between the box and computer and the latter’s clock is synchronized with official rally time.

The problem, however, is Internet connectivity. Granted, Rallye Sanair has good cellular coverage unlike many Canadian rallies. But we were relying on a BYOD approach where the marshal’s computer would connect to the Internet via a cellular dongle. Terrific in theory yet problematic in practice. In short, it’s no fun troubleshooting someone else’s computer with spotty Internet while it’s raining sideways and your fingers are frozen. Let’s not even consider what that would be like on a remote winter rally! Ideally, the ‘box’ would function standalone: autonomously connecting to the Internet and synchronizing its own clock automatically. The information it collects could still be provided to the marshal by a local link.

So, how do you connect a ‘box’ to the Internet? Well, that’s exactly the challenge of the Internet of Things! Ideally there would be a ubiquitous wireless network where Things could economically communicate short messages (like car number, control number and timestamp) to the Internet. This actually exists in France right now where Sigfox has built just such a network. Neul is working on the same thing using television whitespace. But alas, for now, in North America at least, we must rely on the cellular carriers.

Given those constraints, here’s what we’ve come up with. Start with an economical Linux single-board computer like the BeagleBone (the soon-to-be-released BeagleBone Black costs only $45). Add a Sierra Wireless (now Netgear) AirCard 330U which can connect to several generations of cellular networks and which includes a GPS (clock synchronization solved!). Toss in a sealed lead-acid battery and a reelyActive reelceiver and enclose it in a weatherproof box. You have an all-in-one solution with an off-the-shelf BOM, and Rogers is kind enough to offer plans starting at $5/month (even for businesses).

Most economical M2M solution in the Americas?

A rally checkpoint in a box, awesome! But what’s the point? Many have pointed out that the tiny rally market will never sustain a profitable business. Absolutely true. However, the problem we’re solving is one of the most challenging among a large family of similar problems. Are all my workers and equipment present at the remote worksite? Did I leave behind an important tool from my truck, and where? How many bikes are at the bike share? What cars are in my parking lot and when did they arrive? Is my child at the playground? One Thing to reel them all.

What we’ve learned from rally is that accessible M2M (machine-to-machine) Internet connectivity remains a key blocker for many applications, but there are viable workarounds pending the establishment of a global, wireless network specifically designed for the Internet of Things.

Radio location demystified

Radio Location Demystified

It comes as a surprise to many that indoor location is a core feature of reelyActive. “Isn’t that a solved problem?” The short answer is no. A sufficiently accurate, low-energy (battery-friendly) solution that makes use of an existing, ubiquitous infrastructure simply does not exist today. The intent of this blog post is to familiarize the reader with the basic mechanics of radio location to better understand the inherent challenges, and to clarify the reelyActive approach.

Listen or Speak?

Imagine you suddenly find yourself in an unknown place and it’s pitch black. You can’t see where you are, but it’s important that you find out. Consider the following two options:

  1. you listen to decipher your location based on the unique sound environment
  2. you shout out your name hoping that someone is listening, understands and locates you

Essentially, these represent the two common and fundamentally different options in indoor location. Do you expend a lot of energy listening? Do you simply shout out your name and hope someone else figures it out? In either case, your chances are best only when there are a lot of sounds or people listening nearby.

Listen Smart Devices

The smart device is well suited to the listening model. It hears WiFi routers and cell towers in range (indoors, it struggles to hear GPS satellites, so we’ll exclude this technology from the discussion). Since routers and towers are uniquely identifiable, by knowing their fixed locations, it’s possible to estimate the device location based on their signal strength and identity.

Information about radio infrastructure location and identity, being subject to continuous update, is centrally stored in the cloud. So the smart device must tell the cloud what it hears before its location can be determined. If the cloud responds to the smart device, then both know the current location and the device is said to be “location aware”. See the diagram on the left below.

Radio Location: Listen vs. Speak

Speak RFID

Active Radio Frequency IDentification (Active RFID) devices are well suited to the speaking model. Active RFID devices transmit their unique identifier periodically and rely on nearby infrastructure to estimate their location. As long as there are infrastructure nodes that hear the transmission, given their fixed locations, it’s possible to estimate the location based on the strength of the signal received at each. Assuming that the infrastructure nodes are Internet-connected, the cloud may calculate the location of the identifying device, which, in this case, is not location aware. See the diagram on the right above.

Listen vs. Speak

Today, neither approach is perfect. Here’s how the advantages play out:

  • the listen approach enjoys far greater infrastructure prevalence (WiFi and cellular)
  • the listen approach empowers the device user and service provider with location information
  • the speak approach is far better suited to inexpensive, low-power devices
  • the speak approach requires fewer, shorter radio transmissions in a single direction
  • the speak approach also empowers the infrastructure provider with location information

The speak approach currently suffers from a major shortcoming: the lack of an accepted global standard for low-power radio communication. Standards such as Bluetooth Low Energy, ZigBee and Low-Power WiFi have yet to cross the critical adoption threshold.

Regardless of approach, the accuracy of any location estimate is generally proportional to the number of infrastructure nodes in range and their proximity, and is represented as coordinates or as a pinpoint on a map.

The reelyActive Radio Location Approach

We favour the speak approach, overcoming its current disadvantages by creating an accessible infrastructure that supports both current and emerging low-power wireless standards. The location information in our cloud may be consumed by anyone or anything anywhere with the appropriate access rights.

However, unlike most systems which rely on triangulation to locate based on coordinates, reelyActive is instead about semantic location at points of interest. This is achieved by simply installing a cost-effective reelceiver at each point of interest and providing a meaningful semantic label. As a result, for any device which can actively transmit its identity, location would be available via our API as in the following examples:

  • IV pump #4 is in room 303
  • Carmen’s car just entered parking space #78
  • Sam’s smartphone is standing in front of the pasta sauce display
  • The temperature of the fish in loading bay 3 is 4°C


Pending the ubiquitous deployment of an appropriate radio infrastructure, indoor location will continue to be a hotbed of innovation. While the technique of listening and identifying the radio signature of an environment is prevalent and provides reasonable accuracy for smart devices today, the growing number of low-power connected devices of the Internet of Things will instead require an infrastructure that identifies, senses and locates by itself listening to those devices.

Interaction Design, the Superhuman and the Superorganism

Interaction Design, the Superhuman and the Superorganism

At reelyActive, we’ve often poked fun at the smart device (see our previous blog post). It allows us to do amazing things like communicate and share voice, images, videos and data across the globe. You could easily argue that it makes us superhuman communicators. But when you see someone standing frozen in the middle of a busy street, awkwardly buried in their smart device, oblivious to the “meatspace” in which they live, these superpowers are just as easily questioned.

Enter Interaction Design, or IxD, which is about “shaping digital things for people’s use” (thanks Wikipedia). A few months ago, we discovered a great documentary called Connecting, which explores the future of this field. Astute viewers will recognize from the font that this is a Microsoft ‘n pals endeavour, hence the exclusion of some other devices you might expect. Regardless, it’s totally worth 18 minutes of your time.

The Internet of Things features prominently (7:40), with Jonas Löwgren of Malmö University presenting the value of “more of the physical world connected with the digital world”. In other words, the IoT provides our digital world with context about what is really physically happening. And context allows for adaptation and better decision making. He sees the IoT as 5-7 years out.

It goes beyond Things. Andrei Herasimchuk of Twitter explains (11:53) how “people are now actually entering their lives into a digital format”. You could argue that humans are akin to complex sensors of the IoT, representing their experiences online. Twitter is the perfect example for real-time and historical thoughts. He feels, as do many, that we’ll be able to do exciting things in the future with those digital representations.

How does IxD help us become superhuman? In the video, you’ll see people interacting with far more than smart devices. Screens are everywhere. Gestures are recognized. Ambient information is presented to humans to provide context, and to allow for adaptation and better decision making. The physical-digital connection works both ways. Remember our friend frozen in the middle of the street? Amalgamated digital and physical context would allow him to receive the appropriate information at the appropriate time via the most appropriate channel. In other words, likely not on a 4″ screen in the middle of traffic.

But it’s not just about superhuman powers. Blaise Aguera y Arcas goes further to say (15:00) that as a by-product of this intense connectivity, “there’s a superorganism building up in which humans are no longer at the top of the food chain”. Depending on who controls the data and with what intent (see Big Brother and the Identity of Things), this may be a scary thought. But with an open IoT, just like the open Internet before it, this superorganism could instead become the most beautiful evolution of humanity. It’s an exciting time to connect the physical and the digital world.

Helping your smartphone “baby” grow up

Amber Case does a great job of describing, with human qualities, those little rectangular devices we carry around. Watch a few seconds of the video (that we forwarded to the good part), and if you have time, it’s definitely worth watching to the end:

So, although smartphones pack an incredible punch of computing power and wireless connectivity, when asked to conform to the human world, they function at an infant or toddler level. For example, when you take a small child to the movies, you remind them that they need to be quiet and well behaved. Same for your “smart” phone! Moreover, the child will eventually learn the desired behaviour after a few trips to the movies, but your “smart” phone won’t!

Our devices live very happily in the digital world where their roles as machines are well defined. But human society is rich and complex. Our devices aren’t equipped to understand how we live. And, being the versatile, adaptable creatures we are, we tend to conform to our devices rather than the other way around. That’s how it is, not how it should be.

So, how do we get our phones to behave nicely and switch automatically to silent mode (as we expect of our children) when we’re in a movie theatre? Well, we need to provide them with the right information. Digital information. Some people are building applications that use your digital calendar as a basis for rules, and this can work if you arrange to have your real life perfectly reflected in your digital calendar. But wait, that’s us conforming again…

What your smart device needs is real-time digital context at a human scale. It needs to know where it is and who/what is around at a level of proximity similar to that discussed in Physical Expression, Digital Expression, and the Penis T-Shirt. Sticking to the movie example, Amber Case’s so-called invisible button to silence the phone would require two triggers:

  1. location: movie theatre
  2. context: movie is currently playing

Today’s smartphones can achieve sufficient location accuracy to determine that they’re at the movies. But typically, indoor location abilities would be insufficient to determine the exact theatre room. Without that, it’s impossible to look up when the given screening is scheduled to start, assuming the schedule is actually respected. This is where the theatre’s Digital T-Shirt becomes invaluable: it is a simple means to provide all of the real-time digital context necessary to activate the invisible button. It enables technology to work seamlessly for us, rather than the other way around.

In other words, our smartphone “babies” can and will grow up when provide them not just with geographical coordinates but with contextual information they can understand: a digital representation of the world around them at a human scale.

Physical Expression, Digital Expression, and the Penis T-Shirt

Physical Expression, Digital Expression, and the Penis T-Shirt

Where are we going with a blog post entitled “Physical Expression, Digital Expression, and the Penis T-Shirt”? Well, if you’ve ever heard of or used Chatroulette, you surely recall the infamous penis problem: a significant proportion of male users would exhibit themselves via this means of online expression. Why then, in the real world, don’t we see the same proportion of men wearing say, t-shirts portraying a photo of their naughty bits?

How does this relate to reelyActive? For months, we’ve operated a live directory on a flatscreen display at Notman House, a startup space in Montreal. The name, face, company and job title of everyone present and carrying one of our tags is displayed for all to see. It’s a project that has been well received, and we postulated on how it could be improved, for instance by allowing the users to generate their own content for the display.

Do you see where we’re going with this?

We asked ourselves if live directories would degenerate into something like the Chatroulette penis problem if users were in control of their own content. It seemed far fetched to think that the startup community at Notman House would jump at the chance to expose themselves on the flatscreen display. But as students of science, we felt compelled to understand the foundation for our sentiment.

The content displayed on the flatscreen is analogous to wearing a t-shirt: you can (and should) expect everyone in the startup house to see it. Therefore, one’s behaviour in selecting content is guided by the same social contract as selecting what t-shirt to wear out of the house. Of course the t-shirts worn at a startup house are likely to differ from those worn at a concert or a sporting event, but in each case, they’re intended for the context, and subject to a real-world audience, their reactions and any ensuing consequences.

In other words, the principles of real-world social interaction equally apply to “digital t-shirts”. We’ve never seen anyone wear a penis t-shirt at Notman House (N.B. that’s not a challenge!), so why should we expect any different for the digital version? As long as digital expression is curated by physical presence, we would expect this to hold true. Time to test the hypothesis!

Big Brother and the Identity of Things

Big Brother and the Internet of Things

Disney just announced that they will use RFID wristbands for the patrons of their theme parks (simply Google “Disney RFID” for more than you’d ever want to read). The list of advantages is long: combined room key / park pass, cashless payments, VIP services, personalized interactions with characters, on rides and in lines, etc., and it’s totally opt-in. Sounds like the world-class Disney PR team checked off all the right boxes when pitching this, right?

All persons shall surrender their worldly possessions to Diz-Nee Land. Resistance is futile. Stand in line where directed. Silence!

George Orwell’s estate should get a nickel for every bracelet sold. It may soon become impossible to leave the house without being identified and branded for more endless sales pitches through every means available.

You need to relax; soon enough Disney will isolate the gene responsible for free will, and we’ll have no need to worry.

These quotes from the New York Times article on the announcement highlight the pronounced knee-jerk reaction of many to any mention of human identification through technology: it’s Big Brother.

What about the Internet of Things? It’s effectively the Identity of Things: Things that may be found in homes and carried by people. And the Internet of Things, which has only recently become a hot topic, doesn’t have a Disney PR machine behind it. How’s it doing on the Orwellian front? Well, if the recent article entitled Big Brother’s Big Data: Why We Must Fear The Internet Of Things is any indication, they clearly share an older male sibling.

Will these reactions stop Disney from moving ahead with their plans? Unlikely. Will these reactions stop connected Things in their tracks? Of course not. Will these reactions continue to represent one of the greatest barriers to ubiquitous identification and connection technology? Most certainly. In our previous blog post Connected Things: a decade of progress? we concluded that it’s not technology that’s holding us back. Simply stated, if we want this to happen, we have to want this to happen! An opt-in approach with clear benefits may not be enough: Big Brother equates to a fear of who can access and control the information and with what intent.