The Age of Hyperlocal Context

In their book, The Age of Context, Robert Scoble and Shel Israel examine how contextually aware technologies will impact our daily lives. The video above chronicles our CEO, Jeffrey Dungen, meeting with Robert Scoble during his research for the book which provides a comprehensive overview of the preeminent contextual technologies, what they enable today, and how they’re likely to change the future (the most pertinent part is at 28:36). For us, there are two chapters that especially stand out.

Chapter 8. Why Wearables Matter

In Chapter 8, the authors present a variety of wearable identification technologies including the Aspen Snowmass RF Card, Disney Magic Bands and Nagra ID Smart Cards as well as wearable displays such as Google Glass and Oakley Airwave. They envisage a “contextual, wearable system that knows your location, your current activity, your preferences as well as what you are looking at in real-time” which they follow with the statement:

While such an omnibus system does not exist at this moment, every component of it is currently available, it would not take much to stitch it all together.

What Robert Scoble and Shel Israel are describing is essentially our Log in to Life experience adapted for wearable screens. For instance, at the International Startup Festival, we stitched Hexoskin and reelyActive technologies together to create a location-based activity display including all nearby identifiable people. And since it was consumable as a webpage, it could have been viewed on Google Glass!

Hexoskin, reelyActive and Log in to Life

For us, wearable identification technologies are the cornerstone to contextual awareness. When everyone and everything in proximity can be uniquely identified by their wearables (including smart phones), and each is associated with its corresponding digital footprint and/or personal preferences, you have what we call hyperlocal context: a digital representation of the people and things at a point of interest. Ubiquitous contextual awareness becomes a reality when all concerned parties can consume hyperlocal context via an API. In October, we shared our vision with the scientific community, presenting our paper Hyperlocal Context to facilitate an Internet of Things Understanding of the World at the IIKI 2013 conference in Beijing, China.

Hyperlocal context is the mechanism which stitches together location, identities and all associated metadata. While the principle is elegantly simple, the challenge lies in dealing with a wide variety of device vendors and identification technologies. To overcome this challenge, we’ve developed a multi-standard, vendor-agnostic hardware infrastructure that can identify and locate wireless devices in order to provide hyperlocal context. Of course this presents the challenge of new infrastructure requirements, as we describe in our previous blog post Rails and Reels: History, Infrastructure and the IoT, however, in our opinion, it is the most effective and efficient means to usher in an age of ubiquitous contextual awareness.

Chapter 12. Why Trust is the New Currency

In the final chapter of the book, Robert Scoble and Shel Israel summarize their thoughts on the incentives and trade-offs of contextual experiences. One might say nothing ventured, nothing gained:

We think the benefits we gain from contextual technologies are worth the cost of the loss of some of our personal information.

We fully agree. They proceed to argue that “people should be allowed to opt-out whenever they find the privacy costs are just too high for their personal tastes.” Of course, the ability to opt-out is unquestionable, however we emphasize that an opt-in strategy is key to gaining public trust and acceptance. Over and over, we’ve seen the public distaste for opt-out WiFi tracking and the knee-jerk reaction to identification and location technologies (see Big Brother and the Identity of Things), and it does not bode well for the future. What contextual technologies need are opt-in experiences so clearly rewarding that people, fully aware of any privacy they are surrendering, not only participate in droves, but further encourage their friends to join in!

Of course, in order to be completely aware of the privacy you are surrendering, there must be a means to understand what you are sharing and with whom at any given moment. Robert Scoble and Shel Israel eloquently state that:

It seems self-evident that we should own our own data and that any third-party should need our permission to use it.

While this may seem completely obvious, think about how your data is collected and shared today. How much time and energy would it take to sift through every Terms of Service agreement and attempt to identify who has access to what information? In our scientific paper, we argue that initiatives such as personal data lockers (for example The Locker Project) are a viable mechanism for managing what you share and with whom. While such initiatives are technically feasible today, the challenge lies in disrupting the current practice of each third-party maintaining their own (often stale) copy of your personal data.

While the gap between the status quo and a world where everyone manages access to their personal data is huge, there is reason to believe that this can, and will, change. Consider the following statement:

We believe the most trustworthy companies will thrive in the Age of Context, and those found to be short on supply of candor will end up short on customers. Transparency and trustworthiness will be the differentiating factors by which customers will make an increasing number of choices.

There is an opportunity today to differentiate and to offer discriminating customers exactly they’re looking for. For well over a year, we’ve been learning from the feedback on our Log in to Life experience, we’ve speculated on what the most intrepid people might (or might not) share in contextual environments, and we remain excited about the potential for a fully connected world to evolve into a superorganism. Everything we’ve learned has taught us to think, and act, differently. As Robert Scoble and Shel Israel conclude:

Openness and transparency create a significant opportunity for every startup that has giant-killing already etched into its organizational DNA. If we are right, then the Age of Context will give us an open new world.

We could not agree more, and we’re working hard to prove them right!

Rails and Reels: History, Infrastructure and the IoT

Hudson River from Amtrak Adirondack

In November 2013, after an eventful business trip to San Francisco and New York City, I (Jeffrey Dungen, CEO of reelyActive) decided to take the train home to Montreal. Of course a flight or even a bus would have been faster, but I’ve always been fascinated by trains and was excited to have an excuse to take one of the few international passenger rail routes in North America. The Amtrak Adirondack follows a beautiful trace along the Hudson River and along the banks of Lake Champlain. And the 11+ hour journey gives one plenty of time for reflection while enjoying the scenery.

When you think about it, much of the track on the route dates back as far as the 1850s. And while the rails themselves have been upgraded from the originals, the standard gauge is unchanged. It is almost unfathomable, in a time where consumer electronics become obsolete in years if not months, that a technology infrastructure, such as railroads, could remain relevant for centuries!

It took true pioneers to build the first railroads. Imagine convincing someone who had never seen a train of the value of this new transportation infrastructure. “Railroads would better connect towns, cities and resources” you might say. “But those places are already connected by waterways and primitive roads” they might say. The pioneers, however, weren’t thinking about what railroads were (an accessible and modular means to move freight and passengers over land), they were thinking about what railroads enabled, for instance, the potential to colonize the United States and Canada.

The train ride brought familiarity to that scenario. At reelyActive, we’re proposing infrastructure to better connect people, places and things. “But don’t smartphones already do that?” say many critics. However, just like the railroad pioneers, we are less concerned about what that infrastructure is (an accessible and modular means to move data packets among massive numbers of devices), and rather focused on what that infrastructure enables: the Internet of Things.

And, speaking of the Internet of Things, it has indeed been a very interesting year. The tech blogs hype the concept, and there’s excitement over talk of tens of billions of devices coming online in the next few years. Surely it’s not unlike the buzz preceding the colonization of the American interior in the 19th century. But how will it all unfold in the case of the IoT? Will major players like Cisco, GE and now Bosch become the Vanderbilts, Goulds and Hills?

In keeping with the railroad analogy, if the intent is to create a pervasive Internet of Things, there will indeed need to be a standard gauge just like the one that allows the Adirondack to operate on tracks managed by 5 different owners in two countries. But that alone is insufficient. The 11 hours it takes the Adirondack to cover the 613km route is not limited by the locomotive’s speed, but rather by 5 different track owners all acting in their own interest. A similar arrangement does not bode well for a pervasive Internet of Things!

In summary, the long, slow but scenic trip on the Adirondack was an excellent reminder that infrastructure built on standards can provide continuous and extensive value, far beyond what can be imagined at conception. However, the inconveniences of the journey serve as a reminder that infrastructure must serve the interests of its users, not just its owners. History’s lessons can serve to ensure that the Things of the future enjoy a smooth ride.