A brief history of Ambient IoT

The recently released 2023 Bluetooth Market Update includes as a “Driver for Tomorrow” what the SIG calls Ambient IoT.

Source: Bluetooth 2023 Market Update

To celebrate IoT Day (today, April 9th), we thought it would be fitting to reflect on how the concept of ambience became intertwined with the Internet of Things (IoT), in the form of a brief history from our own unique perspective.

Identifiable, not necessarily connected

We start our story in 2012 when, as reelyActive was graduating from the FounderFuel accelerator, Cisco announced the “Internet of Everything,” predicting 50 Billion things by 2020. We were dumbfounded by that number: why was it so low?!?

Having cut our teeth in Active RFID for the better part of the 2000s, the reelyActive co-founders considered anything automatically identifiable (i.e. by radio-frequencies) as counting towards the nascent IoT, with predictions already in the Trillions. While the early IoT hype bubble was all about connected things, we were already building for the identifiable things that would weave themselves into the fabric of life all around us.

Ambient infrastructure

Of course trillions of identifiable things need to be identified, and that requires infrastructure. Everywhere. And that’s the problem we were solving early on with our novel reel architecture, which we published at the IEEE Local Computer Networks conference in 2013.

reelyActive’s demo at IEEE LCN 2013

The concept is simple: a reelceiver converts radio packets from identifiable things into standard serial packets on the wire, which can be consumed and relayed by any computer. At the conference in Sydney, we demonstrated Active RFID and Bluetooth Low Energy devices being not only identified—but also located—using a single modular infrastructure.

The Apple Advertising Event

It’s timely to mention Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), because by 2014, it had become the de facto global standard for Active RFID, with a Billion devices shipping that year alone. And that same year something truly ambient would happen: millions and millions of Apple devices suddenly began to spontaneously transmit BLE advertising packets to discover and interact with one another.

I (Jeffrey Dungen, reelyActive co-founder and CEO) remember a day in May 2014 when I thought our BLE reelceivers developed a bug because they started spitting out an unprecedented amount of packets. I discussed this with a friend and neighbour who exclaimed to me:

“Hey, did you notice that Apple devices just started advertising, like all the time?”

I would love to know if Apple had a code name for that day, or if they realised its significance beyond their own ecosystem of devices. We simply took to calling it the Apple Advertising Event.

People, not Things?

Of course, around that time, BLE radios were finding their way into higher-end personal electronics such as smartphones and wearables, which were carried by people. And the ambient BLE packets transmitted by those personal devices were primarily at the service of the people themselves. The Internet of Things was looking more like an Internet of People, for which we were pioneering what, back then, we called BYOD RTLS.

“We are advertising” from reelyActive’s 2017 pitch decks

Realising the potential, we developed initiatives such as our reelyApp, which allowed users to Advertise[themselves] with the Physical Web. The one-liner on our web page became “We unlock the value of the data you choose to share” enshrining a user-centric value proposition for the Internet of Things (and People), where anyone or anything could share ambient data at a human scale, with the expectation of contextualised experiences in return.

Ambient sounds about right

The term ambient is often associated with sounds or music, and so it was natural for us to collaborate with artist Evelyne Drouin in 2018 to create Présences Périphériques: “an installation that gives sonic presence to interconnected apparatuses worn by viewers within a space.”

Présences Périphériques: ambient wireless packets as ambient sounds

Exhibited as contemporary art at Centre Clark, the installation provided us the opportunity to observe individuals’ initial reaction to discovering that they could “sense” ambient radio-identifiable things around them—in particular their own personal devices!

The one-liner on our web page had fittingly become “Embrace the ambient data in your space” which coincided with the ambient technology concepts we discovered in Malcolm McCullough’s Ambient Commons.

A sense of things to come

Fast-forward to this year (2023) in which we’ve already seen the realisation of the elusive $1 Bluetooth beacon. The economies of scale are now such that commodity sensors, including temperature, motion, magnetic contact, illuminance, etc., can join us throughout the spaces in which we live, work and play. In 2020 we added a data type called dynamb, for dynamic ambient data, to our open source middleware, which represents, in a standard, vendor-agnostic way, how all these “things” sense real-world context.

The next breakthrough in price point and proliferation is likely to come from energy harvesting technologies such as Wiliot, which promise stick-on-anything capability with unlimited battery-free autonomy. Of course that’s the same promise as RAIN RFID (a mature technology that has already shipped about 150 Billion devices), but with the advantage that the required ambient BLE infrastructure is actually nearing ubiquity.

Ambient infrastructure 4.0

And that brings this blog post full circle to our initial raison d’être: infrastructure. Fortunately, these are exciting times for ambient infrastructure, such as the WiFi access points that we’ve come to expect to provide us connectivity everywhere, as we explain in our recent Infrastructure 4.0 post (many support BLE). The problem that reelyActive is solving today is how to make any physical space context-aware by harmonising the heterogeneous mix of ambient devices and ambient infrastructure already present in that space!

Time will tell whether the term Ambient IoT best describes the next evolution of what started 50 years ago as automatic identification and data capture (AIDC). But there are hundreds of billions (currently counting just BLE & RAIN RFID) and soon trillions of reasons to argue that the technology has already become invisibly omnipresent, and hence ambient, in our daily lives.

Happy IoT Day 2023!

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!

Neighbours in Radio History

On May 20th, 1920, history was made from the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. building in Montréal with the transmission of the world’s first scheduled radio broadcast. An audience in Ottawa tuned in nearly two-hundred kilometres away to enjoy a live vocal performance which was transmitted successfully from an aerial atop the building on William Street, seen in the photo below.

Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. of Canada on William Street

The fact that our native Montréal occupies an important place in the history of radio is an obvious source of pride. But what is even more striking in the photo above is the neighbouring building to the right. It is in that building that reelyActive was founded in 2012 and in which our own pioneering radio experiments were first conducted, some, like our novel reel infrastructure, which have been in continuous operation on site to this day!

The birthplace of reelyActive and of broadcast radio are in fact William Street neighbours!

In 1920, experimental was the idea of a scheduled radio broadcast to an audience who would intentionally tune in at a regional scale. One hundred years later, radio broadcasts have gone from sparse to ubiquitous and from human-to-human (H2H) largely to machine-to-machine (M2M). As such, experimental today is the idea of spontaneous radio broadcasts to opportunistic machine-audiences at a human scale of no more than tens of metres. In other words, radio broadcasts have become ambient data, and, today, we are pioneering the opportunity to embrace the ambient data in your space.

The neighbourhood of Griffintown is also the birthplace of the industrial revolution in Canada.

The connection between the historic neighbourhood in which reelyActive was founded and the role it played in the first industrial revolution was never lost on us in light of our own connection with Industry 4.0. However, we hadn’t realised how literally close we were to the history of radio until we stumbled upon recent articles on the Web which deeply connected us with our immediate physical surroundings. Imagine how much richer the human experience could be if our physical location and context were continuously (and consensually!) connected with the wealth of digital information on the Web! That’s exactly what we call hyperlocal context, enabled by our Pareto Anywhere open source software which, by combining short-range broadcast radio and the Internet, in effect, makes physical spaces searchable like the Web.

Read more about the centennial of radio broadcasting from the Montreal Gazette, Canadian Antique Phonograph Society and Ultra TCS (formerly Marconi).

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.