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

Summary

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.

Limited Edition Artisanal Hub

Limited Edition Artisinal Hub

Disclaimer: this is a sillyActive blog post and, although the featured hub is in fact real (it was our first prototype back in January 2012) nothing else in the post should be taken seriously in any way. Enjoy!

Today we are proud to unveil our limited edition artisanal reelyActive hub. The product of countless months of intensive research and development, this hub represents the cutting edge in not only reel-to-Ethernet connectivity, but also DC transmission line power injection.

Connaisseurs will appreciate the raw beauty of the solid oak base. Hand cut and unfinished, it symbolizes the natural quality of this product. The wood pairs beautifully with the stainless steel of the two meticulously selected hose clamps, each coupling an active design element in delicate balance.

The hub’s energy resonates from a vintage Atari AC/DC converter. Just as audiophiles appreciate the subtleties of power supply construction, we have spared no expense in selecting the finest examples from the late nineteen-seventies, long recognized as the golden age of 12VDC converters. A generous length of cable ensures enough reach for the hub to be showcased as the centrepiece of any modern room.

The design is brought to life by the GW215 RS-422-to-Ethernet serial device server. Its gently blinking LEDs remind that this is a fully functioning piece of art. Housed in a full-metal enclosure, and featuring exposed terminal blocks, it brings an industrial intensity to the design, in juxtaposition with the recreational air of the Atari power supply.

Finally, reel connectivity is provided with the ultimate evolution in twisted pair cable design. Building on the foundations of Denon’s revolutionary AKDL1, our Cat5e pairs are hand twisted in perfect balance by master craftsmen. Exotic, noise-suppressing tie-wraps secure the cable to the harness at carefully selected locations. Each pair is then routed to the corresponding terminal block following a geometrically-optimal curve radius.

The result is an unmatched example of form, function and art. A must for any serious IoT or RTLS collector. Reserve your limited edition artisanal hub today as quantities are limited!

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.

Connected Things: a decade of progress?

The above video, the infamous Legomercial, is about to celebrate its ten year anniversary. In January 2003, over the span of a week, I built the Lego sets, shot the stop motion using a Lego webcam, wrote the entire score using an Alesis Quadrasynth and produced the video using VideoWave, the rendering taking hours on an AMD Duron 700MHz. We played the video in a non-stop loop for two days at our booth at the Davis Centre of the University of Waterloo as we showed off our fourth-year design project.

The project: a web-connected home automation system. Three engineering classmates and I built a web server, an embedded client, a digital controller and a few analog sensors and actuators. Essentially, you could use a web page to turn electrical outlets on and off in your home. You could read your thermostat remotely. And you could remotely trigger the Ferris Bueller doorbell message to play off of a CD-ROM. And it all worked!

I bring this up because at LeWeb’12 in Paris, SmartThings demoed remotely turning on and off a Christmas tree in Minnesota by using a smartphone. It was a great demo with a sexy mobile app and the audience loved it. But it gave me flashbacks to 2003 when people told us we were late to the game and that X10 already enabled the connected home. So if the technology exists, and people are excited by the idea, why are there still so few connected Things in the home?

Fuck Yeah Internet Fridge asks the age old question “why doesn’t my fridge have the Internet yet?” In the Legomercial, we show the connected oven (Samsung has now built this), the doorbell camera (now crowd-fundable as Doorbot) and the pet feeder (which you can have today as FeedandGo). So there’s been some progress, but contrast that to the following:

  • the mobile device in your pocket today is more powerful than the computer used to create and render the Legomercial and it even shoots photos and videos
  • we had to build and host our own web server for the system to work whereas today you could have that up and running on AWS in minutes
  • in the Legomercial we show the Netscape browser (we avoided IE back then too), Web 2.0 has come a long, long way since then

All this to say that the idea of connecting Things is as cool as ever, but progress lags far, far behind mobile devices, the cloud and the web. So, will 2013 finally be the year of the Internet of Things? Will it be consumer applications that lead the way? Will GE’s Industrial Internet or Cisco’s Internet of Everything lead the way? Time will tell, but one thing’s for sure, it’s not technology that’s holding us back.

LeWeb’12 Paris: Location and Context

LeWeb'12 conference floor

In the photo above you see the conference floor at LeWeb’12 in Paris, aka the place where you go to get food, coffee and wine. The previous sentence demonstrates the importance of location and context. This blog post is about just that!

The theme at LeWeb’12 being the Internet of Things, there was no shortage of presentations on Things that connect to the Internet. Those Things may be sensors or actuators, or, literally by definition, anyThing. Regardless of what they are, in all cases, these Things are exchanging information, they’re creating, consuming and moving data.

Data scientist DJ Patil opened his presentation with a slide of the Internet of Things, with the word Internet crossed out and replaced with the word Data. He argued that it’s not just about connecting Things and generating data, but adding context and putting the data to good use. In fact, that’s quite possibly a greater challenge than connecting the Things in the first place!

Cyborg anthropologist Amber Case followed his presentation with excellent complementary arguments. She spoke of the need for frictionless data correlation. In other words, what good is it if the Data of Things lives in multiple, separate silos? Another key argument: “location should empower people”. Imagine the “invisible button” where the presence of a person (or Thing) is enough to trigger an action. Location matters!

Nokia’s Marko Ahtisaari also spoke of the “importance of place”. He presented the City Lens project which visually augments your surroundings with contextual data. According to the Nokia booth staff, this is equally applicable to indoor environments, which may explain Nokia co-launching the In-Location alliance three months earlier.

Finally, during Om Malik’s interview of Matt Mullenweg, the Internet of Things discussion turned toward the effects of an increasingly connected world on individuality. Fortunately, Om thinks the IoT will create hyper-personalized experiences rather than turn humans into conformist robots. And that is our hope too: by creating more data with full accessibility, and by including location and establishing context, the hyper-connected world becomes a progressive hyper-personalized world for its human (cyborg) inhabitants!

LeWeb’12 Paris: Connecting Things

Notre Dame has nothing to do with connected things...

What Things are being connected and how? Here’s a brief summary from our perspective at LeWeb’12:

SmartThings

SmartThings may look like connected home meets Kickstarter, but at LeWeb they announced a $3M round for a much larger vision: the Open Physical Graph. It’s great to see investors excited about an open ecosystem, and this may very well be the catalyst for major advances that extend far beyond the Internet of Things!

Ninja Blocks

Ninja Blocks is another Kickstarter hardware project that’s making big waves. At LeWeb they announced that they’re opening not only their software but also their hardware. Now anyone can build on an already capable platform that includes a connected computer (Ninja Block) and an if-this-then-that style web interface (Ninja Cloud). While the current examples lean towards connected home, it’s clear that the platform can be applied to much, much more.

SIGFOX

SIGFOX is an M2M infrastructure for Things, and it already covers just about the whole of France, requiring only a thousand or so base stations. Things can communicate over kilometers, sending messages of a few bytes. And their target is a $1/year/Thing and a $1 device. If you’ve ever priced hardware and plans for M2M over cellular, you’ll appreciate how disruptive this is!

Sen.se

Sen.se is an open platform in beta that explicitly intends to extend beyond Things, including humans, environments and much more in the mix. SmartThings and Ninja Blocks have far more advanced platforms, but perhaps their twist on the vision will generate traction. They ended their presentation with the tagline “The Meaning of Life”™ (yes, with the trademark), but gave due credit to Monty Python.

Orange MyPlug

The MyPlug from French giant Orange is a connected-home play that has the advantage of easy configuration: it uses a cellular plan with three years of service included in the purchase price of 80 Euros. Conclusion: the carriers can fight SIGFOX’s cost/simplicity advantage (at least for non-battery-operated devices) but, without an open platform, can this ever become more than a novelty/experiment?

Koubachi

Let’s wrap up with the Koubachi, a $99 WiFi plant health monitor. That description alone highlights many of the problems of the present-day IoT. First, if the sensor costs more than the Thing it’s monitoring, the economics simply don’t work. Second, simple sensors shouldn’t speak WiFi (did you enjoy that alliteration?). In fairness, CEO Philipp Bolliger acknowledges this fact, lamenting the lack of a ubiquitous infrastructure for Things. And finally, how will this device connect to and communicate with the open platforms described above?

In summary, it’s wonderful to see so many visions already extending beyond the Internet of Things, but then you have Nest CEO Tony Fadell suggesting that the Internet of Things is a decade away. As is often the case, it’s less an issue of the technology being ready and more an issue of society being ready. The hyper-connected world needs to become far more compelling if we want it to percolate to the top of everyone’s wishlist anytime soon!