Webstock: Cheap as chips - your networked chair

By Miraz Jordan

Adam Greenfield, Nokia's head of design direction for interface and services, sees network-building possibilities everywhere.
Adam Greenfield, Nokia's head of design direction for interface and services, sees network-building possibilities everywhere.

What would you say if I told you the chair you're sitting on is reporting back to the network? It might not be happening right now, but the way Adam Greenfield sees it that scenario might not be far away.

He points out that computer devices are becoming ever cheaper and easier to use and connect. If the pattern of history holds true we'll soon be connecting all sorts of objects around us into a network.

That could easily include the chair you're sitting on, the water cooler nearby, streetlights, the bridge across the river or harbour.

Computer chips are cheap, and getting cheaper. Connecting to a network is cheap. Soon, instead of saying "Why would I connect this chair?" we'll say "Why not? Let's do it. We'll figure out later how that could be useful."

Almost a decade ago Adam Greenfield - now Nokia's head of design direction for user interface and services - was tired of the web.

He says: "I was absolutely bored stupid. The web didn't have any magic or mystery from early 2002."

When smart people around him said mobile was the new best thing he didn't find that exciting. He was looking for a reason to be cheerful and wanted to recapture an intellectual spark in his daily work, but mobile wasn't it.

He looked further and came across something called Ubiquitous Computing. That intrigued him so much he wrote the book about it: Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing.

It's Ubiquitous Computing that might put a networked computer chip in your chair. It's not that far-fetched.

"Why would I care about putting a bunch of sensors and network radios into a chair? Why would I want to do that?" Greenfield asks. "The cost of doing it is so low that any return on that investment justifies doing it."

He sees truck drivers, corner dairy owners, family members, neighbours all being surrounded by a network of things. We'll all be walking round amongst networked signs and cameras, parking meters and doors that know what's going on in their environment, sharing the information with, well, someone.

In 1960 a single huge and expensive mainframe computer may have had 100 highly expert users who understood all its ins and outs. 50 years later millions of people are still struggling to cope one to one with a small computer on their own desk.

But a new era is upon us. Already we're all interacting every day with dozens of devices with computer chips in them: washing machines, car engines, cards for bus travel, cellphones, cameras, TV decoders, GPS units.

Like it or not we've already switched from a ratio where 100 people use 1 computer. We've even moved past 1 person to 1 computer. Soon it'll be 100 computer devices per person.

The thing is, 1 device adds more to a network than you'd think. Greenfield quotes Metcalf's Law: "The value of a network increases as the square of the number of nodes connected to that network."

So every time we add one thing, one traffic light, one security camera, one weather station "we get new leaps and new progress", says Greenfield.

There's another layer to this Ubiquitous Computing too: we can't ignore it just because we're not interested, or don't understand the term.

Greenfield gives an example of the people who play a game called FourSquare.

Participants use their mobile phones to 'check in' at various locations - cafes, bars, art galleries and so on. They earn points and 'badges' when they check in and may even receive actual rewards, such as discounts on drinks.

Now, if passersby see a line of people at a bar and don't know about FourSquare then they are missing out.

That's a bit of a trivial example, but Greenfield is exploring as yet unthought of possibilities here. More 'serious' applications will emerge.

After all, we know that in 2010 anyone who doesn't use the web may be missing out on democratic opportunities, financial benefits or even just fun.

This new emergence of ubiquitous networked devices raises many issues such as design and privacy. After all, do you want your mother or your boss to know everything you've been doing in your spare time?

While the rest of us try to absorb the ideas from Everyware, Greenfield is about to write a new book: The City Is Here For You To Use. I'm sure that will be equally thought-provoking.


- Miraz Jordan knowit.co.nz interviewed Adam Greenfield when he was in Wellington to speak at the Webstock conference.

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