Anthony Doesburg: An invitation to write the future

By Anthony Doesburg

Movement aims to connect almost everything to the internet.

Calling all developers, designers, makers, mixers, mashers, tinkerers, philosopher-mechanics and sales engineers!"

If it sounds like an invitation to join a voyage of discovery, that may not be far from the truth.

It's the cry that went up to get people along to a 24-hour hackathon in London and elsewhere starting at 3am tomorrow (NZT).

The event is to support Global internet of Things Day. That's tomorrow, as decreed by European advocacy group the internet of Things Council.

For the uninitiated, a hackathon brings computer programmers together for a concerted spell of code-writing. But this time the brief is wider: "Make something physical, or virtual; hardware or software; conceptual or practical - the point is for us to spend 24 hours connecting up our things to the web, our environments to our things, and our things to us," the organisers say.

What are they on about? The future of the internet, no less, and according to Richard MacManus, founder of technology blog ReadWriteWeb, it will end up being exponentially bigger than today's web.

"The internet of Things is when real-world objects become connected to the internet," says Wellington-based MacManus.

That might mean objects as diverse as cars, roads and buildings.

"Virtually everything that's an object in the world can and probably will be connected to the internet in the foreseeable future."

There are a handful of underlying technologies. Each "thing" will have some form of radio frequency identification (RFID) tag and sensor.

RFIDs are increasingly being used in the retail sector and, if their adoption has lagged predictions, it's because the price of the tags hasn't fallen as fast as expected. MacManus sees that changing in the next five years.

"I visited MIT about a year ago and they were working on a new type of RFID tag that would be very low cost," he says.

Just as crucial as turning tags into throwaway items is adoption of the new IPv6 internet addressing scheme, which will accelerate now that the 4 billion or so addresses possible under its predecessor, IPv4, are running out.

IPv6 has no such limitation: its coding scheme can accommodate 340 billion billion billion billion addresses - by one guesstimate enough for every atom on the surface of more than 100 Earth-size planets. Without IPv6 there would be no internet of Things, MacManus says.

MIT's Auto-ID Laboratory is a leader in internet of Things research, and technology companies such Cisco, IBM and Hewlett-Packard have related projects.

But there is also a big hacker (in the expert software and hardware developer sense of the word) community eager to connect all manner of things to the internet.

A rallying point is Pachube (said "patch-bay" - organiser of tomorrow's hackathon) - a website to which hackers can upload sensor data that others can use in applications.

A world map of data sources on pachube.com shows a handful of New Zealanders are supplying environment and energy-related sensor readings.

If you struggle to see the point of cluttering up cyberspace with a vast assortment of esoteric measurements, consider how hackers have responded to the Japanese earthquake and nuclear reactor emergency.

Two websites - rdtn.org and japan.failedrobot.com - have been set up to display data from a network of Geiger counters.

One of the people involved is Tokyo-resident American Chris Wang (hacker nickname Akiba - short for Akihabara, the city's electronic goods precinct he haunts), a Tokyo HackerSpace collective member whose day job is building equipment for a smart electricity grid.

When the Fukushima power plant started leaking radiation, there was widespread alarm in Tokyo and a run on Geiger counters. But through a US surplus goods supplier, Wang got hold of an analogue model that clicks faster or slower depending on the level of radioactivity.

"I set it up to count the clicks on a microcontroller and, based on the number of clicks per minute, converted that into a radiation measurement unit and sent that up to Pachube."

From there, it is being combined with other readings and published on japan.failedrobot.com, the purpose being to ensure the official figures aren't fudged.

"The other data corroborates the readings I'm collecting and the Government's numbers are relatively close," Wang says.

The way to think of Pachube, he says, is as a social network that shares information about the environment rather than individuals.

"A lot of this is in its infancy. It's going to take time for public adoption, but, in the meantime, there are a lot of twists and turns going on."

Including the hackathon.

Wang and his Tokyo hacker friends have decided not to take part, opting to help with earthquake recovery efforts instead.

Even for hackers, sometimes the real world takes precedence over the virtual one.

Connected world

Connecting physical objects to the internet opens up possibilities such as:

* Cars that report traffic conditions to other cars.

* Walk-through point-of-sales terminals that automatically deduct purchases from a shopper's account.

* Vehicles that "refuse to crash" into each other.

* Buildings that monitor every electrical appliance and adjust their energy demands.

* Sensors that track wear and tear on equipment, and call it in when maintenance is needed.

* Hospital beds that automatically monitor a patient's vital signs.

Anthony Doesburg is an Auckland technology journalist

- NZ Herald

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