A report from the IoT futures unconference hosted by BBC R&D on 7th November 2012.
I was very fortunate to be invited to an event hosted by BBC Research and Development at which participants got to explore what a playful Internet of Things (IoT) might look like. Which made a refreshing change from more typical use cases envisaged for the IoT that concern supply chain, utilities, healthcare and other vitally important, but perhaps not quite as fun, applications.
The scene was set by members of the R&D team who gave a background to some of the current thinking at the BBC, which included how the IoT could be used to enhance the viewing experience beyond “second screen” by placing physical actors in the home environment. These could be, for example, animated toys that are scripted alongside on-screen actors. A simple demonstration of which was provided using a toy Dalek which had been modified to include an Arduino and other electronics, enabling it to burst into life whenever Daleks appeared on the screen behind it.
Driven by participants
As anyone who has taken part an unconference — e.g. a BarCamp — will know it's all about participation and the organisers provide only a framework and resources etc. and the rest is up to participants.
Following the introduction from the BBC we were invited to propose session titles and to place these onto a whiteboard. Four rooms were made available and six 30 minute slots, with these all quickly filled up and a total of 24 topics of discussion in all.
What follows is a brief summary of just some of the discussion from each of the sessions I took part in.
The Internet in space
This session was led by Jon Rogers from the University of Dundee, and started with Jon telling us about his work on a collaboration with NASA to explore new ways of making sense of data from the Mars Rover and the Space Station etc. With one potential application of the IoT being to provide a real-time link between sensors in space and Earth-based models. So, to give a very simple example, when a sensor in space detects an event, an LED on a model here on Earth could flash.
Another possibility briefly discussed was to use data from space-based cameras to drive 3D printers on Earth in, or approaching, real-time.
With both of these examples the idea would be to make space more tangible; to in effect reduce the distance, but without having to go anywhere, by making data physical.
Jon also happened to be leading the next session I took part in and here the discussion was centred around printed electronics, and used conductive ink and capacitive sensing as an example technology, with the newspaper industry providing the application. Questions being asked included could physical newspapers become smart and provide an experience which goes further than providing the best of online and print, and “does the Internet need to be shiny and flat?”
There was much discussion whether, even with the lowering cost of flexible electronics, something as disposable as a newspaper would ever be a viable target for such technology, with some suggesting that magazines and books would be better candidates. Which, unfortunately, wouldn't help with the objective of keeping newspapers profitable such that we can continue to benefit from professional journalism. However, with only 30 minutes we barely got to scratch the surface!
The IoT is rubbish
Cefn Hoile proposed a somewhat controversial topic of discussion for an assembly of IoT researchers and practitioners, but there was a rationale behind this arresting title. In short this was that the IoT as it currently stands is, well, let's say less than great. However, it needn't be so ...
The discussion got off to a start with Cefn likening the IoT to electricity and his plea was to not create “electric hats”. Expanding on this to say that we shouldn't, as with the initial availability of electricity supply, go off imagining all sorts of fantastical IoT applications — applications which nobody has a need for, nobody will use and that are ultimately doomed to failure.
Using the analogy of transportation via wheeled vehicles, Cefn suggested that what we must do is to find the axles, and connect these to the IoT. So, just as the horse was replaced by steam power and then by diesel and electricity, we must find the applications which exist now and that would be significantly improved by becoming part of the IoT. Where are the pain points and what things would benefit greatly by being connected to the Internet (hint: it's likely not a refrigerator)?
The BBC as an aggregator
The BBC performs a vital role in bringing the UK together as a nation and in doing so it occupies a unique position. The question being asked here was how we could take advantage of that position in the context of the IoT.
I suggested that one possibility would be for the BBC to provide an ecosystem for IoT applications that comprised, for example:
a data platform;
SDKs for IoT node integration, e.g. WSNs, Android and iOS devices;
developer APIs, e.g. RESTful data access for web applications;
an open licensing framework, e.g. Creative Commons;
guidelines and best practices, e.g. concerning privacy and data quality.
The role of the BBC would be to act as a very literal aggregator: to bring together mostly existing technologies and tools, and provide a common data platform (or platform abstraction) and support that makes application creation and scaling much easier.
It was suggested that applications could also be linked with current programming, e.g. a campaign that crowd-sources light pollution data via the IoT could run alongside an astronomy season.
Connecting local makerspaces
Hannah Goraya of Sheffield's GIST Foundation saw an opportunity to link together makerspaces —including in this definition hackerspaces — in order that they, and the wider IoT community, can benefit from being part of a much larger network. A clear link here being that such spaces tend to be a hotbed of grassroots innovation, with many people experimenting with the Internet of Things via Arduino and more recently Raspberry Pi.
There was also a discussion around whether the KTN IoT SIG could play a part in bringing together industry and grassroots communities, and some of the opportunities that this would afford.
Official outputs to come
It was obvious that the BBC had put a lot of thought and hard work into organising the event, and they'd also enlisted the help of a team of students from Salford and Ravensbourne universities to act as scribes during each session.
We were told that the outputs from the day will be made public in due course, I look forward to finding out about what happened in the sessions I couldn't attend, and I'm sure the footage and notes from those that I did will fill in the copious gaps in my own notes!
In the meantime those curious can find out more by doing a Twitter search on the #playiot hashtag.
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