Radar Roundup: Sensors

Guest blogger Dylan Field is an intern at O’Reilly and Senior at Technology High School in Rohnert Park, CA, where he is a member of the FIRST Robotics team, Dylan is especially interested in Computer Science, Mathematics,and Statistics.

In his “Web Meets World” talk at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York last September, Tim O’Reilly described where he saw the web heading. “The next stage of Web 2.0 is going to be driven by sensors,” he said. “We are moving out of the world in which people typing on keyboards are going to be driving collective intelligence applications.”

Like all transitions, the incorporation of data from the physical web onto existing platforms is gradual. We are just beginning to see applications surface and the best is still ahead of us. Below are a few observations, predictions, and implementations of this emerging trend.

Sensors Help Keep Elderly Safe
This New York Times article highlights how Seniors are taking advantage of sensors so they can continue to live independently. Sensor systems are able to detect everything from neglected pills to glucose levels to falls. Seniors seem to like the systems, as do their relatives. “In the past, I tried to spend more time on, ‘How are you feeling?’ ” Marvin Joss says. “I still ask those questions, but now it’s more to an idea of having a conversation, not trying to listen for clues about whether she’s O.K.”

The Demon-Haunted World
If I had to use one word to describe this presentation by Dopplr’s Matt Jones, it would be “Psychogeography,” a term developed by French Theorist Guy Debord. Psychogeography is defined informally as “a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities…just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape.” Jones cites examples like twittering bridges and pollution sensing robotic dogs to back up a claim by architect Richard Rogers that “Our cities are increasingly linked, and learning.” “It seems to me like there are a bunch of hackers reclaiming information from the city,” says Jones. “[They are] gardening it without permission.”

SENSEable City Laboratory
MIT’s SENSEable City Laboratory uses sensors to understand the macro-dynamics of cities. For example, in one experiment the lab collected all cellphone usage in Rome for one night. They then aggregated the data and produced a visualization showing how people moved around and where events were taking place. If we had real time access to this kind of information, how would it affect our choices? Would we decide not to eat at a particular restaurant because it is too crowded? Would we choose our entertainment based on the flow of the crowd?

AMEE and Google PowerMeter
AMEE and Google PowerMeter are two ways the “here’s your data, do something with it” methodology can be used to make people aware of their carbon footprints. Both use sensors such as smart meters to track and display energy consumption over time. (Disclaimer: OATV is an investor in AMEE.)

In a previous partnership between the two companies, Google used AMEE’s profiling engine to let users calculate their carbon footprints. After completing the web form, users were taken to a Google Map mashed up with the carbon footprints of those nearby. Soon, we’ll be able to do this without the web form. Like O’Reilly said, we are slowly transitioning out of a world where people typing on keyboards are driving collective intelligence.

What role do you see sensors playing in your life? How do you interact with them now? Does the possibility of sensor driven collective intelligence frighten or excite you? Post a comment and let us know.

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  • Jessie Buechner

    What role do you see sensors playing in your life?
    Not in my life directly, but I have seen sensors playing a role in my Grandma’s life. Many people make fun of those old school commercials, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” But in actuality, that’s the truth and I’m glad she has one for her safety.
    I’ve also heard about checking cars to see the amount of excess pollution that they give off. Although my car has not been personally checked, this censoring method will help eliminate cars that do not meet criteria.

    Does the possibility of sensor driven collective intelligence frighten or excite you?
    The idea of SmartMeters is very exciting; I would be very prone to using it to check whether or not my favorite restaurant was too crowded and/or how long I would have to wait. It would be a great convenience and so I wouldn’t be frightened in the slightest.

  • Nice piece, Dylan. Thought I’d take a stab at your questions.

    There are a lot of sensors already in play that people take for granted. Every time you pass your credit card through a card reader, you’re giving data to a sensor. Join http://www.wesabe.com to see just how much collective intelligence can already be extracted from that sensor data stream, and extrapolate from there.

    If you use an iPhone or a gPhone, you’ve got a whole host of sensors in there: an accelerometer, a location sensor (cell tower triangulation), a proximity sensor — and don’t forget the microphone and the camera. Look at all the programs that use the camera to scan barcodes (well, maybe not on the iPhone) and semacodes; consider the new face recognition software in iPhoto. Again, extrapolate from there. Note that when you do a search with the google mobile app, you may be calling a couple of sensors into play: the microphone, the accelerometer, and the location sensor. That’s why a search for pizza gets you the local pizza place rather than the wikipedia entry…

    And of course, the cell phone’s tower triangulation signals can be read from the outside too. Path Intelligence (an OATV investment in the UK) uses this information to count foot traffic in shopping malls, and in other applications where anonymous headcounts are useful.

    If you have fastrak or other similar toll payment system in your car, there’s another one for you. Data isn’t yet being shared, but it could be. Now, how about your in-car GPS. Oh, and don’t forget the tire pressure sensors, which can also be hacked to track you, since each has a unique id. (Google for it – the story was on slashdot last year.)

    That’s not to mention the eye-in-the-sky cameras that make Google Earth possible, or the driving cameras that make Google Street View work. All these are network-connected sensors.

    Now pay attention to the lights that turn on when you enter the room, or the escalators that start up. Right now, they aren’t net connected, but that’s the whole point of the “smart grid” – to make all power-consuming devices part of a responsive network.

    Oh, and by the way, Gavin Starks, the founder of AMEE, another O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures investment, noted that in homes with smart meters, the energy signatures of the various devices are so obvious that you can tell the make and model of each major appliance. (He just gave a talk at ETech about the privacy implications; I can imagine that the marketers are slavering over this.)

    And that’s even before we get into the biomedical realm….

    The future gets very interesting, very fast, from here on out.

  • I wrote something along these lines (http://smart-city.re-configure.org) that was published in a book called “Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace” (free version here http://tinyurl.com/3859nn)

    As a researcher, writer, and executive director for the non-profit Earth Intelligence Network, I’ve been posting resources related to these kinds of themes, along with alot of other interesting content (spanning 2007-2009) here http://tinyurl.com/5m5vho and more recently at http://twitter.com/earthintelnet

  • Gigi

    Personally, the potential for sensor technology seems very exciting! As in any technology however, there looms the possibility of increasingly aware and targeted crimes as well as privacy issues. I wonder if needed policy/governance will keep up with the bleeding edge. Also any thoughts on need for systems to handle such large volumes of data in a real time manner? What protocol will/are these sensor devices using? Is there a standard? Sorry for all the questions :)

    Jason – that was an awesome share! I am now following earthintelnet as well :)

  • What role do you see sensors playing in your life? Well Dylan, I’d like to think they saved my life, or at least they have improved the quality and increased my life expectancy.

    At 42 years old I was on meds for high blood pressure, cholesterol, acid reflux and asthma. I was also 50 pounds heavier. I decided to drop down to my college weight and see if I could get off the meds. My doctor told me that it was a probably a genetic thing but I decided to give it a try.

    I bought a few fitness sensors: a heart rate monitor and speed and cadence sensors for cycling and started tracking my weight versus my blood pressure, resting pulse and calories burned working out coming from my heart monitor. I had a plan and if I varied from it, I simply increased my caloric burn. Long story short, using these sensors I was able to drop the 50 pounds, had a physical and was taken off all the meds. I have been med-free for a year and a half.

    So I decided to try to make it more cool, fun and simple for others to do what I did. The hardest part was the tracking of data. So I founded a startup, iTMP Technology, and we set out to get distributed fitness sensor data into the iPhone allowing for its convergence with fitness computers, and then allowing a one tap upload to the cloud.

    With our wireless bridge, SMHEART LINK, users can now monitor their workouts on their iPhone and because it’s cloud-enabled, they can effortlessly send the data to our growing list of partner websites:

    I hope that now that it is fun and simple, more people can take personal responsibility for their health instead of taking meds.

    When Tim Russert passed away, I read an article that said his final legacy was: “Don’t test to health, live to health.” He was on meds for cholesterol and high blood pressure that made his numbers look acceptable yet he left us at age 58.

  • Dylan,

    I really enjoyed your piece – thanks. As a tech exec and a volunteer judge and mentor for FIRST robotics, I see the power of hw-sw-cloud-crowd connection you’re describing.

    Good luck to you and your team at the Davis regional competition!


  • H.K.

    Dylan, nice piece. Micheal, your post is a rare and direct look into the real potential of this technology used productively. It’s not overly expensive or technical either. While it is undoubtedly useful, it’s a thin line to walk privacy wise. This digital security site has helped me protect myself in the digital landscape.