Sunday, July 13, 2008

Is a new generation of smart objects about to change our lives?

An MTI Micro Mobion fuel-cell recently worked for 2,700 hours of continuous use in a cell phone. (Press release.)  



While amazing, what really startles me is how much this could change our world. This was a very small, lightweight battery. Combined with technologies like Skyhook, a technology that can fit on a mere camera memory card and yet can pinpoint your location without GPS in 70% of populated areas in the U.S. and Canada (and 50% of Europe), our world---and privacy---is changing rapidly.



For example, the just-released iPhone pinpoints your location in three (!) ways: by GPS, and by triangulating from both Wi-Fi hot spots (Skyhook) and cellphone tower proximity (Google system). It really strikes me how there has been a very small technology barrier--mostly having to do with cost---that has kept a lot of new "smart devices" from invading our lives. As new products come faster and faster to market (particularly in Japan) it seems there is very little keeping smart objects in products and materials from dramatically changing our lives.  



How could smart objects change our world?



How about sensors built throughout bridges, transmitting data about stress, aging and damage? Locks could transmit their state. Know the status of all doors at your house, business, storage unit, vacation cabin, etc. What if you could call your key ring (or purse, bicycle, pet collar, etc.) and have it beep, flash a light, send a GPS coordinate and a low-res 180 degree photo from it's current location? Any valuable object of sufficient size could come pre-built with an embedded device for tracking.



Kiss your privacy goodbye?



The forces that want to track our every movement have several technology barriers to doing so. The biggest one is not being able to use inexpensive devices with simple power requirements. Add wireless, GPS and RFIDs to self-powered smart objects and it's game-changing. Low power sensors and displays could last for decades with this kind of technology, all without being connected to any kind of power. Security cameras could be in a lot more places. You could embed RFIDs into building components and have workers wear transmitters at work (or vice-versa) to quickly find workers on large projects.  



Instantly more popular devices



Things like wearable computers, wireless photo frames, battery-operated lights (like stick-up closet lights) and electric screwdrivers just got a lot more popular. Toy designers can now look forward to what they can create with a lot more action to them now that worrying about frequent charging or battery changes can be a thing of the past. But add a little solar power boosting and a wireless data connection and it's mind-boggling what is possible (not to mention GPS, RFIDs, motion sensing, etc.) Smart objects could be everywhere and anywhere.  



Remote controls



This means more things could be operated with a remote control. Your office chair could work like the electric seat adjustments in a luxury car, with a touch control under the armrest operating a battery pack under the chair. You could have stick lights under railings that glow to illuminate the stairs for safety, recharging via solar when bright, glowing only when needed.  



Combine with RFIDs, GPS and motion sensors



For things that move, put a motion sensor and GPS on them and transmit via the mobile phone network or local wireless to a computer interpreting their data. The problem with RFIDs is that something has to generate power to read their data. Now, anything can generate power so you can have more data reading stations, or make them mobile.



Instead of putting an RFID chip on a pet collar, you could put the reader in the collar, and put the chips throughout the home. Now the pet can transmit their location by having a computer triagulate to RFIDs they are near. Will computers one day track the 3D travels of your pets throughout the house to analyze if their health has changed?



While this is all just top-of-my-head speculation, long-life portable power DOES have huge implications for the world we live in.

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