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A relationship with the city

The Internet of Things 2010 Conference in Tokyo explored the interactions of humans with their built environment.

by Verena Dauerer

I magine you live in a house that communicates with you through an interface resembling the futuristic info-graphics in the science-fiction movie “Minority Report” — where actor Tom Cruise interacted with icons on an holographic touch screen. For example, a kitchen appliance, such as your fridge, displays a neat pie chart showing you’re running low on beer. As soon as you leave the house, the fridge orders more beer from an online store and gets it delivered before you return. This may not be the first scenario the organisers of the Internet of Things 2010 Conference had in mind. But it is a nice vision.

“The Internet of Things” (IoT) is a term coined by researchers at the Auto-ID Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the late 1990s, and refers to the interconnection between everyday objects over a network. This is achieved by sensors that are connected through a wireless network and use such things as radio-frequency identification (RFID) devices. In this construct, our world is constantly monitored through sensors that gather, analyse and visualize data in real time in a way we can instantly understand. This perpetual data flow is taking place purely as machine-to-machine interaction. To use the example above, it is the fridge opening your automated front door. But, the Internet of Things tries to avoid the negative connotation of machines operating on their own.

So, how can we avoid the dystopian vision of a world controlled by machines and chat with our house on friendly terms? This was the sort of topic covered last week at the IoT 2010 Conference in Nihonbashi, central Tokyo. The Japan Times went along to a couple of workshops to see what kind of things we can expect in the near future.

“Interactive Architecture: Connecting and Animating the Built Environment with the Internet of Things,” presented by media artist Scott S. Fisher and PhD researcher Jennifer Stein, both from the University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinematic Arts, looked at how interactive architecture evolves around responsive environments. By creating “smart spaces,” that sense what’s happening within them, data can be visualized and presented to inhabitants to make them aware of, for example, their energy consumption. Architects have been developing these kind of intelligent management systems using mobile sensors, RFID tags and QR barcodes placed throughout buildings. Fisher and Stein’s “Million Story Building” is one such project, and an example of “location-specific storytelling.”

For that project, researchers deployed about 5,000 sensors in a building so its information system could monitor the ventilation, air conditioning, mechanical and power systems and temperature and noise levels.

When visitors enter the building, an application on their smartphones sends a Twitter message about the user’s presence. The application then encourages the visitor to take photos on a topic, which are then uploaded to the photo-sharing network Flickr. Throughout the building there are movie posters on the walls containing QR codes which visitors can scan to get access to online trailers and reviews. Stein says, “Architects rarely think of what happens after a building is built and their job is done. We think about the life of a building and how the sensors’ data and the people, in combination, bring life to this architecture.”

The next step of the project will be to look for ways in which visitors can actually develop a relationship with the building. But how to build a personal connection with a concrete building? Stein explains that can be done “when people understand that they are an integral part of the environment and that their presence has a direct effect on the ecosystem of the building.” Displays will be installed on walls that track the visitors using near-field communication (NFC) — meaning they connect with the visitors’ devices through a short-range wireless connection.

The concept of a responsive environment is also being looked at on a larger scale. Today’s urban areas are increasingly monitored through sensors that gather data in real time and are connected through some sort of wireless network. The aim of architects, and others, is to use all of this data in a meaningful way to design a more comfortable environment for the people living in it — to design a smarter city.

In another workshop, “Urban IoT 2010: Urban Internet of Things — Towards Programmable Real-Time Cities,” various researchers, planners, designers and architects presented projects about connecting a city’s inhabitants with the data that is collected.

One interesting project shown was TenderNoise (tendernoise.movity.com) . Launched this June by Movity, a San Francisco-based startup, together with the data-visualization experts from design firm Stamen, and Arup, a global company specializing in city planning, the project visualized the noise level in San Francisco’s Tenderloin quarter, an area notorious for the number of fire engines passing through it. Using a sensor system to measure noise levels over several days they created an interactive map showing the aural impact on the area.

Another project, Tales of Things (www.talesofthings.com/) from England, has been online for six months. People can attach a QR code on any object or building. Through the Tales of Things iPhone or Android application they embed a web link that leads to an online database where they can add stories, images and links about the object. Ralph Bartel of University College London explains, “It is about creating a meaningful relationship through an object’s history.”Artists especially have been embracing the project since its launch.

In addition, there were many other promising projects presented at the conference that hinted at the kind of developments to come: A house that functions as your personal assistant? Smart cars that guide you around traffic jams? Or maybe a phone that annoyingly nags you about your energy consumption. The next Internet of Things event will be held in Shanghai in November 2012.

For more information visit www.iot2010.org