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Sensor Web Begins to Form: 2008

Simple technologies utilised to become ubiquitous 'magic'.

We have been saying for some time now, that the sensor web - the ubiquitous, embedded computing network that pervades everything and everywhere - will be upon us soon. Last year, we looked at the growing interconnectivity of social tagging, and upsurge in GPS devices and wearable computing.

This year, the focus is on pervading those technologies into every nook and cranny of life. In addition, of course, the devices on offer are in almost all cases, a decisive improvement on the status of various technologies on offer this time last year.

We start by looking at the town of Rosenburg, in Germany. Here last year, Rafael Ballagas developed for his doctoral thesis, a 'magic wand' that tourists could use to see the sights. If they saw something interesting, they could 'wave the wand at it' and hear a voice start to describe the cultural, or historical significance of the item. This year, the city council is implementing that system.

The 'wand' is basically a mobile phone, with GPS locator device, and a few other electronic components, which rather than packaged in a standard phone case, is streamlined into a wand-like shape. It can also only dial pre-set numbers. Each time it is waved at an item, it takes its own GPS co-ordinates, snaps a picture of what it is being waved at, then silently dials one of the city servers, and retrieves a pre-recorded voice spiel matching the location closest to the GPS co-ordinates it supplies.

At the end of the spiel, it hangs up, to free up bandwidth for other tourists and mobile phone users.

At the end of the trip, the phone plays back the entire log of incoming calls - from the servers only, of course - along with photos of whatever it 'saw' onto a variety of recording media for the tourists to take back with them.

Simple technologies utilised to become ubiquitous 'magic'.

Surprisingly, again and again, it is the humble mobile phone that is being used to create these devices, and bring the basics of a sensor web into being.

An umbrella planned by Nokia includes all the essential components of a mobile phone inside its handle. Again, it also contains GPS hardware, and in this case, an accelerometer, and an LED skin. Pick it up, and the accelerometer identifies the change in motion, silently dialling out, the single number it can. Taking its GPS co-ordinates, it asks the central server for a weather report for that location for the day.

Its not a breach of privacy, as it does not care who it was picked it up, only that it was picked up by someone.

If the weather report indicates it is unlikely to be needed, the LEDs in the handle glow green. If rain is coming, the LEDs flash red instead, in different patterns and speeds indicating the probable severity.

Additionally, Nokia have mentioned the possibility of this umbrella service being free - after all, it only ever dials one number, briefly. To compensate for their costs, it could serve advertising; the inbuilt speakers calling out advertising offers from locations close to the GPS co-ordinates, or global brands as soon as it is disturbed. A pay service would probably also be available, without advertising - but this service would of course be able to track you everywhere you go -as its 'your' umbrella.

On the flip side, an umbrella that tells the server its location every time it is moved, would be impossible to steal, if its signed up to a paid account.

Further Reading

My Life in a Video Game (Batteries Not Included)

Ubiquitous Computing - The Bleeding Edge

CES: A weather predicting umbrella

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