Tuesday 22 May 2012, Crayon London
By Koen van Dam
After previously attending the Internet of Things Meetup Meetup #6, it was only a matter of time before DCE would return to another edition of this informal get-together of a community focused on machine to machine communication, open data and trying to change the world. For IoT Meetup #8 the talks had a smart city/smart home/energy focus.
Before the three speakers gave their short presentation sparking off some interesting debates, Owen Davies explained the recent rebranding of Pachube to Cosm. In addition to providing a fresh new design and a name which is easier to pronounce (no more feeling smug hearing other people struggle with this after finally getting it right yourself), the new website wants to offer users more than just a place to store their data to be processed elsewhere. New graphs, maps and data visualisation are part of this. Furthermore, Cosm wants to be a stronger community-based platform, making it easier to see what others are doing and how they use their data and to facilitate discussions.
Claire Rowland, service design manager at AlertMe, a company specialising in home energy and security monitors, gave an inspiring view of how the user experience with smart home devices should look like. She stated that “a home is not a computer”, not the least because homes can be messy and things are not black or white as would be the view of a computer. A clear example of this would be a teenager sulking in the bedroom: present in the house (so don’t set the burglar alarm) but not really actively interacting with the rest of the family at that point either (so don’t go in there and ask if the temperature is right). Furthermore, the house is the last place you want to feel out of control and computers sometimes do make us feel like we’re not fully in charge (especially when they are not working as they are supposed to). As a result, Claire stated that any technology incorporated in the home should feel “homely”. An alarm system using terms like “armed” or “disarmed”, for example, make it sound as if there is a war going on instead of providing you with peace of mind before going to bed. Finally, what other companies building home energy management systems or a burglar alarms do wrong, is that they create devices that require more attention, not less. It will be interesting to see how AlertMe is going to address these challenges, especially when we see a world in which more choices may have to be made by the consumer (e.g. which energy supplier to use, when to run the washing machine so it’s the cheapest, at what time to charge an electric vehicle so the carbon emissions are the lowest, etc). If devices don’t bug us for the ordinary tasks it could make life simpler, but on the other hand we would give up some autonomy as well… and we’d have to trust the algorithms to make the right choices.
Paul Tanner shared his search for a low-power home hub. Such a device would sit in between the sensors and actuators in your home and the (cloud-based) services that can do something useful with the data and allow you to control it. Since a hub would always be turned on, low energy use is a key requirement. Of course the hub needs to speak different languages and protocols to talk to all possible devices, and can be programmed in a flexible and efficient way (for example using Node.js). Unfortunately, Paul hasn’t yet found the ideal device… but surely he’ll keep on looking and playing around with what is currently available on the market.
Tracy Hopkins of machine to machine technology and network provider Neul explained why she thinks white space – the license-free UHF broadcasting frequencies that became available after the switch to digital television – is key for enabling the internet of things. Current wireless networks are not ready for the large volume of data that will be transmitted by sensors and other devices and to solve this Neul promotes a new open communication standard called Weightless. This would offer a low cost way to transmit data since, after an initial investment in a base station, people could operate their own networks. Tracy expects that smart cities will drive the internet of things, and they have already done some trials in this domain (e.g. refuse collection based on bins that tell the council they are full).
So, we need good user experience for home (energy) management, a low-power hub to tie it all together within the house, and a wireless network to turn this into a smart city. It’s a good thing all these issues are being addressed with the same enthusiasm!