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Rory Cellan-Jones

Things that tweet

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 23 Jun 09, 12:00 GMT

Last week, to the bemusement and slight irritation of my producer, I said on camera as I filmed a piece about smartphones on the Isle of Wight ferry that I was doing the story there "for reasons too complicated to explain."

Well, the reason was that my real purpose for heading to the Isle of Wight was that I was on a mission to meet the house that tweets and learn more about an "internet of things". Complicated enough?

The house in question is an idyllic 16th century thatched cottage, just a 10-minute walk from the beach on the south coast of the Isle of Wight. It belongs to Andy Stanford-Clarke, who revels in the wonderful title of "distinguished engineer and master inventor" at IBM.

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He's also a man who brings his work home in the form of all sorts of projects to link his house to the outside world and monitor its activities, using the messaging software that is his key professional interest.

A while ago, he installed sensors on various objects around the house - the electricity meter, a bathroom window, some outside lights, even a mousetrap - and then channeled information from them via GPRS to a dashboard on his mobile phone, allowing him both to monitor energy usage, or even to change it by, say, switching off those outside lights.

Screengrab of andyhouse twitter pageBut now he has gone a whole stage further by signing the house up to Twitter. (Its account is andy_house, but you can only follow it if Andy lets you.)

The messages from those sensors now appear as "tweets". Here are a few recent ones:

"bathroom heater turned on"

"400 litres of water used so far today"

"gym temperature is cold"

"security system: door open"

So Andy can now follow exactly what his house is doing, in the same way as he might monitor the activities of Britney Spears, Ashton Kutcher, or any other of the millions of Twitterers - and who is to say whether it is any more or less interesting than them? At least he can be sure that it really is his house sending out the tweets, rather than a PR person.

But this Isle of Wight home isn't the only object communicating with the internet in this way:

• The Red Funnel ferry which brought me to the Isle of Wight also has a Twitter account(@Red_Ferries" 06:01 - Red Eagle is leaving Southampton")

Tower Bridge lets the world know as it opens and closes (@towerbridge: "I am closing after the MV Dixie Queen has passed downstream")

Screengrab of the Lovell telescope twitter page• The giant Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank tells us where it is pointing (@LovellTelescope:"Obs: space (10:57:01.634 +56:13:57)")

• And there is even a New York house plant with a Twitter account to communicate its needs(@pothos "URGENT! Water me!").

According to Andy Stanford-Clark, this is the beginning of what he calls "an internet of things". "It's a world where little devices, thousands, millions, trillions even, will be connected to the internet," he explained.

"They will each be telling us about one little piece of data that they know about and by mining that sea of data we can know more about the world that we're in."

As wireless technology becomes cheaper and better there is no reason why every item in a shop, every building, every vehicle should not be online - not necessarily through Twitter but on any other web service that comes along.

Andy says there are big implications for businesses - retailers for instance, keeping track of fresh food:

"Think of all those RFID tags - already 1.3 billion of them, enabling retailers to track where their goods are in the increasingly sophisticated and just-in-time supply chains. Some of these tags tell you if chilled food was warmed up in transit, so you can reject spoiled food before it reaches the shelves and the consumers."

But for all this to happen, he says three ingredients have to come together - instruments to measure what devices are doing, connections to the internet and other devices, and intelligence to make sense of the sea of data. It's what he calls the three "I"s: instrumented, interconnected, and intelligent.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee has spent many years talking about a machine-readable web, and it looks as though the machines - that is, computers - may well end up "reading" about the activities of other machines.

I sat musing on this at my kitchen table, wondering whether it might soon be instant messaging my sofa. Obviously not - but why, some time in the near future, should my lawn not be able to send out a Tweet asking the garden hose for some water?

I put that question to Andy Stanford-Clark, and he could see no reason why that would not work. Whether we want our machines talking to each other is of course quite a different matter.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Clearly too good an opportunity to miss, LOL.

    "By the time Skynet became self-aware it had spread into millions of computer servers across the planet. Ordinary computers in office buildings, dorm rooms; everywhere. It was software; in cyberspace. There was no system core; it could not be shutdown. . . Shortly after achieving sentience, Skynet determines all of humanity to be a threat to its existence and begins the systematic extermination of mankind."

  • Comment number 2.

    ^^^

    Beat me to it, i was reading through this and im thinking, ive heard this all before, then i get to the end and Skynet just screams out at me, good blog Rory, although i would like my bath to turn itself off when its to the right level and at the right temperature and send a message to my iPhone when it's done.

  • Comment number 3.

    There is one fatal flaw with the Skynet scenario:

    Machines need power. Most of that power comes from non-renewables (i.e. has to be shipped into the power plant from elsewhere). So until Skynet gains control of (a) the mining operations, and (b) the trucks that ship the coal / oil / gas to power stations, it wouldn't get very far without humans.

    Having said that, here are a few possible scenarios:
    a) Burglar alarms - PIR linked to CCTV webcams, which only start recording when movement is detected. Stick a UPS on the household server and a 3G card, so even if the thief is organised enough to slice through the power and telephone cables (and stay alive!), what he gets up to will be recorded in HD video from several different angles, uploaded to the internet, and an email sent to the local plod (who'll probably pick it up 14 days later, by which time the criminal will be sunning himself in the Bahamas...)

    b) Fridge with built-in scales and barcode scanner. Scan items as you take them in/out of the fridge, and the weight reduction / gain on the whole fridge assembly will be taken. It will work out your average rate of consumption of each foodstuff, and either [a] automatically print out your shopping list (if you prefer to do it the manual way) or [b] log onto your supermarket's website and buy your shopping itself (it already knows when you're in, so it can book an appropriate delivery slot).

    c) The ultimate in effortless micro-blogging. The house uses CCTV / PIR to detect where you are and what you're doing, and tweets your activities. Although unless combined with (a), it's probably not a good idea to work away from home or go on holiday, as the sudden drop in tweet frequency will alert potential burglars as to when your house is unoccupied.

    d) Workable lawn care system. You'd need moisture sensors under the lawn, a few cameras in the borders (to measure grass growth), an underground watering system (more efficient than surface spray), an electronic water valve (tap replacement), plus a robotic lawnmower (with an optional feed/weed hopper attachment).

    e) Christmas lights that play a tune you like. Automated Christmas light extravaganzas are not too rare in the US, but couple that with a music playlist analyser service and the lights controller could ask visitors radios/mp3 players/computers what kinds of Christmas music they like listening to (and which they avoid), so it can select an appropriate track to play.

  • Comment number 4.

    It's all very well but how much does the always-on GPRS data connection cost?

  • Comment number 5.

    There's also Crondall Westher @crondallweather - http://twitter.com/crondallweather - that emits weather data every hour. http://www.crondallweather.co.uk/

  • Comment number 6.

    I have been toying with a not dissimilar idea.

    If I could get my "stuff" to follow me in Twitter it could react to my status, perhaps turning the heating on when I announce to a breathless world that I am on my way home.

  • Comment number 7.

    #3 Machines need power.
    Given it's set in the future Skynet will be using solar power and when that is cut off grow people in pods to harvest their bioelectrical energy. Oh nooo, different movie.

    UM, let's assume Skynet also is in solar powered satellites and it seizes control of nuclear power stations. The T800s can take care of maintenance.

    BTW. A 1970 movie The Forbin Project had much the same idea of a global defence system becoming sentient; it decides that humans cannot be trusted to run their own affairs and declares that it will take command of govt. in order to abolish war, famine etc. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forbin_Project

    Thinking about it, the idea of a fully automated (machine readable) world is more like that in Asimov's 'I Robot' stories or humanities last refuge in Arthur C Clarks 'The City and the Stars'. All we need are droids to water the lawns, serve the meals etc; and the Japanese seem to be working on those.

    Would a machine readable web create unemployment - or jobs?

  • Comment number 8.

    @7: Skynet's raison d'etre is to destroy humanity. Terminators are generally inorganic beings (so presumably not that susceptible to radiation). If they were put in charge of nuclear power plants, surely it would be advantageous to not maintain them?

    -oOo-

    Meanwhile, @LRO_NASA and @LCROSS_NASA appear to be tweeting their progress - although it's probably Mission Control ghostwriting their tweets.

    Oh, and the ESA are up to the same tricks with @Planck - but @ESAHerschel 's tweets are definitely from the team's POV rather than the object's.

  • Comment number 9.

    Ah yes, Twitter. That's technology, alright. As well as the millions of other things more relevant, interesting or technologically inspiring.

    With this blog, and society's implicit consent to total electronic interference that the blog reflects, I feel the need to conscribe to a less-than-audible group of people who feel their lives are not some blank template to fill with little electronic gizmos and nifty gadgets.

    If every possession in your house feeds you information, status updates and instant messages, we will learn it is no longer necessary to store such information within our own highly capable minds. Humanity's capacity to think for themselves, to assess, deduce and plan a course of action based on their surroundings will gradually decay. We will cease being the highly perceptive, highly intelligent animals that we are. We will lose our instinctual advantages, both in society and in nature, and become little more than highly pampered, defenceless blind kittens, protected and kept happy by our funky digital companions.

    Which, by the way, were a hoot to invent. And that's all that matters really. Human dignity certainly doesn't.

  • Comment number 10.

    Thats so cool - I can't believe my boxer shorts might be tweeting that they need a clean in a few years time!

  • Comment number 11.

    Monitoring Energy (electric) usage is fairly easily now with a Wattson Smart Meter from DIY Kyoto, PDA and twitter (follow energyvampire for 30 min updates). Checkout my blog andysworld.org.uk for real-time energy consumption example, using software from myenergyusage.org.uk to integrate into web pages, and use a PDA with 3G, GRPS to monitor electric consumption remotely.

 

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