Posted by: Ben | September 26, 2010

Self-Aware Building Blocks

The internet of things is fast approaching.  It’s the idea that all objects will eventually be networked, if not to the internet then at least to contextually relevant networks to those objects.  We are still waiting for IPv6 to take off, giving trillions of objects unique IDs in our universe so we can refer to them, address to them, interact with them.  We are also waiting for a wireless protocol that will be more appropriate for a physical world that doesn’t want to be wired.  Wifi cards are cheaper and smaller now, but not quite cheap enough to be throw-aways.  WiMAX is still struggling with adoption, but at least it is competing with some other standards.  Also we can use RFID chips to poll objects, but that requires using a device that itself can be hooked up to the network.  That device is still tethered as well.

The good news there is that the FCC just announced its support for some finalized rules surrounding white spaces, meaning there will be some new unlicensed spectrum now for anyone to use without a permit.  I consider this to be a game changer.  We could see some new innovations now that all the devices crammed into the space where cordless phones and garage door openers fight over spectrum will have more room to play in.

So the pieces are being built.

I got to thinking about an idea that I first saw in Cory Doctorow’s book Makers, in which two inventor buddies convert to commercial scale an idea where RFID chips on objects are used to help people organize their stuff.  So when someone is looking for this or that object, the tub or bin it is placed in will glow a certain color to indicate where it is.  The idea is that the tub or bin knows that the object which was uniquely identified (or I guess you could even identify it by class of object or any other variable, including who it’s owned by) is inside itself.

When I went to NYC, I went to Toys ‘r Us and spent considerable time looking at their Lego sets.  I used to have a big garbage bag full of Legos as a kid, and I’d used to construct some pretty cool intergalactic warships or major military bases with them.  Now Lego pretty much sells complete sets to build certain objects, although you can still buy some tubs full of pieces that make a lot of noise as you scrounge around inside them looking for that piece you really want.  They should line those tubs with felt or something.

Anyway.  one thing I always worry about with jigsaws or board games or Legos is losing pieces.  Losing one makes the whole thing incomplete.  Obviously this is more important in board games or in a deck of cards.  But unless you have a lot of Lego sets, you won’t have spares.

So what if you could poll your Lego set and it would look for all its brother and sister pieces and report back a manifest to see which parts were missing, if any?

Now, what if you could be online and query your Lego collection to see if you have the parts to make someone else’s idea/recipe?  Is there something to be said for not having all the pieces, but finding a separate way to make it work?  What if you were required to build a Lego object in the real world, which upon its completion would let the internet know it was completed, thus unlocking achievements or imbuing that object with some digital power? (an idea from the book Daemon (TM))  So, say, you built a city block out of Lego (check out these awesome city sets that Lego has), it would unlock benefits to your digital neighborhood in an online game, like improved grocery logistics, less crime, more tax revenues, etc.  This melding of real world properties with digital properties is the future.

You’re going to have classrooms where kids for their homework will build things, which report the progress to other students and to the teacher online, where there’ll be both automated feedback and criticism/support from the peers and teacher.  Being online won’t be an idle thing like it mostly was for my generation (beyond building our own computers, soldering some things, etc.), because people will be building stuff to unlock things in the digital world.  And vice versa.  The two will interact.

There’ll be some more generic applications of self-aware building blocks too.  If a street light notices that its parts have been separated, it might be able to detect it was hit by a car and report that.  Grocery lists will report that you’re still missing an ingredient while you’re at the grocery store.  Maybe you’ll be like Indiana Jones, traveling the world to collect relics that, when placed in proximity with each other or used at a certain geographical site, will unlock a secret temple.  After all, one inventor using Arduino and GPS geolocation already made a wedding gift puzzle box that only opens when it’s taken to a small island near France.

Excited yet?



  1. […] you could find it faster.  RFID and its intermixing with IPv6, linked data, and object reputation will lead to greater connectedness between the digital and real world, and will enhance our ability ….  It's pretty kludgy the way we look at a real-world object (a book) and then google or amazon it […]

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