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Meet the internet pioneers making 'enchanted objects'

Why your umbrellas and medicines could soon be connected to the internet

Adrian McEwen and Hakim Cassimally with Bubblino

IMAGINE if your umbrella handle lit up to say it was raining, or a robot blew bubbles every time your name was mentioned online, or your clock could tell you exactly where your family members were?

This world of “enchanted objects” could be nearer than you think. And two Liverpool pioneers have written a guidebook to show you how you could weave some technological magic of your own in the world of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Adrian McEwen and Hakim Cassimally’s book, Designing the Internet of Things, released this month, is one of the first guides to linking everyday objects to the internet.

And it’s no accident that this handbook comes from Liverpool – because the city is already becoming an IoT capital with a cluster of technology entrepreneurs.

McEwen himself created Bubblino, a blue robot that blows bubbles whenever its name is mentioned on Twitter.  Digital consultant McEwen has shipped Bubblini around the world.

While this technology may sound unusual now, it could be big business one day. A report from analysts GigaOM this year says China has set aside £500m to support the Internet of Things industry.

Intel has suggested that by 2020, 31 billion internet-connected devices will exist worldwide.  And the OECD has suggested that by 2022, the average household with two teenagers will have 50 internet-connected devices.

Predicting what will happen with technology is notoriously tough. But McEwen says IoT will have a huge impact – and it’s important that Liverpool leads the way.

He said: “I always liken the internet of things to the internet in the mid-to late-90s. There were people playing around with the web, and you could see that it was going to  change stuff, but it was really hard to pick what that stuff would be.

“The IoT world feels like it’s in the same place now.”

The reason “things” can be wired up to the internet is that computer chips, once expensive, are now cheap and readily available.

And, Cassimally explained, the reason why “things” should be web-connected is that it makes things we already do much easier.

We can, for example, already check the weather forecast in print, on TV or online before deciding whether to pick up an umbrella. But putting a warning light in the handle of an umbrella simply makes that process quicker and easier.

He and Cassimally were asked to write the book by publisher Wiley, which forced them to answer a seemingly simple yet tricky question – what does the “internet of things” actually mean?

“I tend to talk about enchanted objects,” said Cassimally.

“To some extent, you have that already with computers. My mum will call her laptop a ‘magic box’ because it connects to the internet, gets information from all kinds of sources immediately and is quite incredible.

“The IoT is about taking that away from just computers and into things like lights and bubble machines – getting information out of everyday objects and interacting with the world in really magical ways.”

As sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke once wrote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. 

McEwen looks at IoT as the next phase in the development of the web.

“I’ve been describing it as the third wave in the internet,” he said.

“First we connected all the computers to the internet, then we connected all the mobile phones, and now we’re connecting everything else.”

McEwen is based at DoES Liverpool, a hi-tech shared workspace that is effectively an IoT laboratory in itself.

Its coffee machine is connected to the internet and sends out an alert if it runs low, while the central heating can be controlled online.

Another DoES founder, John McKerrell, created the WhereDial – a clock that tells you where people are.  Some DoES members even set up an online temperature monitor so they could check the progress of a barrel of mead they brewed in the kitchen.

John McKerrell with the WhereDial at DoES Liverpool. Picture: Colin Lane
John McKerrell with the WhereDial at DoES Liverpool
 

Cassimally smiled: “Some of it is more useful and some of it is less so. So when you swipe in you also get your entrance theme music played, which is a lovely touch but not especially useful.”

But it’s not just at DoES where Liverpool is leading the way in IoT.

Design agency Uniform, for example, has won national recognition for its musical postcards that play music. Liverpool digital agency Mando built a fridge full of beer that only opens once all staff have filled in their timesheets for the week. And groups from digital arts centre FACT to culture and music hub The Kazimier are also experimenting with IoT tech.

McEwen said: “It feels like we just need lots of experimentation. And that is where Liverpool has something of an advantage.

“We’ve got the tech expertise, because there are some of us who’ve been working in this for years.”

While Cambridge has many hardware-focused tech firms, McEwen says Liverpool is better at generating new IoT start-up businesses.

“What Liverpool can bring is that creativity and artistic background through groups like FACT,” he said.

“We have businesspeople, techies, artists and a melting pot of experimentation. There’ll be more interesting stuff happening in this area and we can build Liverpool into a definite IoT cluster. It is already, but there’s still plenty to do.”

Liverpool is also leading the way in using technology to solve healthcare issues. McEwen and Cassimally’s book suggests areas where IoT technology could help – such as a pill bottle that lights up to remind you to take your medication and emails your doctor if you forget.

McEwen started in IT at a cash register company. He said: “I guess I’ve been connecting strange things to the internet since 1996 or 1995.”

He helped build the first web browser for a mobile phone – and code he wrote even found its way into the Amstrad E-mailer phone.

Today, as well as running his own consultancy MCQN, he is also chief technology officer at Good Night Lamp (GNL), which makes “families” of interconnected lamps. When one GNL is switched on, other connected lights turn on wherever they are in the world.

Cassimally studied Italian medieval poetry before moving into IT in 1998. Today he works for MySociety, which specialises in developing software that opens up government.

The duo’s book covers subjects from developing and prototyping ides through to the business of mass-producing IoT objects. 

But it also covers ethical issues associated with linking objects to the internet – including the inevitable privacy concerns that come with the sharing of so much data.

“If,” said Cassimally, “you suddenly have millions of devices in the street, some owned by people but some by the Government and some by commercial entities, can they talk to each other and aggregate data?  Is that something we want?

“We should be working out ways to allow people to make decisions about that.”

 

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