Monday, April 14, 2008

The Semantic Web is an Internet of Things

This is a repost of an article from my copywriter and collaborator, Richard Bloch. He asked that any comments (if any) be posted here on

Noted sci-fi author Bruce Sterling wrote a non-fiction book a few years ago called Shaping Things, presenting his vision on how humans will interact with the world of the future—not just with fellow humans, but with all the objects, both important and trivial, that impact our lives. One of the main points Sterling raises is that our world is rapidly being reshaped, whether we like it or not, into an Internet that represents not just information, but things.

One review of his book from the Amazon page sums it up quite well:

Type a few words into Google and you can find a sushi restaurant, a movie theater, concert tickets or a new car. But if you misplace your car keys in your house, you still have to search the old-fashioned way: room by room, cushion by cushion, coat pocket by coat pocket. If Bruce Sterling is correct, though, one day you’ll Google your keys. And your shoes. And your dog. This is the nascent “Internet of things” made possible by technology, including such items as radio frequency ID tags and traceable product life cycle management.

An “Internet of things?” That may seem rather odd. But given that the Internet is growing more portable, I can take it anywhere I’d like. By that I mean I can be “on the net” using my PC, my TV, my PDA, my phone, or any other device I feel comfortable with.

In a recent lecture at an interaction design conference in Germany, Bruce brought up what seems to be a rather trivial example—getting up in the morning to brush his teeth.

He presents a scenario of simply pointing his cell phone at his electronic toothbrush to determine how long it’s been since he replaced the brush head, find out what a new one costs, and even place an order.

Bruce Sterling from Innovationsforum on Vimeo.

That’s certainly convenient, but he could extend his interaction with this simple object by tying into an entire social network of tooth brushing experts to discuss dental care—maybe even using new optical fiber bristles to generate and share content that documents his entire dental infrastructure.

Or, he might just brush his damned teeth and get on with his day. It’s his choice.

You see, this New York Times article presents a vision of, for example, being alerted via text message when your dog leaves the yard. Sure, that’s convenient. But Bruce expands on that notion. He might suggest that a dog’s collar could be engineered to “know” Fido has left the yard and issue a command for him to go home. That’s even more convenient.

This implies that in the future, objects will be designed and engineered in a way to understand meaning and intent. If you view “meaning” in a linguistic context, well that’s really the study of “semantics.” And guess what? If you haven’t yet gotten used to Web 2.0 yet, don’t fret, Web 3.0 is on the way—and according the W3C Consortium, it’s called “the semantic web.

While Web 1.0 gave us static content and Web 2.0 gave us dynamic user-generated content, Web 3.0 applies semantic meaning to all of that content. Right now, for example, your browser has no idea whether a piece of text such as “506” represents a price, a part of an address, or a freeway exit.

According to the W3C Consortium:
The Semantic Web is about two things. It is about common formats for integration and combination of data drawn from diverse sources, where on the original Web mainly concentrated on the interchange of documents. It is also about language for recording how the data relates to real world objects. That allows a person, or a machine, to start off in one database, and then move through an unending set of databases which are connected not by wires but by being about the same thing.
That part about “real world objects” gave me pause. How will I interact with this “Internet of things?” Given my frustration with a growing need to learn how to use all these new things, I hope designers don’t keep relying on the “same old same old.”

If I get my way, it won’t be through some crappy remote control device. Have you ever used Comcast On Demand? It’s frustrating, painful, and totally unnecessary. Finding content means transitioning through a series of clunky, deeply nested menus that you wouldn’t want to use to take money out of an ATM, let alone find something to watch.

That’s all silly and stupid considering that my Palm Treo is usually right at hand. The Palm OS may not be all that great, but it’s comfortable for me. At least it has drop-down menus and a functioning keyboard. Why can’t there be a “Comcast On Demand” icon on my Treo?

Another example: I recently got a new furnace in my house. My goal was a simple one—save money on heat. But what I didn’t consider, is that not only do I own a new furnace, I’ve got a brand new user interface, the thermostat. Yay!

No, it sucks. The old UI was simple, a lever. A four-year old could use that. Now I’m the proud owner of a wonderful digital interface that gives me the freedom to program my heating in myriad ways. The only problem is I don’t know how to use it, nor really care to learn. I can’t even remember where I put the instruction manual.

What kind of world will evolve as people have to spend more valuable time learning how to program furnaces? And why should all the user interfaces be different? Why can’t I just use the one I’m most comfortable with? In short, why can’t there just be a “Thermostat” icon on my Treo? I could monitor and control my furnace whether I’m sitting on my couch at home or in a hotel in London.

As summer approaches, I’m less concerned about heating these days. And while the climate here is rather mild, I still have a room air conditioner in my bedroom for the few days it gets really hot. Believe it or not, this room air conditioner came with a remote control. I never use it, nor will I ever. All I need to do is turn the air conditioner on or off. Would I want an “Air Conditioner” icon on my Treo? Probably not, but others might.

And what I really would like someone to invent is a way to reset the dozen or so clocks in my house – from the DVD player to the microwave oven (which for some strange reason always asks me for the date, as if it really cares whether I’m nuking something on a Sunday or a Wednesday).

Probably the most complex device in my life, at least in terms of moving parts, is my car. Would I want a “Car” icon on my Treo? You bet! I’d know before I left the house whether I need to stop for gas or whether there’s enough in the tank for my next trip.

Maybe I could even throw away my tire pressure gauge, knowing that my tires will let me know if the pressure drops to an unacceptable level. And perhaps someday, I’ll point my Treo at the air compressor machine so it knows exactly how much air to pump into my specific tires.

Let me be clear: I’m not advocating that people use Palm Treos to link into this “Internet of things,” but that’s what I happen to have – at least right now. Someone else may choose to use Windows Mobile, a Blackberry, a tablet PC, or even an iPhone if Apple allows it. My stuff. My choice.

The real potential, at least in the short run, is putting a halt to the growing number of devices and interfaces I need to do something as simple as watching TV.

For example, rumors suggest that Blockbuster is “developing a set-top device for streaming films directly to TV sets and is expected to announce the offering sometime this month.”

Oh great. That’s just what I need. Another “set-top” box. Another remote. Another user interface. Another learning curve, etc., etc., etc. Where will it end?

At least Boing Boing’s spin on that article seems to get it right. Just read the headline—“The Web is the Only Set-Top Box That Matters.”

Or, more accurately, “the Internet of things” and how I choose to use them is the only thing that matters.

Written by: Richard Bloch