Things from the ThingMonk IoT thing

The IoT: “So many players coming at same thing from different perspectives”

Lucy Carey

Is the Internet of Things about the individual, or huge ecosystems? And how’s it being used to monitor radiation and save beer? We headed to East London to find out.

Developer focused analysts RedMonk are known for having their fingers firmly embedded in only the zestiest of zeitgeisty pies, so the JAXenter team was intrigued to hear that they would be organising an event centered on the Internet of Things (IoT).

In typical Shoreditch style, things got off to a late start, with proceedings hampered by a long line of attendees answering the siren song of the bacon sandwich van mere seconds from the keynote area. Food and drink was a recurrent theme across the event – also on offer was an impressive display of AR drones controlled by IoT enhanced fruit, and an evening of cocktails courtesy by Bartrendo, the robotic mixologist. Both talks made waves across the Twittersphere, and provided fun interactive demonstrations of the capabilities of this nascent technology.


It wasn’t all zaniness though. At the core of ThingMonk, there was a very serious objective – and that was to frame ideas for making the IoT ‘real’, and ways to make this happen.

Speaker Rick Bullotta from ThingWorx explained that the IoT is incredibly dynamic in its diversity – and with that diversity, comes a multiplicity of perspectives. To some, it’s all about the individual system, and to others, it’s about growing and developing colossal, sprawling ecosystems around it.

ThingWorx falls into this latter camp, and the crux of their focus is making sure everything is interoperable, and not a horrible coleslaw of devices locked into their own little Galapagos systems. With so many players coming at same thing from different perspectives, this is a considerable task.

Bullotta believes that, “It’s going to take a village” and a whole range of unique skill sets to bring it all together. This will require a “metamodel approach”, cherry picking ideas picking core values from big industrial powerhouses to designers to steer the movement: Principles such as aesthetics, utility, and humanity from the design world, and values like scalability, security, interoperability, and new delivery models from the technosphere.

RedMonk founder James Governor noted that lots of big firms are starting to understand the importance of design to making the IoT come together. Speaker Haiyan Zhang aptly summarized this point with her talk, ‘Crowdsourced Science’. In the wake of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami on March 3rd, 2011 which devastated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, worried citizens were forced to peruse government generated PDFs for the latest radioactive fallout readings.

A design specialist at IDEO with a background in software engineering, Zhang understood that, “Data is not the same as information”. Working together with a team of volunteers, she utilised crowdsourced data from Pachube. Taking aggregated geiger counter readings from across Japan from this real time data infrastructure platform, the team built a map which conveyed the latest readings instantaneously in a clear, unbiased way. This IoT powered project went viral within a matter of days following the quake, and, for many, checking the latest readings on the map became part of their daily routine.

As well as design, there are also practical aspects (or as Tom Taylor put it, the ‘boring bits’) to take into consideration – factors which will be vital to ensure IoT develops commercial momentum. In this vein, Dean Wampler from Typesafe talked about how reactive architecture could play an important role in managing the service demands of potentially thousands of interconnected things that will make up future IoT systems. The reactive manifesto is couched on mass scalability, high fault tolerance, and high availability – three things that will be hugely important for any large scale IoT undertaking.

Taylor also raised the matter of the day to day realities future IoT startups will have to take into consideration. Things like customer service, shipping, operations, and manufacturing processes. Amidst all the talk of quadcopters, beer brewing, and smart homes, there’s been very little discourse around the minutiae of IoT powered services – and that’s something that Taylor would like to change.

He pointed out that, though it will take a bit of a shift for digital companies to move into the realm of physical objects and all the logistics this entails, the agile, iterative mentality in the DNA of tech operations is something that will give them a crucial edge in the developing world of M2M over traditional industrial businesses.

Consumer considerations were also at the heart of Chirp inventor Patrick Bergel’s presentation. Bergel believes that the evolution of the IoT will be a jerky process of ‘punctuated equilibrium’, rather than a gentle arch towards maturity. He called the current phase of the IoT the ‘Lego Age’, illustrating his point with an image of the surprisingly small variety of shapes that come together when a large amount of the toy bricks are spun around in a washing machine.

At the moment, “We are still gluing stuff together with a limited sense of fantasy of what we can make”, with conceptual leaps coming about by necessity (recent Bitcoin co-option for criminal activity is an interesting example of this). Ultimately though, it will be consumer demand that shapes the future of this field.

The optimism and excitement about the potential of the IoT was very evident at ThingMonk. But that’s not enough to propel a leap forward. The real winners in this field will be those that can come up with products and services that can make an real difference to people outside the sector, throwing the doors of the IoT wide open to all.

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