Thursday, June 19, 2014

The internet of loos

Auntie Beeb reports that the loos at Heathrow Terminal 2 are being fitted with sensors to detect how many people are using particular toilets, and when.

Feel free to snicker or chortle right about now.

OK, so what does this mean?  The overly harsh take would be "Yeah, that's about all this whole 'internet of things' things is going to amount to."  A more optimistic take would be "Heathrow is one of the world's busiest airports.  If they see a benefit to this, there must be something to it."  While I've seen any number of "there must be something to it" endorsements fail to pan out -- too much of this is a good sign of an impending bubble -- I tend to lean toward the second opinion.

Yes, I'm not thrilled with the term "Internet of Things", but I think that this is more because what we're seeing is a gradual trend of (some) ordinary things being put on the internet, and not a brand new phase or some sort of new internet.  Lots of things have been on the internet, some for longer than others.  Weather sensors.  Webcams.  Taxi cabs.  Temperature and voltage sensors for computers in datacenters.  As time goes on, the portion of internet data generated via human intervention will probably decrease, and the amount generated by various ... things ... will probably increase.

This isn't the hardcore IoT vision, though.  All the examples I gave are things that naturally actively generate data.  Even Taxi Cabs have always needed to communicate their location and status.  Fitting them with GPS and putting them on the net just makes that process more accurate and efficient.

The full IoT vision involves tagging everything with some sort of net-friendly identifying device, say an RFID, which can then be scanned.  If every book on your bookcase, every fork in your silverware drawer, every pair of pants in your closet and so on is tagged, then you just need to wave a scanner around in order to upload an exact inventory.

Perhaps more realistically, if newly manufactured objects carry RFIDs -- and some do -- then gradually people will come to have more and more net-visible things around them.  What we choose to do with that data is another matter, as are a number of privacy concerns (what's to keep someone from walking by your house with a scanner and seeing what's in it?).

In that sense, the Heathrow loos are more like weather sensors and taxi cabs and less in line with the "tag ALL the things" concept.  Interesting though they may be, they don't say much one way or the other about how the larger IoT vision will play out.

1 comment:

earl said...

When I took Statistics at Michigan one of the assignments we were given was to design an experiment using "unobtrusive observation": we to observe some behavior and analyse it statistically to draw some conclusion about the behavers. In the event my partner and I observed turn signaling behavior and matched it to the type of car being driven. It turned out that luxury cars signal least.

But I also considered observing which urinals in the men's got the most traffic. You can do this simply by observing the wear on the tile in front of the urinal, the polish on the flush handle, and the like. (I also imagined that with sensitive enough measurements you could discover the favorite stance of the urinor: the depth of wear impressions in the the floor should yield a normal distribution...

Of course this would work best in loos of some age.