When Al Gore* invented the Internet, never could he have envisioned that it would become the existence-augmenting system it has become.
Just this summer, the organization that assigns IP addresses (Internet Protocol—the official number that identifies every internet-connected device) in North America ran out of numbers to distribute. The address scheme, known as Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4), is four sets of digits separated by periods: 18.104.22.168. There are 4.3 billion possible addresses. Officials had foresight, though, and in 1998 devised a replacement system, IPv6. But you have to wonder, how did the request for addresses outstrip the number of available addresses so quickly?
The problem is (arguably) a good one to have. According to the United Nations, over 40 percent of the world's population has access to the World Wide Web. The UN report is focused on people connecting through multiple tools: computers, smartphones, tablets, watches, and more. But "and more" doesn't include the "smart" products and networks that are now part of our daily lives. It's been called "The Internet of Things"—a term first coined by British entrepreneur Kevin Ashton (see Ashton's talk at the Smithsonians "Future is Here" conference from earlier this year).
Large technology firms, scholars, and others have been describing the connected space as "smart" for well over a decade.
The Guardian newspaper describes it this way: "The movement is predicated on ubiquitous wireless broadband and the embedding of computerized sensors into the urban fabric, so that bike racks and lamp posts, CCTV and traffic lights, as well as geeky home appliances such as internet fridges and remote-controlled heating systems, become part of the so-called “internet of things” (the global market for which is now estimated at $1.7tn)."
The Lemelson Center has encountered a dozen or more stories of "smart" inventions since I arrived in 2014. In February 2015, a small team from the Center traveled to New York to tour the offices of Quirky, Inc., a company focused on empowering inventors through crowdsourcing design, manufacturing and product development ideas. We were privileged with the opportunity to interview Doreen Lorenzo, who had just stepped down as president. Lorenzo has an impressive résumé, having been part of some of the most exciting product design strategies in the past 20 years, including leading teams that worked with Apple, Dell.com, Netflix, and others.
Quirky's offices are expansive: a tool-filled woodshop, massive 3d printers, laser cutters, and rows of Mac workstations. It's a hub for product design and prototyping, along with all the other functions of a modern start-up. But, towards the back were signs of life beyond incubation. In a darkened corner, soft-focused spotlights highlighted the distinct logo of GE on the packaging and signage of home hardware products. This was a mock home interior and product demo area for Quirky's "smart" home spin-off, Wink, in partnership with GE.
Wink are products, a platform, and an app for your home that take advantage of increased internet connectivity. Think of Wink’s products as what The Guardian called “geeky home appliances such as internet fridges and remote-controlled heating systems” that you can connect with via smart technology, on your phone, tablet, or other device. While Wink’s platform does not require each gadget to have its own IP address, it is leveraging the ubiquity of the Internet in your pocket. Take for example, the Smart Water Sensor, invented by Quirky community member Michael Taylor. This product is operates simply by monitoring moisture in a potential trouble area, like under your sink, and sending you alerts via the Wink app if the level of moisture reaches a certain level, which, through the app’s interface, you can set yourself.
The partnership with GE helps Quirky fund production of consumer goods like the Smart Water Sensor, and opens up a larger market for the company. With its community of makers, designers, and reviewers, Quirky reciprocates by providing a streamlined research and development system, direct consumer feedback, and a faster idea-to-production process. Wink launched with seven GE-partnered products, and dozens of other “smart” devices have been added to the Wink line since, including video doorbells that let you see who is at the door from your smart device, an egg tray that alerts you when you’re low on eggs, and automated window shades that connect through the Wink app.
Other examples using smart technology are found throughout our cities, from smart waste management systems, like the project from Finland's Enevo, to smart traffic grids, such as IBM's Intelligent Transportation Systems or Encom Wireless, which specializes in connecting traffic signals through broadband wireless and radio signals. These systems are utilizing the prevelance of smart technology to make cities safer, more energy efficient, and less congested. It's the sort of future for cities that the US Department of Transportation is keen to embrace.
Indeed, many government agencies are looking to smart technology and connected devices as the key to unlocking new standards of safety and efficiency. Last year, the Lemelson Center met Cori Lathan, founder of AnthroTronix, at her workshop in Silver Spring, MD. Lathan and her team are working on a number of projects with the goal of safety and greater connectivitiy among members of the military, partiuclarly soldiers in the field. Wearable technology such as gloves that use near field communication and internet connectivity to allow soldiers to manipulate robots, or vests that give unit commanders the ability to communicate orders silently via a local network are just two of the inventions AnthroTronix showed us.
The team is also working on technology that enables rapid response to medical emergencies via smart devices connected to the Internet. The module Lathan showed us looks like a beefed-up smart phone with an app that is a "neurocognitive assessment tool . . . measuring and monitoring subtle and acute changes in cognitive efficiency." It has the potential to revolutionize on the ground communication of medical situations to medical professionals at forward operating bases, or even back home.
The Lemelson Center has encountered only a handful of Internet of Things projects such as these in the two years since I've been here, but there are countless others to investigate. As of now, it seems, the Internet is not running dry. Indeed, those who control IP addresses and connectivity seem to have everything under control. We'll do our best to keep on top of the trends. In the meantime, let us know about other devices and technologies making use of greater network connectivity! We'd love to see how far these products go!
*The Lemelson Center acknowledges that Al Gore did not, in fact, invent the Internet.