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TrendsWatch Update: The Internet of Things

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
One of the trends we featured in TrendsWatch 2013 was “When Things Talk Back: the rise of networked objects and attentive spaces.” What could happen in a future where the “stuff” that surrounds you collects and shares information about everything you do?  
If you want to brush up on the basics of IoT, here is a nice 4 minute video by Daniel Burrus with an overview of some of the potential applications for intelligent objects. (When he starts talking about security cameras in stores, mentally sub in “museum” for “store,” “visitor” for “customer” and “exhibit” for “display” and think about the applications for visitor studies!)

In the past 9 months there have been more stories on IoT (Internet of Things) than we could fit into Dispatches from the Future of Museums. Here are a few of the highlights:
This article by Alexis Lloyd leaps past the already trite examples of refrigerators noticing when you are out of milk, and ordering more or alarm clocks that start your coffeemaker, and explores how the IoT could affect storytelling and narrative. How, he asks, can “enchanted objects” transform, conjure, invoke? He proposes 3 frameworks for the kinds of stories that may be embedded in objects, to be brought to life via IoT: objects as portals into stories (like the phones in the New Museum’s “1993” exhibit); objects as subjects that interact with the world around them (what would a lamp post say to you if it could speak?); and objects as oracles that peer into the future (also known as “design fiction,” a realm I love to explore. Remember the artifacts the Pinky Show cats brought back from their time travel expedition to future museums?)
In TrendsWatch, we touched on the privacy concerns raised by the prospect of attentive objects watching (and reporting on) our every move. Sure enough, just last month the City of London found it necessary to ban an advertising firm from tracking passers-by and collecting their smartphone id data via sensors hidden in trash cans.
 One “creepy application” we reported was store mannequins use video and demographic profiling software to collect info on the age, gender and race of customers. This technology is evolving at a rapid pace, and now researchers have developed a system that can track customers’ eye movements, and cue content that corresponds to what they were actually looking at—not just proximity. Can you think of any museum applications for that tech, people?
It’s not just retailers exploring the potential of IoT—schools are getting on the bandwagon as well. The “Internet of School Things” project in the UK is prototyping a system that students and teachers can use to measure and share data in order to “improve the next generation of schools.” This is both a STEM learning tool (enabling kids to explore new technologies) and a first step in connecting different school systems, creating the kind of “big data” sets that might support meaningful metrics about learning. Maybe the coming year a coalition of museums will come together to share the information collected by their networked devices–we could use a little big data of our own!
On the museum front, I was pleased to learn of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s work with IBM to wire up the Cloisters with interlinked sensors to monitor temperature, humidity and the art works’ response to climatic conditions, in order to fine tune their conservation. Associate research scientist Paolo Dionisi Vici shares his dream “to have a system where the parameters we adopt are based on the real sensitivity of the objects.”
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My ambition, if I can find the right partners, is to orchestrate an IoT demo at the Alliance annual meeting in Seattle next spring, as a worthy successor to last year’s 3-D printing demo, which was well received by attendees. I doubt we can come anywhere near the complexity of the Google’s I/O conference, where they used over 500 sensors to generate over 4,000 data streams tracking attendees and their environment. (Does session attendance have an inverse correlation to room temperature? Do we really need data to prove that hypothesis?) But I am sure with the right help, we can gin up something really cool to show how networked devices can create “smart” and responsive environments. Use the comments section, below, if you have leads or suggestions for companies and individuals I might recruit to help. 

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