Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Four to Five Years
Smart objects link the virtual world and the real: a smart object “knows” about itself and its environment, and can reveal what it is for, who owns it, where and how it was made, and what other objects in the world are like it. A smart object can be tied to related information in a variety of media, placing itself within a rich context that is made plain simply by following the connection. Smart objects can interact with one another, creating new interfaces for controlling computers. There are many technologies that support smart objects, from simple printed stickers to complex computing and sensor networks. In each case, whatever the underlying technology, smart objects exist in the physical world but have some kind of virtual counterpart. The means to create, track, and use smart objects has not yet entered the mainstream, but recent advances in identification technology have led to some interesting proof-of-concept applications that suggest everyday uses are just down the road.
In the simplest sense, a smart object is any physical object that includes a unique identifier that can track information about the object. More complex smart objects may contain sensors and computers in addition to a unique identifier, but the sensor and the computer may also be separate tools that interact with a tagged object that has no electronic components. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags and quick response (QR) codes can be attached to everyday things to turn them into smart objects, as can other means of identification like those that make smartcards work. More sophisticated smart objects may look like blocks but contain computers and the ability to sense position, proximity to other smart objects, light, heat, color, and so on.
Smart objects have been in use for point-of-sale purchases, passport tracking, inventory management, identification, and similar applications for quite some time. RFID tags and smartcards “know” how much money is in a user’s account, how to transfer the correct amount to a retailer, how to deduct one trip through a toll booth from a driver’s monthly pass, which book is being checked out from a library, whether that patron currently has any overdue books, and so on. QR codes can be generated online, printed out, and attached to posters, telephone poles, t-shirts, and other everyday objects; once there, they can be read by camera-enabled mobiles to call up a host of information about the tagged object. Small household appliances can contain smart chips that recognize their location and can call up local information about weather conditions, traffic patterns, and the like.
Whatever the technology that makes a smart object smart, the thing that makes it interesting is how it connects the physical world with the world of information. A smart object carries with it much more information than is obvious to the eye: smart objects can be used to digitally manage physical things, to track them throughout their lifespan, and to annotate them with descriptions, opinions, instructions, warranties, tutorials, photographs, and any other kind of contextual information imaginable. Smart objects that can be used to control computers are beginning to enter the market, opening the door to a range of new interfaces shaped like everyday objects.
Web services like ShotCode (http://www.shotcode.com) and Kaywa (http://qrcode.kaywa.com/) let anyone encode QR tags and print them out; they can be placed on business cards, postcards, flyers, apparel, product tags, or anything else that can be printed. Anyone with a camera-enabled cell phone can take a photo of the tag, analyze it, and decode the information, which could be a URL, an address, a phone number, or something similar. Taking smart objects a step further, products like Tikitag (http://www.tikitag.com) and Violet’s Mir:ror (http://www.violet.net) make it easy and fun to attach scannable stickers to household objects. When the object is placed on or near a USB scanner attached to a personal computer, the tag is read and the computer performs whatever actions the user has associated with that particular tag, like launching a game or other application, or playing a certain music playlist.
Emerging products like Siftables (http://www.siftables.com) combine the sensor and computer inside the smart object. Siftables are small, blocklike smart objects that include a display and the ability to sense their own location and orientation and the proximity of other Siftables; they can play music, form words, and perform other actions, creating in effect a computer interface that is made of building blocks. Poken (http://www.doyoupoken.com) are small USB devices that can interact with one another to transmit and store a user profile. Poken owners who meet in person simply touch their poken together to exchange friend information on social networks they belong to, like Facebook or MySpace. Later, the new contacts are updated by connecting the poken to the owner’s computer.
Simple applications like these represent very early uses of smart objects in everyday life, and are significant because they are user-friendly and do not require a great deal of capital outlay or technological expertise. Future applications of smart object technology may further blur the distinction between physical objects and digital information. Sensors and computers embedded in objects all around us may change our concept of what a computer is: instead of a box under the desk, a computer may be all the objects on the desk.
Relevance for Teaching, Learning, or Creative Expression
Although smart objects have been in use in business and industry for some time, it is only recently that it has become easy and cheap for students and teachers to create and use QR tags and smartcode stickers, or to acquire user-friendly smart objects with embedded sensors. Products like Poken, Siftables, and Tikitags are making smart objects approachable and appealing, which is likely to impact their adoption by young people and teachers.
LEGO Mindstorms (http://mindstorms.lego.com) have been available for several years. Mindstorms kits combine LEGO bricks with sensors and a small, programmable computer “brain” to allow builders to create smart sculptures that can sense light, color, and motion and perform programmed actions in response. Other developing products, such as Siftables, may turn out to have applications for education: Siftables can contain numbers or letters and can parse mathematical operations and dictionary lists, so students can use them to practice math or spelling drillwork. Teachers are also experimenting with using QR codes to deliver homework assignments, or asking students to use QR codes in class projects.
Libraries are an obvious place where smart objects come in handy, and not only for obvious purposes like collection tracking and checking materials in and out. Some libraries are investigating further applications of smart objects: a project called ThinkeringSpaces from the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design (http://www.id.iit.edu/ThinkeringSpaces/) combines physical and virtual components to produce an environment where physical objects, like books, can be annotated with contextual information that is added manually or retrieved automatically. The information remains connected with the object and displays whenever the object is scanned, so that when a patron places a book on the reader, he or she can watch a recorded interview with the author, call up other readers’ reviews, or leave a review of his or her own.
Smart objects do not have to be located in the classroom to be useful. The CENSEI project at the University of California, Los Angeles (http://censei.ucla.edu) aims to develop curricular units built around data collected from remote sensor networks; smart objects placed in the field track climate and weather changes, monitor water conditions, and take other measurements that can be used in science classes. The units are aimed at middle-school students in California.
Semapedia (http://semapedia.org), a collaborative project that aims to connect tagged physical objects with online information in Wikipedia using QR codes, suggests another potential use for smart objects in the classroom. Students can create QR codes that link to Wikipedia entries for local landmarks or areas of interest, print them out, and attach them on-site to provide visitors with additional information.
A sampling of applications for smart objects across the curriculum includes the following:
- Social Studies. Students examining tagged cultural objects brought into the classroom could use handheld devices like the iPod Touch to call up a wealth of information, including photographs, maps, video and audio recordings, related to the object they are holding.
- Local History. A school- or community-wide scavenger hunt might make use of QR codes or other smart tags to offer clues for participants and direct them to certain locations. Combined with links to online information, the clues could introduce students to historical events that took place in the vicinity.
- Electronics. In Philadelphia, community classes for young people and adults use pre-packaged kits and the open-source Arduino platform to teach basic electronics concepts. Students bring a laptop to class, but everything else is provided for them to make experimental objects that can sense environmental conditions.
Smart Objects in Practice
The following examples provide snapshots of how smart objects are being applied in a variety of contexts.
Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform that allows users to create objects that can sense and respond to the environment.
iPhone in Education: Using QR Codes in the Classroom
(Ollie Bray, OllieBray.com, 24 November 2008.) The author explains and demonstrates a way to use QR codes to convey homework assignments to students.
The Tag by LeapFrog, aimed at very young children, is a pen-shaped device that allows kids to interact with specially printed books and other materials. Children listen to the story, hear words pronounced, and play games by tapping the pen on the pages.
Watch the 7-minute video to see an overview and demonstration of Siftables including clips of children using them to play word games and to create an interactive, illustrated story.
UW Team Researches a Future Filled with RFID Chips
(Kristi Heim, The Seattle Times, 31 March 2008.) Researchers at the University of Washington are exploring the positive and negative aspects of using RFID tags to track the movements of people in a social setting — by tracking themselves.
For Further Reading
The following articles and resources are recommended for those who wish to learn more about smart objects.
High Five the Panda to Connect Online
(Jochem de Swart, Springwise.com, 2 February 2009.) This article describes Pokens, small USB devices that can swap social networking information in face-to-face interactions.
Internetting Every Thing, Everywhere, All the Time
(Cherise Fong, CNN.com/technology DigitalBiz, November 2008.) This article describes the Internet of things and illustrates some current examples of smart object technology.
The Net Shapes Up to Get Physical
(Sean Dodson, Guardian.co.uk, October 2008.) This article describes the Internet of things and discusses the technologies involved, as well as considering potential applications for networked smart objects.
Thinkering Spaces in Libraries
(Jenny Levine, The Shifted Librarian, 17 June 2008.) This post, and the two that follow it, describe the library demonstration of ThinkeringSpaces as seen by the author.
Touch is a research project at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design that is investigating the potential of near-field communication (NFC), a standard based on RFID and now being embedded in mobiles, for touch interactions with physical objects.
Delicious: Smart Objects
(Tagged by K-12 Horizon Advisory Board and friends, 2009). Follow this link to find additional resources tagged for this topic and this edition of the Horizon Report. To add to this list, simply tag resources with “hzk09” and “smartobject” when you save them to Delicious.
Posted by NMC on March 17, 2009