Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Four to Five Years

Smart objects are the link between the virtual world and the real. A smart object “knows” about itself — where and how it was made, what it is for, who owns it and how they use it, what other objects in the world are like it — and about its environment. Smart objects can report on their exact location and current state (full or empty, new or depleted, recently used or not). Whatever the technology that embeds the capacity for attaching information to an object — and there are many — the result is a connection between a physical object and a rich store of contextual information. Think of doing a web search that reveals not pages of content, but the location, description, and context of actual things in the real world. 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.


A smart object is simply any physical object that includes a unique identifier that can track information about the object. There are a number of technologies that support smart objects: radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, quick response (QR) codes, and smartcards are some of the most common. Objects that carry information with them have long been used for point-of-sale purchases, passport tracking, inventory management, identification, and similar applications. RFID tags and smartcards “know” about a certain kind of information, like how much money is available in a user’s account and how to transfer the correct amount to a retailer for a given purchase, or which book is being checked out at a library, who the patron is, and whether that patron has any currently overdue materials. QR codes can be read by many camera-enabled mobile devices and can call up a wealth of information about the object tagged with the code. Smart chips embedded in small household appliances “know” where they are located and can access local information: your coffeepot can tell you about the weather while you pour yourself a cup.

The thing that makes smart objects interesting is the way they connect the physical world with the world of information. 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, connections to other objects, and any other kind of contextual information imaginable. Thus far, smart objects are awkward to tag and difficult to scan for the everyday user, but that is beginning to change as manufacturers create user-friendly systems for tagging, scanning, and programming smart objects.

Products like Tikitag (http://www.tikitag.com) and Violet’s Mir:ror (http://www.violet.net) provide relatively inexpensive USB tag readers, inviting-looking stick-on tags, and an easy-to-use API that lets anyone program a tag to perform operations on a computer when scanned. Systems like these are being used to keep track of personal collections (of books or collectibles, for instance); to play certain playlists when an object is scanned; or to create one-step interfaces that launch games when a child scans a favorite toy. These simple applications of smart objects represent very early uses in everyday life, and are significant because they can be set up by laypersons without a great deal of capital outlay or technological expertise. Other current applications for smart objects include wireless location of library materials, retrieval of lost or missing items, and inventory tracking.

Smart objects can also sense and communicate with other objects and report and update their own status. For instance, the Cyber Tyre by Pirelli uses a sensor embedded in the tire of a car to monitor the tire’s pressure as well as the car’s movements, reporting this information to the car’s electronic monitoring system to improve performance.

The vision for the future of smart object technology is a world of interconnected items in which the line between physical object and digital information is blurred. Applications that tap into “the Internet of things,” as this vision is called, would assist users in finding articles in the physical world in the same way that Internet search engines help locate content on the web. Reference materials, household goods, sports equipment: an actual instance of anything a person might need would be discoverable using search tools on computers or mobile devices. Further, while looking at an object, a prospective buyer could call up reviews, suggestions for alternate or related purchases, videos of the item being used, and more, as well as finding out whether something similar lay forgotten in the garage back home.

Relevance for Teaching, Learning, Research, or Creative Expression

Smart objects have been used in industry for years, but are just beginning to enter the market for end-users. Not unexpectedly, there are very few examples of smart objects in use in academia, although significant research is being done into how to create and track smart objects and how they might eventually be used.


Libraries are an obvious target for the application of smart objects, and indeed many are using them. Smart tags are well established as a means for collection tracking and checking materials in and out. A few libraries are experimenting with further uses for smart objects: a project called ThinkeringSpace 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.

Projects like Semapedia offer insight to some of the ways smart objects might benefit education. Semapedia is a collaborative project that aims to connect tagged physical objects with online information from Wikipedia using QR codes. Users are invited to create cellphone-readable physical hyperlinks, print them out, and attach them to objects or locations in the real world (http://semapedia.org). Semapedia includes a map indicating the corresponding physical location of objects that have been tagged.

People can be tagged as easily as objects, and some organizations are conducting experiments and research to investigate the pros and cons of smart objects carried or worn by individuals. The 2008 Hackers on Planet Earth conference (the Last HOPE) issued RFID tags to attendees and tracked their movements with readers throughout the 3-day conference. The Attendee Meta-Data Project (http://amd.hope.net), as it was known, was intended to bring conference-goers together based on shared interests, recommend sessions to attendees, and facilitate the hallway networking that takes place at such events.

A sampling of applications for smart objects across disciplines includes the following:

  • Archaeology. The way that a single smart object connects to a network of information is useful for many disciplines. Consider a student or researcher examining a group of objects from an archaeological dig. A tag attached to the label of each object, when scanned with a mobile device like a camera-enabled phone, would instantly bring up photographs of other objects from the dig, video of the dig site, maps, and any other media or information associated with the area.
  • Health Care. Researchers and students at the University of Arkansas have created a simulated hospital environment in the virtual world of Second Life to test the practical and social implications of tagging and tracking patients, hospital staff, supplies, and locations. (<a href="http://www.rfidjournal.com/article/articleview/4326/2/1/).
  • http://www.rfidjournal.com/article/articleview/4326/2/1/).</li>

  • Oncology. At Purdue University, researchers have developed a tiny smart object designed to be injected into a tumor. Once placed there, the device can report on the doses of radiation received at the site where it is implanted and indicate the exact location of the tumor during treatment. (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080408120106.htm)
  • Examples of Smart Objects

    The following links provide examples of applications for smart objects.

    Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform that allows users to create objects that can sense and respond to the environment. Developers build or purchase small circuit boards and customize them using the Arduino software.

    Home-based Health Platform
    Researchers at the University of Florida are developing an ambient system to measure a person’s vital signs as he or she enters the house, transmitting the information to family or doctors, as a way of monitoring at-risk individuals or the elderly.

    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.

    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.

    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 ThinkeringSpace as seen by the author.

    When Blobjects Rule the Earth
    (Bruce Sterling, SIGGRAPH 2004, August 2004.) Bruce Sterling’s speech at SIGGRAPH 2004 describes a vision of objects that are connected to information related to their design, creation, and use; end-user reviews, ideas, and improvements; and where they are at all times.

    Delicious: Smart Objects
    (Tagged by Horizon Advisory Board and friends, 2008.) Follow this link to find resources tagged for this topic and this edition of the Horizon Re- port, including the ones listed here. To add to this list, simply tag resources with “hz09” and “smar- tobject” when you save them to Delicious.

    Posted by NMC on January 18, 2009
    Tags: Chapters

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    [...] less), GeoEverything and the Personal Web (within 2 to 3 years), and Sematic-Aware Applications and Smart Objects (within 4 to 5 years). These technologies will become mainstream in schools and [...]

    March 12, 2009 1:03 pm

    [...] Smart Objects. Sometimes described as the “Internet of things,” smart objects describe a set of technologies that is imbuing ordinary objects with the ability to recognize their physical location and respond appropriately, or to connect with other objects or information. A smart object “knows” something about itself — where and how it was made, what it is for, where it should be, or who owns it, for example — and something about its environment. While the underlying technologies that make this possible — RFID, QR codes, smartcards, touch and motion sensors, and the like — are not new, we are now seeing new forms of sensors, identifiers, and applications with a much more generalizable set of functionalities. (Horizon Report, 2009) [...]

    March 27, 2009 3:17 pm

    [...] A., & Smith, R. The 2009 Horizon Report. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium, 2009. <http://wp.nmc.org/horizon2009/chapters/smart-objects&gt; page_revision: 8, last_edited: 1240359161|%e %b %Y, %H:%M %Z (%O ago) edittags history [...]

    April 21, 2009 4:26 pm

    [...] Objects.” Our new web publishing platform — NMC CommentPress. 18 Jan. 2009. NMC. 28 June 2009 <http://wp.nmc.org/horizon2009/chapters/smart-objects/&gt;. page_revision: 8, last_edited: 1246205355|%e %b %Y, %H:%M %Z (%O ago) edittags history [...]

    June 28, 2009 8:20 am
    Mick Fortune on paragraph 9:

    Libraries look set to take a leap forward in the use of RFID with the publication of ISO 28560 in November 2009. One commentator remarks “The LMS – RFID interface needs to be addressed, too. It is no longer about using the bar code number (primary item identifier) as the sole conduit between these systems.”

    Advancement in this area has been slower than originally anticipated for three main reasons. 1. RFID in libraries has been “bolted on” rather than “built-in” making solutions both proprietary and slow. 2. Early solutions caused concerns over privacy (that the ISO standard now addresses) deterring application providers from engaging with the technology more fully. 3. The US market, normally the “engine room” of library innovation failed to rise to the challenge offered by RFID.

    In Europe progress has ben much faster and more creative and with the advent of agreed standards we can expect the rate of progress to accelerate through 2010 and beyond. Whether the US will be a part of that advance remains to be seen

    October 2, 2009 8:12 am

    [...] Smart Objects [...]

    October 6, 2009 9:52 pm

    [...] gruppo di ricercatori europei sta sperimentando un sistema chiamato ASTRA, che tramite sensori e smart objects, creano attorno ad ogni individuo una sorta di aura informativa in grado di inviare e ricevere [...]

    November 7, 2009 8:34 am

    [...] as possible about our surrounding places, people, and now, devices known as smart objects. The 2009 Horizon Report predicted that “smart objects” were one of the forerunning technologies, expected to emerge [...]

    October 26, 2011 11:27 am
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