Internet of (enchanted?) Things

June 1, 2015 OpenSystems Media

Emerging claims suggest that the next thing after the Internet of Things will be "Enchanted Objects", but is there really a distinction between the two?

I aspire to be considered a "thought-leader" in the embedded industry, though when considering the possibilities of emerging technology, one invariably treads a thin line between thought-leading and sensationalistic speculation. Driven by this aspiration, I regularly ponder: What comes after IoT? The trending answer appears to be "Enchanted Objects", I suspect soon to be acronymised "IoET".

The self-proclaimed primary thought-leader of Enchanted Objects is David Rose, published author of this subject in 2014. He defines enchanted objects as "Ordinary things enhanced by just a little bit of technology to vastly expand their usefulness and interactivity" – hold on, isn't this essentially just IoT?

The claimed difference in an enchanted object is it's not something entirely new, i.e., a wearable device and the driving intelligence is subtle, rather than the key selling point. Rose believes the ubiquitous front end of a "slim slab of black glass" as the human machine interface must disappear and that current technology demands too much from the user in terms of search terms, Internet addresses, etc. Logical – but if asked to imagine a typical IoT device, I would invariably imagine a headless device, as I'm sure most others posed the same question would.

Rose of course had to tread the same thin line as I presented above. I worry that a motivation to publicize one's ideas as unique and revolutionary became a motivator. The definition of "Internet of Things" is naturally broad and I've not yet seen evidence that sufficient deviation from that definition exists to warrant an entirely new term. What Rose presents appears to be purely a distinction between connected devices that employ a front end user interface, such as a display, or do not thus operate "autonomously".

To draw any meaningful conclusion we must look beyond one man's vision and review others striving to popularize the term and their proffered examples. Cedric Hutchings, CEO of Withings leads the embedded industry down an unfamiliar path, to the fashion industry. Hutchings believes "The smart devices of the future would be integrated into 'dumb' objects we already take for granted: Wearables need not be 'dropables'. We have to fix the shortcomings of these devices to appeal to more people". This view is shared by Stephane Marceau, CEO of Omsignal who is a pioneer in smart fitness tracking clothing and has recently partnered with Ralph Lauren to integrate sensor technology into fashion.

What particularly caught my eye is an "Enchanted Mirror", soon to be deployed at Neiman Marcus. All very "Snow White", the social Internet enabled mirror instantaneously links consumers with their remote peers for approval. I read this technology beautifully summarized as "The answer to the perennial question 'Does my a** look good in this dress?' can now be crowd-sourced."

Whilst the fashion industry is one of the last that would leap out of most embedded visionaries' minds, is that wherein lies the answer? Should the current IoT movement be considered to be connecting all existing electronic products to the cloud and there is room for a term covering making smart "manual" items?

Now to a more familiar industry to us, medical technology, Vitality's intelligent medication control solution, Glowcaps, is being vaunted as part of "enchanted things". Actually at Embedded World 2015 I covered a not dissimilar solution to the issue of ensuring patients take prescribed medicines very much under the remit of IoT, the SMARTpack. Both employ the cloud and local Internet enabled pill dispensary devices to alert patients (or relatives) if medication is not consumed as prescribed. There are financial benefits as well as lives to be saved here; the Boston Globe estimated "The U.S. economy loses $100 billion annually because of patients who don't take prescribed drugs."

Having evaluated the current evidence, I remain unconvinced that anything currently paraded as an "enchanted thing" justifies that label and in fact should be considered at the more innovative end of the IoT spectrum. I tried tirelessly to identify a true differential, though none held up real credibility when evaluated against suggested examples. Of course we should always ponder "What's next?", but in an industry littered with often ambiguous buzzwords, we must be careful not to needlessly spawn even more.

Rory Dear (Technical Contributor)
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