Get Ready For Twitter to Start Animating Machines

Sony, Mattel, Nike and Barbie Are Already on Board With the 'Internet of Things'

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Garrick Schmitt
Garrick Schmitt
Big Ben has been steadily keeping time in London with its distinctive "bong" for over 150 years. But unless you were in the famous clock's proximity, you most likely remained unaware. That is, until late last year, when Big Ben joined and now keeps time virtually for nearly 50,000 people through Twitter's API.

While we can all have a bit of a laugh at Big Ben's presence on Twitter, our newfound ability to communicate with what were previously inanimate objects is no joke. Advances in a host of technologies like radio frequency identification (RFID), near field communications (NFC), electronic product codes (EPC) and, most importantly, Twitter and its API are enabling an array of smart interactions and connections between objects and people.

Not too long ago, unless you knew how to write code, the primary way that we communicated with objects was decidedly one way -- beep -- a simple signal for us to pay attention. AOL ingeniously took a step to humanize the beep in the '90s by alerting us to an incoming e-mail with a chipper "You've Got Mail." But since then we haven't made much progress.

Twitter is helping to change all of that by allowing developers to add intelligence to devices and inanimate objects in a surprisingly warm and human manner. We saw some of this with early experiments like BakerTweet, a system made by U.K. agency Poke that allows bakers to dynamically send out tweets to customers alerting them when a fresh batch of buns have emerged from the oven, and Botanicalls, which uses networked open source hardware and software to allow plants to communicate with people in human terms (e.g. "water me please") by either using the telephone, text message or Twitter.

Sometimes called "The Internet of Things" or "Web 3.0," the possibility of smarter interactions between people and objects is opening up whole new realms for advertisers and product developers alike. Here's a look at some of the more noteworthy attempts.

NIKE+ and the HumanAPI
Athletes are notoriously data-focused so it makes sense that one of the first entrants into the space was the combo of Nike and Apple. Nike Plus is a clever piece of technology that allows people to transform their iPhones and iPods into personal trainers, collecting real-time workout data, allowing them to react in real time and letting them track their performance on their PCs. Taking the concept a step further, independent developer Nikolai Onken has created an iPhone app prototype for the HumanAPI that collects heart rate data and transmits it via Bluetooth to an application for real-time visualization. You can view a series of videos here.

The interplay between physical space or location and online events is ripe with possibilities. For the Sony Hopper Invasion campaign in the UK, Dare Digital and demonstrated how physical objects could become a real-time visualization tool for an online event. The team built a grid that allows 49 Space Hoppers (colorful balloons, really) to be inflated dynamically through the use of hashtags on Twitter and through the Sony website. You can view a video of the campaign event here.

Mattel and Barbie
Can a product speak? Taking a much more analog approach, Mattel decided to give their iconic doll an online persona for her 50th anniversary. The company created a presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for Barbie and even gave her a voice, sort of. While consumers couldn't actually hear Barbie speak, they could certainly read her tweets which, in today's culture, might just be about the same thing.

Blue Dot
Location-based services are becoming mainstream, but surfacing the information in real time is not. Blu Dot, a small but stylish Minneapolis-based furniture maker, scattered 25 of its chairs across the streets of Manhattan for its Real Good Experiment campaign.The company enlisted a creative shop called Mono, camera crews and GPS devices to track the chairs' travels. Real-time updates were provided on Twitter at bludotnews and realgoodchairs and on a map at Better yet, Blu Dot even made a touching documentary about its efforts.

FedEx is clearly a leader in using real-time data to allow people to track their packages throughout the world, but the company is taking it further with its SenseAware. Using an in-package sensing device (about the size of a drink coaster) with a web-based information platform, the company can now let users know if a package has been opened or exposed to light, its exact location via GPS coordinates and even if it is too warm or cold. FedEx hasn't set up the service to broadcast package whereabouts or comfort via Twitter yet, but it certainly could.

Talk about a human API. Guinness continues to expand upon its groundbreaking use of RFID technology with its Ireland rugby team sponsorship. The company just launched Area 22, a site that hosts data on the rugby team and its players performance, an iPhone app and even a Facebook page. The site boasts in-depth data with excellent visualizations on the key areas like kicking, possession, penalties ("Sin Bin") defense and performance. In preparation for the run-up to the Rugby World Cup in 2011, Guinness has even launched a new TV spot that highlights a futuristic -- a la "Minority Report" -- playing field.

Clearly it's still early days for "The Internet of Things" but the possibilities continue to grow as the technologies are becoming cheaper and more accessible. It's also becoming easier to find all sorts of connected consumer devices now, like the dog collar that tweets locations or the Wi-Fi-enabled scale that provides progress updates via Twitter.

Pachube, a company that provides a web service that enables developers to both virtually and physically tag and share real-time sensor data from objects, devices, buildings and environments. Another is Violet, which makes Mir:ror, an RFID reader USB-attached mirror that enables any PC to react to the presence of an object. The company also makes Nabaztag, a very cute connected device that delivers all sorts of audio and visual and information, including readings of your e-mail or RSS feeds.

Garrick Schmitt is managing director of experience and platforms at Razorfish, whose clients include Microsoft, Best Buy, Intel, Mattel and Mercedes. He publishes FEED, Razorfish's annual digital brand experience report and in his spare time flails about on Twitter @gschmitt.
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