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27 March 2007

Small pixels, big picture

Two weeks ago, a department store in Manhattan gave a crude preview of what retail experience might look like when information and communication flows through the physical objects all around us.

Shoppers in Bloomingdales could try on clothes in front of a mirror and send a live video feed to friends online. Return comments and even pictures of other outfits to try appeared back on the mirror’s surface.

These kinds of networked displays will become increasingly common as the price of pixels keeps plummeting. Tim Berners-Lee suggested that in the near future our mobile phones might instantly commandeer a public screen like an LED billboard or in-store plasma via Bluetooth to help us understand detailed visual information like a map.

Toronto University and MIT’s nanotechnology professor Ted Sargent has invented quantum dot nanoparticles made out of semiconductor crystals which can be painted onto our buildings, cars and clothes to create solar-powered electricity. The technology is about a decade away from being in the shops -- perhaps by then we’ll also be able to spray on connected pixels to create instant information displays on any object we choose.

At TED 2007, Sargent explained that these kinds of mass market innovations are only possible because of the latest frontiers in miniaturisation: "Perfection scales beautifully, but scales down; molecular design instead scales up. So when you think of nanotech, think that small may become big".

Berners-Lee’s vision of a Wireless Personal Area Networks (WPAN) has been around for a while: portable devices automatically networking with other local systems to bring your personal bubble of digital information and experiences with you wherever you go. But as the cost of computers and bandwidth as well as pixels falls keeps falling we’re rapidly heading towards a world where everything can also talk to everything else and connected intelligence animates all inanimate objects.

In the foreseeable future, cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling thinks there’ll be no need to hunt anxiously for our missing shoes in the morning, we’ll just Google them. He’s referring to an “Internet of things” – a term first coined by MIT to describe a world where internet-connected miniature tags and smart sensors are embedded into everyday objects.

Scientists are extremely excited by the idea of sending an army of microscopic computers on field trips. Combining the Internet with real objects and environments to gather enormous amounts of data about the physical world as it happens has been called the next frontier of science. Others see trouble ahead as people struggle with sophisticated technology in their everyday objects. Will we need a PHD in computer science (or better yet, a six year old) to configure our kettles for a cup of tea? 

Come to that, in a future where so much smart networked technology is stitched into our daily lives, who’s actually in charge when things go wrong; who can be held personally responsible? Perhaps computers will be subject to class action law suits from groups of commuters injured in a transport accident if an “artificially intelligent” technology subsystem is deemed “negligent”. In which case, might they reverse the Turing test to request that since so many humans clearly don’t qualify as “sentient beings” computers should be judged solely by a jury of their peers?



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Freaky stuff. I can only imagine shopping 20 years from now when all of this stuff becomes a reality.

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