Internet of Things,
where are you?

Visualising the devices around you right now

The Internet of Things (IoT) is at that crucial point on the hype cycle where lots of people outside of the tech scene are starting to take notice.

Yet despite the hype, I have a really simple question — where is it? I have a mental model of what the “Internet” is, but when Things are involved it all starts to get a bit blurry. What’s a Thing? Where is it and what is it doing?

At a data/art hack day yesterday, I thought I’d create a piece that would ask a few questions of this new shiny technology and take a stab at how we might represent them visually for us humans to understand. Starting with the “things” that are around you right now.

When we talk about the Internet I have a mental image of where things are, and how and why they are connected. I think of someone browsing on a laptop or a phone, and a chain of cables between them and a computer in a data centre somewhere, with data, images, stories and ideas moving around.

With IoT I find it much harder to think about the things that comprise it. Where are they? What are they? Am I near or in some of it now somehow? What does it look like and how do I know what devices are around me right now? Am I wearing one of these things? Is someone near me wearing one? And more importantly, what are all these strange new devices doing, exactly?

Looking back to the early days of the Internet, William Gibson in his book “Neuromancer” coined the term “Cyberspace” and it was quite literally a space that visualised a future internet, navigated by hackers who used it to gain entry to computer systems represented as vast monolithic three dimensional objects. Wearing a VR headset you’d be able to make sense of a system of machines and connections using familiar references to the physical world. Large things like banks represented as huge grey edifices, and tiny things like transactions between things represented as tiny, flighty shapes moving between them.

So, I thought I would revisit that idea. Could you try to visualise the Internet of things around you using a 3d approach?

A still taken from my 3d reactive IoT visualisation. Each shape is a Thing that is currently nearby.

What do you thing?

The result of my 24hr hackday is “What do you thing?” – a reactive artwork that you could place in any public space.

It scans the local area for any radio signals that a computer can understand – Wifi, Bluetooth, iBeacon and any services available via those things. Then it represents each of the things that it finds as a unique 3d form. Here’s a screencast of it running on my desk at Runway East:

Try running it in your browser. Beware that this may cause your browser to start using a lot of memory and CPU. The web version uses fake data — to see it for real you’d need to run the OSX app that I’ve made. Get in touch if you’d like to try that out.

How an IoT device’s avatar might look.

The avatars of things

When humans are online we have “avatars” — usually a photo of ourselves, or perhaps something we find funny or interesting we want others to see when we pop up in one of their feeds.

In my visualisation I gave each of the things that I found in the nearby area a uniquely-generated three-d shape made from a distorted icosahedron. The distortion is affected by various properties that I can determine about the thing — it’s self-reported ID, signal strength, health, it’s “type” (Bluetooth, iBeacon, etc.)

I quite like the idea that machines will need to have avatars too, and wouldn’t it be appropriate that they would look quite alien, and depending on how you think about the Internet of Things, quite sinister too? That’s certainly an angle that Weavrs took with the avatars for their “bots”.

Some questions

I enjoy going to hackdays and making small one-day hacks like this. In the past, my Data Necklaces and Cryptographics pieces were all about visualising personal data, so this time I thought I’d do something about non-personal data. Each time I try to leave a few questions unanswered, and this one is no exception.

Do we want to know how many of these things are around us at any time? How do we feel when we realise so many objects are around us, scanning and sensing and transmitting? What about the fact that my device is called “Stef’s iPhone” and anyone and anything could potentially track it, and by extension, me as I move around? Is this a pleasant visualisation, or is there something sinister about these strange, abstract objects?

But the main one is — where is the Internet of Things? And the answer is you’re probably part of it right now.

Technical notes: I challenged myself to learn new things for this hack — I’d not done much 3d work before, so I had quite a steep learning curve to overcome in 24hrs. The NewAer SDK provides the ability to scan the local area for devices, so I had to pick up Xcode quite quickly! Then a Javascript bridge into a webkit window meant I could send device details into a little app that I wrote using Three.js on top of WebGL.

Thanks: 3beards for organising the hack day, Soho House for hosting, Yahoo for sponsoring and Dave Mathews for sense-checking the idea! This won first prize, so thanks to the judges for, um, judging!

If you’re interested in showing this at your event, or having me speak about such things, get in touch. And if you enjoyed this, please “recommend” below, and perhaps subscribe to my very occasional email list?