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Son of the late and venerable historian Eric Hobsbawm, Andy Hobsbawm may make history, not write it. That’s because he, along with technologist and serial entrepreneur Niall Murphy, as well as computer scientists Dom Guinard and Vlad Trifa, are making great strides with EVRYTHNG, a software company bent on connecting objects to the Internet — making them “smart,” as it were.

Powered by the EVRYTHNG Engine, the technology makes real the “Internet of Things,” a concept first named in 1999. In that schema, objects are given virtual identities (perhaps through RFID tags, maybe through a barcode or QR code) and connected in a Web-like structure. 

Hobsbawm will tell us more at JUMP in New York in just two days time when Venky Balakrishnan, VP of Global Marketing at Diageo, joins him on stage. Together the two will present a case study of EVRYTHNG in action, but first, a sneak preview of what we can expect to hear.

It’s hard to imagine how your technology would manifest in the physical world. Can you give us one or two examples of how it would work?

Imagine if your oven could tell you the cheapest place to get spare parts for it, how to find trusted local service if it breaks down, or offer you sustainable “end of life” solutions, such as posting about it to a local Freecycle community. 

Or perhaps a designer bag could vouch for its authenticity and provenance before you buy it. Simply by touching your phone to an NFC tag embedded in the bag, scanning a 2d barcode, or typing in a unique serial number, you can make sure you’re getting a real thing and not a fake. 

If you want to sell your mountain bike, you’ll expect it to know how much it’s worth on eBay right now, and then you could sell it with a digital locker that has its service history, warranty and receipts, plus photos and maps of amazing rides you’ve enjoyed with it.

Your bottle of pills will remind you to take them and keep track of how many you’ve taken. Or your glucose monitor might point you to restaurants in your neighbourhood with healthy menus for your type of diabetes, and connect you with a local community with the same condition.

Why is it important to give inanimate objects a digital profile? How is it different from an item’s product page, like what you find on Amazon?

When we talk about giving things online profiles, we’re talking about an engineering approach. We mean that any specific physical object can have a unique digital container of information about it that lives permanently in the cloud. This is equivalent to a Facebook profile, say, that identifies individual people and triggers communications, apps, and services. 

We call these profiles Active Digital Identities™ because we believe that identity is the cornerstone of an emerging “Web of Things.” And in the same way as our Facebook identities helped unlock the power of the social Web for people, individual product identities will help unlock the potential of the “Internet of Things” by letting objects talk to each other and to us.

Once the object has a digital identity, what you choose to do with that is totally open. You could display it as a web page and make it look like Amazon. You could turn it into something that could be shared on Twitter. You could attach a piece of digital content to it with a little application to allow people to send it as a gift. You could allow someone to redeem a loyalty reward simply for having bought it.

EVRYTHNG is about people being able to “check-in” to the specific things they own and use, and then making possible interactive experiences and services unique to that individual product and user relationship.  

In this sense, EVRYTHNG is unique in its role of providing Active Digital Identities™ — intelligent Web identities for individual physical objects (e.g., your car, not just cars of that type / model / year). 

What are the benefits of such technology for consumers? How do you address privacy issues?

People can get a digitally super-charged experience of the things they love or interact with regularly, which helps them get more out of owning and using them.

The Internet of Things doesn’t really raise new privacy issues so much as massively amplify existing ones. The biggest risks are with privacy and remote access. The information flowing from or between connected objects potentially provides insights on personal behavior; for example, a user’s location over time. So, it’s critical that this information is managed securely and that there are clear permissions for what personal information is shared.  

Part of the way we've built the system is to be very fine-grained about access permissions so you can say, "I would like this analytics dashboard to be operatble by these retailers" or "I would like to take this data and combine it with that data that Experian has created." It's up to you.

Just as it's important for people to have clear identities online, objects need to have trustable digital identities. Is this really my car, phone, or washing machine I'm interacting with remotely? Can I trust the identity of the manufacturer or third party who wants to interact with me or my product? EVRYTHNG focuses heavily on this issue by providing secure online identities for products.

It's worth remembering, though, that the concept of privacy changes over time as social norms evolve. Facebook is clearly pushing hard to make all sorts of information more open, and it's interesting to note that, while there was an outcry over automated sharing when Beacon was introduced a few years ago, if you fast forward to the Open Graph updates last year, the idea of “frictionless sharing” (where everyone can see what you're reading, listening to, etc., in real-time) now seems perfectly acceptable. 

In other words, some things that might seem dangerous today might become the new normal tomorrow.

Seems like your technology could yield a potential goldmine of data for marketers. Can you give us examples of the kind of data it could provide and how that would be useful to marketers?

By connecting products to the Web and opening them up for digital interactions with customers, retailers, and supply partners, brands can track individual items from the factory to the supermarket and into the living room. You could say it turns physical products into owned digital media, so how something is made, sold, and used can be measured and tracked with the same analytical clarity as any other kind of real-time, clickstream data. 

Marketers can understand how people personalize their products digitally, when and where and how they use them and share them in social networks or, say, interact with the products to trigger frictionless loyalty rewards.

Talk to us about the SoLoMo buzz and how SoLoMo might interact with your technology.

Well, people already share their product passions on social networks, but once their things have digital identities, the interesting thing is they can also share a virtual version of the object itself. So using your smartphone, once you check-in to a product — be it a bike, a bag or a bottle of beer — dynamic, virtual instance of the product can be shared in your social event streams, like a game avatar. 

The object is tied to what you're doing with the physical thing in the real world. So your "virtual backpack" could display the actual time you’ve been hiking with friends, and update a map of where you all are, plus store the related comments, likes, shares, and digital content like photos. So, a year from now you could connect with your bag and browse back through a timeline of social media memories tied to experiences with this physical object.

As far as location goes, maps are already becoming a powerful interface for the real-world, but we think that a lot more granularity that could be added to make the experience of using maps even more useful and precise. We’d like to help move mapping along that last mile so you can spot each chair, table, book, bicycle or available parking space as active objects that can be searched, linked to, followed, or otherwise interacted with in real-time.

As for mobile, smartphones are a natural, web-connected interface for interacting with the physical world around us, including objects. We think that smartphones, in combination with smart tagging technologies like NFC or 1- and 2-D barcodes and image recognition technologies, are the key to making a wide range of products smart today without waiting for them to be manufactured with built-in web connectivity. 

Embedded computers have become cheaper, smaller, and increasingly powerful, and we will see them integrated into an increasing number of things over the next ten years, but why wait? We can bring a large part of that Web of Things forward to today and make the dynamic, social web experiences we expect in our everyday lives part of our experience of everyday things. 

Cielo Lutino

Published 28 January, 2013 by Cielo Lutino

Cielo Lutino is a writer and producer for Econsultancy and other organizations. 

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