In the digital world, things are not always what they seem. Even the most ordinary and inanimate objects, everything from street lights to cereal boxes, are being transformed into software platforms that can be "programmed" to give us a limitless number of new ways to interact with them. Programmable things are also often able to understand us better, through sensors and data collection capabilities. This isn’t vaporware; the growing programmability of our world can be seen everywhere today.
Let’s start with 10 ordinary objects that the average person encounters on a daily basis, which are already programmable in today’s digital world. Once "average" objects will become a developer’s digital playground at a rapid pace, led by new innovation, imagination, and smart technology advances. In the next two years we are going to see a wave of programmable "things" that we wear, pass, and interact with in our everyday lives. Things like:
- Streetlights: A far cry from candlelit lanterns used to light early travel routes, or electric or solar lighting, companies like Intellistreets have introduced "smart lights," which automatically dim as conditions change—not only conditions like the brightness of the sun, but also the dynamic traffic and conditions of streets and sidewalks. Tvilight is also innovating in the smart streetlight category by programming lamps to interact with ambulances, flashing red when they’re nearby to alert drivers to pull over.
- Cars: Companies like GM OnStar are already developing technology that allows cars to "communicate" tire quality, motor health, fluid levels, and more to drivers and even to manufacturers. This connected technology can actually pull and aggregate this type of data into visual messages on the car’s dashboard with the power of APIs, while also connecting to available parts out there and even to OnStar’s headquarters. To look further out, the next phase of smart cars in the world will even be able to sense driver reactions to driving conditions, such as braking fast on ice and recommend in real time how to counteract sliding.
- Watches: The Pebble and PH Technical Labs’ new watch have become programmable wear, and a new platform enabling application developers to create specialized content for the consumer. The Pebble offers custom applications that can track your running time, check your golf range, and even act as your music controller for your MP3 player. These simple but incredibly personal applications open the door to using watches as a larger programmable platform, one that sits right on the consumer’s body all day long.
- Roads: The Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot in Ann Arbor, Michigan is already testing vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure intercommunication. Using intelligent railings and painted road lines that can sense and communicate with one another, relevant information can be pushed to both the car and driver in real time. Data pulled from these road sensors can alert a driver to speed, traffic, accidents, weather, and road conditions, preventing potential accidents, making traffic more efficient and keeping the driver informed beyond what they can see through the windshield and rearview mirror alone.
- Tires: Manufacturers like Goodyear and Michelin are integrating new technology into tires. Tapping into the cloud, new applications, and tire data, Goodyear has created Air Maintenance Technology that proactively monitors tire pressure and performance, while optimizing fuel economy and overall life of the tire. Michelin also recently announced its fleet monitoring technology, utilizing cloud application services that track and monitor fuel efficiency, tire management, and vehicle productivity solutions.
- Cereal Boxes: As seen in this short YouTube video, yes, even cereal boxes can be programmed. The ultimate family marketing platform for decades (think prizes, sweepstakes, and collectibles), the power of simple electricity was used to illuminate the colors and characters right on the cereal boxes in this example. Most any consumer packaged good could be programmed to grab the attention of, and interact with, consumers, right from the grocery or retail store shelf.
- Parking Meters: Cities like San Francisco have incorporated smartphone technology, Near Field Communication (NFC), and the PayByPhone app for smarter street parking. Thanks to APIs, drivers no longer have to scrounge for change but can simply swipe their smartphone across a parking meter to pay. In the next stage, we may see phone companies adapt to this new type of phone interaction by delivering their own applications to make smartphones more like a charge or debit card, and the phone bill more like a credit card bill, redefining the way the phone is used and creating stronger value to the consumer.
- Power Grid: The Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability has adopted technology and two-communication and undergone an initiative to "computerize" the electric utility grid, to gather network sensor data from the grid (i.e., meters, voltage, etc.). Smart power grids, or "smart grids" are interesting from a technology standpoint, but also from an environmental standpoint, as they have great potential to address resource waste and efficiency. By 2015, there’s set to be 65 million
"smart meters" installed, over half of U.S. households, highlighting the growing interest in technological advancements in the power grid for consumers.
- Bikes: Autobike is changing the way people ride by attaching a computer to the bike. Riders no longer have to worry about shifting gears, as sensors monitor their angle and speed and automatically change the gearshift. The computer chip onboard opens the door to new programmable possibilities for the traditional two-wheeler. Imagine maps and GPS, tire-pressure monitoring, and ride distance data, all linked to the rider’s smartphone.
- Shoes: Nike+ and Adidas’ miCoach combine the athlete with new technology, allowing the sharing of data directly from inserts in the shoe to a smartphone. Approaching the shoe as a programmable platform already allows runners and other athletes to capture speed, distance, and more through a shoe’s movement and pressure, in addition to competitive feedback, data benchmarking, and sharing features. This data aggregation offers specialized communication from shoe to device, all powered by APIs. Professional athletes will be able to use this technology to share their stats directly with fans, who can then test their own skills and benchmark against their favorite sport stars.
Smart cereal boxes, and even smart shoes may seem less significant to the world, but smart cars, bikes, roads, and even streetlights have the potential to change the way people travel and prevent unnecessary accidents, saving lives in the long run.
This is only the start—the next time you step out your front door, drive a car, or ride a bike, look around and imagine what else is possible. It’s a programmable world.
Brian Mulloy is the director of Apigee Labs for Apigee and brings over 15 years of experience ranging from enterprise software to founding a web startup. He cofounded and was CEO of Swivel, a website for social data analysis. He was president and general manager of Grand Central, a cloud-based offering for application infrastructure (before we called it the cloud).
[Image: Flickr user Daniel Oines]