Monday, November 8, 2010

The Smarter, Augmented, "Mirror World" of the Future

The virtualization of the real world using smart technology and augmented reality may make us much more efficient in our daily lives, but is the price we'd pay in privacy worth it?

In one of the more memorable scenes from Tom Cruise's Philip K. Dick vehicle "Minority Report," our hero, John Anderton, walks through the mall of the future. Mining the data gleaned from John's unique irises, "smart" advertisements serve up relevant content that literally calls out to John by name - potentially helping him shop smarter and more efficiently. But where do you draw the line? When does data-mining become privacy invasion?


What is the "Mirror World"?
A few years ago, IBM debuted an advertising campaign that continues to this day: their quest to help organizations build a "Smarter Planet." What exactly is a "smarter planet"? It's one where large amounts of data, collected on an infinite number of data points, is used to design systems that serve up content and services in a more efficient manner.

Imagine this scenario, from an article in the November 6-12, 2010 issue of The Economist:

 A dutch start-up called Sparked has devised a system that keeps track of a cow's health. A sensor attached to the ear of the animal reads its vital signs and transmits a mass of data wirelessly to a computer, which crunches the numbers and sends a message to the farmer if, for instance, the cow is about to give birth.
The above scenario touches upon the efficiency made possible by the ongoing analysis of data from "networked cows" - essentially, a smart farm. When the same scenario is transferred to things beyond the realm of cows: transportation, energy usage, city management, businesses, and even people, the result is what some call the "Internet of things." It is a giant series of networked data points, providing feedback on everything that's happening in the real, physical world. This virtual network of information, a replication and reflection of the real world using the data mined from it, is the "Mirror World." It's heavy, heavy, stuff. Here's how IBM explains it:

How will the "Mirror World" change how we live?
The existence of this virtual world of data is meaningless to us unless we can tap into it in order to benefit the physical world that we live in. And that's where things get interesting. The data mined and analyzed in the "Mirror World" can be used to change our lives in the real world in two key ways:

1) It allows systems to operate much more efficiently: As in the smart farm example above, continuous feedback from the real world can be analyzed in the virtual world, resulting in changes to the systems in the real world based on that analysis. The best example of this is smarter infrastructure: energy grids and transportation systems that adjust themselves according to current levels of demand. Ever spent half an hour waiting for a bus, only for three of them to arrive together? In a smarter world, this would never happen. Another great example of a more efficient city appears in this article from the November Issue of Wired Magazine. The eye-opening piece explains how the data collected from the thousands of 311 calls that come into New York City every day, stored in an open-source database that anyone can access, is resulting in smarter, more efficient ways of doing things (not to mention much faster response times to problems).

2) It allows us to "augment" the real world with useful information: The "Mirror World" truly shines (no pun intended) when the information stored in it combines with our perception of the real world - or, in a sense, "augments" it - to create an enhanced reality. One example of this is an enhanced shopping experience. Barcode scanning and tagging Smartphone applications like Stickybits allow people to tap into the virtual world of user reviews and comments just buy taking a photo of the product in front of them. Another impressive example of augmented reality is the Layar Reality Browser, a Smartphone app that allows people to view an augmented world on their screen by using the camera of their phone. Imagine scanning a cityscape and receiving streamed information about restaurants, subway lines, and points-of-interest instantaneously. Below is a demo of Layar at work:

The Dark Side of the "Mirror World": Privacy
As I noted in a previous post, "Is Privacy the New Online Currency?", the biggest barrier to a smarter, augmented future is privacy. In order to continually collect enough data points for the "Mirror World" to be possible, there must be inputs from sensors. That's where things get tricky. Sensors can take the form of our own Smartphones, tracking information like where we are. It can take the form of RFID tags on our vehicles, tracking how many kilometres we've driven, where we've parked, and how long we've been there. It can include cameras and video footage (Google Earth and Google StreetView, anyone???). It can also include information on who we are, our friends and relationships, and our online footprint (anything that can be gleaned from the Web, in other words...). Imagine meeting a potential date who holds up their cellphone to you, scanning your virtual profile to gauge whether or not it's worth starting up a conversation?

The bottom line is, the more data we continue to collect and analyze, the more the "Mirror World" gets closer to reality. And when it finally does happen - will you be ready for it?

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