Speckled Worlds

December 2005

Teresa Dillon, Futurelab (Web article)

Imagine a world where you can metaphorically ’spray‘ computers onto a piece of jigsaw, allowing them to autonomously and intelligently assemble and reassemble together. Or image the scenario where you can scatter tiny computers onto the chest of a patient, with a heart disease, allowing them to independently monitor the patient’s condition. Or consider a world where whole buildings are splayed with small, networked computers, which monitor the building’s energy consumption, fine tuning the temperature to the amount of people in a room or across the building, while simultaneously greeting people individually as they enter and leave.

This vision is of a future ubiquitous technological world, where grain-sized (ie millimetre cubed) semiconductor ’specks‘ or ’nodes‘ are invisibly distributed within our environments. Sensing, computing and communicating wirelessly, these tiny specks collaborate as programmable computational networks called ’specknets‘.

According to Dr DK Arvind, Director of the Institute for Computing Systems Architecture at the University of Edinburgh and one of the UK’s leading advocates of speckled computing, specks provide the possibility of seamless integration between the material and digital world. Arvind is one of the key players within the SpeckNet Consortium, a multidisciplinary research marriage between five Scottish universities. The consortium brings together physicists, electronic engineers and computer scientists, who work alongside artists and application developers, with the aim of co-creating and pushing forward the next generation of specks and Specknets.

With a project lifespan of 12-15 years, the consortium has recently received £3.8 million in funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) as part of their Basic Technology Research Programme, which supports blue skies research for the period 2005-09. This, along with the £1.3 million from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC), is allowing the group to explore the uses of specks for applications in security, health and tangible interfaces.

So how do specknets works?

Each speck has a sensor, its own processor and memory capability. This gives the specks a kind of ‚computational aura‘, which can pick up information from the environment. Collaborating with other local specks, the data gathered is acted upon. Depending on the application, the specks can be programmed to read a variety of information. Working together the specks are powerful enough to create new forms of pervasive computing.

As speckled computing develops questions have risen around how to ensure that the nets are continually powered and communicating, and that the data retrieved is reliable. Some work is now going into system reliability and data management, while other work is looking at ways to develop ecological and energy-conscious resources. Other important issues around speck-based computing are the ethical and social implications of pervasive technology.

Dr Arvind was one of the participants on the recent DTI Wireless Sensing Network Mission to the US (see article 68). His work within the SpeckNet Consortium is similar to R&D across many of the labs visited on the mission. For example projects at the Intel Research Labs at Berkeley and Sun Microsystems, and the work at chip manufacturers such as Crossbow and Dust also explore the use of small computers. This work is manifested in the Spot and Squawk projects at Sun; the ’smart dust‘ projects at Dust, and the motes or nodes research at Intel and Crossbow. Collectively these US companies and the Scottish SpeckNet Consortium are forging the way in pervasive technologies.

Over the next ten years its will be interesting to follow the progress of speckled and similar computing systems. For educational software developers, the innovations and breakthroughs happening offer interesting new application possibilities, while for teachers and educationists such pervasive computing techniques could truly provide seamless experiences between home, school and community. For those working in research and education, the transformative implications for such learning opportunities are exciting.

However in the intertim it is necessary that we work collectively to ensure that educators and policy makers are informed about such developments. Due to the continual changes in our technological landscape it is necessary that we develop flexible and adaptable educational systems, which when the time comes can seamlessly incorporate the world of specks.

References

Arvind, DK Wong, KJ Speckled Computing: Disruptive Technology for Networked Information Appliances‘. www.specknet.org/publications/Steven4_ICSE04.pdf. Retrieved 13 December 2005

Note:  Web resources developed by Futurelab prior to 2011 used to be hosted by NFER, UK but were decommissioned, hence this is a reproduction from the archive.