Putting Human Bodies Into the 'Internet of Things'

A mock-up of Telepathy Inc.'s Telepathy One wearable device in Tokyo, Japan, on May 14, 2013 Photograph by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Ever wonder what the network infrastructure of the future will be? Try looking in the mirror.

Some day our bodies—or at least, the clothing or accessories that adorn them—could become key network nodes in the Internet of things. European researchers think that sensors and transmitters on our bodies can be used to form cooperative ad hoc networks that could be used for group indoor navigation, crowd-motion capture, health monitoring on a massive scale, and especially collaborative communications. Last week, French institute CEA-Leti and three French universities launched the Cormoran project, which aims to explore the use of such cooperative interpersonal networks.

The concept of wireless body area networks (WBANs) isn’t a new one. WBANs could be used to sever the cord between patients and their monitoring equipment. Companies such as Apple and Heapslylon are exploring the possibility of connected clothes with embedded sensors. We’ve already begun embracing a new era of wearables, such as Google Glass and Fitbit (see disclosure), that are designed to become extensions of our senses and movements.

All these devices will become key endpoints in the Internet of things. What Cormoran proposes to make them pull double duty. Rather than just remain termini, they could route bits to and relay data from each other, becoming a distributed ad hoc network that constantly morphs as we move through physical space.

Why would you want this kind of network? For one thing, there is an inherent inefficiency in the point-to-multipoint transmissions that dominate mobile data communications today. Wearable tech usually connects via Bluetooth to a smartphone, which then transmits its info to some distant cell tower. Many medical and connected home devices use proprietary technologies requiring their own dedicated wireless gateways.

Assuming your device can even get a connection to the Internet, it is often using an expensive, power-hungry, and highly suboptimal means to transmit tiny specs of data. A distributed wireless network could aggregate data from hundreds, if not thousands, of nearby devices and then find the most efficient link to offload that collective data to the Internet at large. This kind of collaboration is the same principle proposed by mesh-networking outfits Open Garden and the Open Technology Institute as a means of optimizing wireless systems: If everyone shares connections and relays each others’ data, everyone benefits.

There’s an additional benefit to this kind of collaborative communication: By linking to one another, body area networks could create new useful data about users’ surroundings and locations. By measuring the signal strength of nearby connections, the network could determine the precise location of every node, or person, within it.

You can imagine some possible applications for such technology. In a busy airport or train station, proximal location-based services could route departing passengers en masse to their proper gates or trains,  or send arriving passengers to the proper baggage claim. City planners could use the technology to track and manage the flow of pedestrian traffic. Emergency agencies could use it to coordinate the evacuation of a building. Sociologists could use it to study group behavior, and game designers and movie CGI could use it to digital-map crowd movements.

On the flip side, creating such collaborative networks has ominous security implications. Our own notions of individual privacy suffer if we know that every transmitter in a hundred-foot radius is talking to our devices, even helping to carry our personal data back to the cloud.

There are a lot of similarities between collaborative body area networks and vehicle-to-vehicle connected-car technologies pursued by the automotive sector. If all cars on the highway could talk to one another, they could coordinate their activities, preventing accidents and getting drivers to their destinations faster. The danger is that these networks could get hacked. Personal information about a car’s driver could get into malicious hands, or data intended to prevent accidents could be falsified to cause them.

Cormoran is an exciting project that will need to deal with similar questions. It will have not only to create protocols allowing our body area networks to coordinate, but to ensure that the data they relay remains secure—and that most of the information they share remains anonymous.

Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

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