What are Smart Objects?


A smart object is simply any physical object that includes a unique identifier that can track information about the object. There are a number of technologies that support smart objects: radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, quick response (QR) codes, and smartcards are some of the most common. Objects that carry information with them have long been used for point-of-sale purchases, passport tracking, inventory management, identification, and similar applications. RFID tags and smartcards “know” about a certain kind of information, like how much money is available in a user’s account and how to transfer the correct amount to a retailer for a given purchase, or which book is being checked out at a library, who the patron is, and whether that patron has any currently overdue materials. QR codes can be read by many camera-enabled mobile devices and can call up a wealth of information about the object tagged with the code.

Smart objects connect the physical world with the world of information. They can be used to digitally manage physical things, to track them throughout their lifespan, and to annotate them with descriptions, opinions, instructions, warranties, tutorials, photographs, connections to other objects, and any other kind of contextual information imaginable. Thus far, smart objects are awkward to tag and difficult to scan for the everyday user, but that is beginning to change as manufacturers create user-friendly systems for tagging, scanning, and programming smart objects.

Products like Tikitag (http://www.tikitag.com) and Violet’s Mir:ror (http://www.violet.net) provide relatively inexpensive USB tag readers, inviting-looking stick-on tags, and an easy-to-use API that lets anyone program a tag to perform operations on a computer when scanned. Systems like these are being used to keep track of personal collections (of books or collectibles, for instance); to play certain playlists when an object is scanned; or to create one-step interfaces that launch games when a child scans a favorite toy. These simple applications of smart objects represent very early uses in everyday life, and are significant because they can be set up by laypersons without a great deal of capital outlay or technological expertise. Other current applications for smart objects include wireless location of library materials, retrieval of lost or missing items, and inventory tracking.

Smart objects can also sense and communicate with other objects and report and update their own status. For instance, the Cyber Tyre by Pirelli uses a sensor embedded in the tire of a car to monitor the tire’s pressure as well as the car’s movements, reporting this information to the car’s electronic monitoring system to improve performance.

The vision for the future of smart object technology is a world of interconnected items in which the line between physical object and digital information is blurred. Applications that tap into “the Internet of things,” as this vision is called, would assist users in finding articles in the physical world in the same way that Internet search engines help locate content on the web. Reference materials, household goods, sports equipment: an actual instance of anything a person might need would be discoverable using search tools on computers or mobile devices. Further, while looking at an object, a prospective buyer could call up reviews, suggestions for alternate or related purchases, videos of the item being used, and more, as well as finding out whether something similar lay forgotten in the garage back home.

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