Keep an eye on smart grids and sensor nets

Part of being a professional pundit is having the ability -- real or imagined -- to "see around corners." That is, to predict with some degree of accuracy that which hasn't been invented yet.

So what's next? The next big thing in my crystal ball is something I'm calling "instrumenting reality": Using the networking and processing capabilities we've developed over the past 25 years to manage, control and modify the real world.

Some context: The big revolution in the 1980s was all about computing power -- getting more of it via Moore's law, and putting it ever closer to users via the development of minicomputers and desktop PCs. The big revolution in the 1990s and the early part of this decade was networking -- harnessing that computing horsepower to create, in effect, a vast distributed computing system.

With networking came the ability to create virtual reality -- a new way to interact with each other and with machines in the virtual world. Web browsers, search engines, blogs, wikis and Twitter are all richer and more powerful ways to interact in the virtual environment.

The next big revolution, though, isn't about doing more in virtual space.

It's about making the leap from the virtual world to the real one by developing the tools and technologies to use the virtual world to better manage and modify the real one.

Take smart grids, which have gotten a lot of airplay recently (not to mention US$11 billion in stimulus funding). Essentially, smart grids are power distribution networks that use built-in monitoring and distributed control systems to more efficiently and reliably deliver energy.

Another example is sensor networks. Getting real-world feedback from the environment -- whether it's weather data transmitted directly from the air and ocean, or traffic data from the streets -- lets us use the virtual world to better interact with the real one. We can more accurately predict the course of a hurricane, or take an alternate route home from work to avoid congestion.

Telemedicine's yet another example -- the ability for physicians to use network-enabled robots to conduct surgery from thousands of miles away.

Closer to home, there's the notion of facilities instrumentation -- using the data center to control and manage all aspects of facilities, from security to energy efficiency.

Consider this scenario: An employee decides to come to work in the middle of the night to work on a promising new idea. As she drives up to the corporate office gate, it detects an authorized entrant and swings open. Streetlights in the parking lot light up in sequence, illuminating a pathway to the building. Meanwhile, in the employee's office, the PC is booting up and the virtualized desktop image is loaded. The coffee machine begins to perk. By the time the employee arrives in her office, everything's humming away and ready to go.

The bottom line? We ain't seen nothing yet. The past 25 years have been merely a prelude to the networking revolution that's about to forever change our definition of "reality."

This story, "Keep an eye on smart grids and sensor nets" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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