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Feature Stories - Merging the digital and virtual worlds

Putting sensors and actuators in everything from homes and cars to shoes and coffee cups promises to make our daily lives easier, safer and more efficient. But such 'ambient intelligence' requires a merger of the virtual and digital worlds. EU-funded researchers in the Sensei project are bridging the gap and their results are already leading to 'smart cities' being set up all over Europe.

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It is now possible to control the temperature in your home automatically and remotely, to get instant updates on shops' special offers, based on your location and interests, as you walk down the high street, and to know your grandmother is fit and well thanks to remote monitoring by her doctor. This world of 'ambient intelligence', of imperceptible technology helping us with everyday tasks, offers enormous benefits for almost everyone. But turning this vision into reality faces major challenges. On the one hand, sensors and actuators need to be invisible to people and operate autonomously. The technology needs to be transparent to the end user, otherwise it could become more of a hindrance than a help. On the other hand, systems implementing ambient intelligence need to be able to handle vast amounts of data of varying quality. They need to store it, move it, shape it and make it useful for service platforms. In addition, these services need to be provided to users in the easiest and most intuitive way possible, whether on electronic billboards, TV screens, smart phones or other human-machine interfaces built into buildings, cars or clothes. The work of the EU-funded project 'Integrating the physical with the digital world of the network of the future' (Sensei) has helped bring Europe and the world a step closer to fully-fledged ambient intelligence. As coordinator of the project, Dr Laurent Hérault, the head of Wireless and Security Labs at CEA-Leti in Grenoble, France, oversaw a team of researchers from 19 companies, universities and research institutes who sought to comprehensively address the challenges involved. A series of follow-up projects will allow residents of some European cities to experience first hand the benefits of this initiative over the coming years. 'Today, the internet world is a virtual world of data mostly stored and accessed from servers,' says Dr Hérault. In the future, we will have an 'Internet of things' in which a multitude of things in the real, physical world will be digitised continuously: in many situations, we won't just be asking web servers for data, we will be asking sensors in everyday objects for data, he suggests. 'We need to understand how best to interconnect the real world and the virtual world.' As simple as 'plug and play' Sensei's key achievement has been the development of a scalable overall architecture that makes incorporating a new sensor, actuator or interface into a network as simple as 'plug and play'. It constitutes the essential bridge between the real and virtual worlds in a future Internet of things, handling interconnections between different technologies, managing information and making it available to services while ensuring security, trust and privacy is preserved. An open service interface that uses semantic information to process data means that information is accessible and understandable to both humans and machines. 'You could ask, for example, "What is the temperature on Oxford Street?" The system would decode that semantic information, access sensor networks on Oxford Street that have temperature sensors, check the reliability of each network with regard to information quality, and return an answer,' Dr Hérault explains. Within the Sensei architecture, each sensor and actuator network is conceived as an 'island' that, through an interface middleware, can be connected to the overall system and can publish data independently of the technologies they are using or the type of information involved. An island could be a home, a bus station, a car or your own personal network of smart clothing and mobile devices. From a privacy and security perspective, each user is able to control which type of information they wish to share and with whom. Significantly, the project partners also addressed another key issue that needs to be solved if sensors and actuators are going to be everywhere in the future: energy. 'If we are going to deploy billions of wirelessly interconnected sensors and actuators, the impact in terms of energy consumption and carbon footprint could become very significant. It is thus very important to develop sensors and actuators able to scavenge energy from their environment and communicate with ultra-low power energy consumption,' Dr Hérault says. Coming to a city near you… Efficient sensors, operating within the Sensei architecture and coupled with technology developed in a parallel EU-funded project 'Wireless sensor network testbeds' (Wisebed), are already in the process of making their real world debut. As part of the 'SmartSantander' initiative, a follow-up project to Sensei, 12,000 devices are being deployed in the northern Spanish city of Santander over the coming year. In a first implementation they will be used to monitor available parking places and inform drivers about where there is space available, helping to smooth the flow of traffic in the city and reduce pollution. SmartSantander won the Best Future Internet Award from the EU-funded network 'Coordination of the European Future Internet Forum of Member States' (CeFIMS) at the Future Internet Assembly in Budapest in May. 'SmartSantander will start providing real benefits for citizens over the coming months, and it will also serve as an open testbed for researchers of the future Internet to carry out experiments – it will make Santander one of the first smart cities in Europe,' Dr Hérault says. It will not be the only one, however. Another project stemming from Sensei, called 'Outsmart', funded under the EU's 'Future Internet private public partnership' will extend deployment of similar implementations of the technology to Berlin, Birmingham, Aarhus, and Trento, among other places. In this project, sensor and actuator networks will be set up in Santander to provide smart street lighting, dimming the lights to save energy when there is no one on the street, for example, and turning them up if some kind of incident or increased activity is detected. In Aarhus, the main focus will be to collect data about the water and sewage infrastructure, shape the information and use it in an intelligent and autonomous way. In Berlin, partners are working on the development of 'intelligent waste baskets' in order to optimise waste management. The Trento partners, meanwhile, are focusing on the development of intelligent water management in order to improve the utilisation of water for both drinking and energy generation in mountain areas. In Birmingham, transport infrastructure and services, including trams, buses, roads, cycle paths and walkways, will be optimised leading to streamlined transitions between modes, time saving and greater efficiency across the board. Parallel to these new projects, several of the major industrial partners in the Sensei consortium, among them Ericsson, SAP, Thales, NEC, Telenor and Telefónica, intend to integrate the project's research into future commercial plans. Ericsson, for example, is deploying a fleet tracking and environment monitoring system called Ekobus in the Belgrade transportation system. 'For them, the future Internet is understandably very important,' Dr Hérault notes. 'Sensei is a flagship project in Europe for the Internet of things, giving birth to many new projects and initiatives that will very soon be of very real benefit to people in the real world.' Sensei received EUR 14.98 million (of project total 23.17 million) in funding under the EU's Seventh Framework Programme for research (FP7), sub-programme 'The network of the future'. Useful links: - 'Integrating the physical with the digital world of the network of the future' project - Sensei project data record on CORDIS - 'Wireless sensor network testbeds' project - Wisebed project data record on CORDIS Related articles: - EU-funded project to deliver innovative Internet architecture model - Europeans making smart device communication even easier - The Network of Everything - Ambient intelligence: snowboarding to the new frontier