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August 19th, 2015

Smart Dust May Become The Pinnacle Innovation Of The Internet Of Things

Gartner still believes that dust will eventually be smart.

A cloud of nanoparticles washes through a field. Tiny sensors gather data on variants in air current, moisture and temperature. The pH balance of the water and the soil is constantly monitored and the growth rate, health and sustainability of the crop is continually assessed. The dust of nanoparticles—some may call it smart dust—can detect invaders in the field, be it a disease infecting the crop, small animals or humans and dispatch another cloud of dust to combat the threat.

Smart Dust may seem like an idea out of science fiction, but the technology behind the concept is very real. In fact, DARPA started doing tests on the concept of Smart Dust in the early 1990s.

Military tacticians could envision Smart Dust as some kind of advanced scout in theaters of war while the agricultural industry could benefit in the scenario described above. Smart Dust could measure the health of water supplies or nuclear facilities or even large groups of people.

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Smart Dust takes a variety of concepts that are now very familiar to technologists and attempts to shrink them down to create a swarm of sensors that can perform a variety of tasks. The current basis for theories of creating smart dust is built on the idea of MEMS (micro-electromechanical systems), various types of sensor technology, RFID and laser communication, small-cell batteries and solar energy. In various shapes or forms, all of this technology exists, just not in the nano-size that will be necessary to make this dust truly smart.

If you think about it, Smart Dust would be the technological pinnacle of what we now think of as the Internet of Things.

When are we going to see the first real instances of Smart Dust? According to Gartner’s annual Hype Cycle for emerging technologies, not for at least another five to 10 years.


The Hype Cycle And Hints Of The Future

The Gartner Hype Cycle is a yearly map of where the current trends in technology actually stand in various stages of development. In previous years, HTML5 and NFC have been prominently featured in the Hype Cycle but have moved on after maturation phases of both innovation and business development.

The Hype Cycle has five distinct phases of development:

  • The Innovation Trigger: The initial technological capability that makes an innovation realistic instead of just science fiction.
  • Peak Of Inflated Expectations: The press cycle and word of mouth where everybody thinks this is going to be the next big thing … tomorrow.
  • Trough Of Disillusionment: The deflation when people realize that the innovation isn’t going to change the world tomorrow, but rather years from now.
  • Slope Of Enlightenment: When the technology matures and real business cases are envisioned to give the technology a distinct future.
  • Plateau Of Productivity: When the technology is mature, has a distinct business plan and is starting to grow industries or sub-industries around it.

Gartner has a variety of Hype Cycles these days, centered around various technologies and industries. Digital marketing, the Internet of Things and automotive technology all have their own distinctive Hype Cycles this year.

But the emerging technology Hype Cycle is always the best.

Why? Because it is the first glimpse of science fiction becoming reality. The first nod to the fact that something we once considered absolutely impossible now has the vague concept of touching our lives.

For the last couple of years, Smart Dust has been at the far left side of the Hype Cycle. It makes for a fascinating study. DARPA and RAND (Research And Development Corporation) started research on Smart Dust more than 20 years ago and corporations have been formed to start building the capabilities need to create Smart Dust (Dust Networks, which was acquired by Linear Networks in 2011).

Holograms (volumetric displays), brain-computer interfaces (the ability to think your computing), human augmentation (think Deathlok from Agents of Shield) and quantum computing are all technologies on the upward slope of the Hype Cycle that have a basis in current reality but have a long time to go before they really start affecting people’s lives.

Via Marvel Wikia

Via Marvel Wikia

Technology That Has Transcended The Hype

If you read technology media (including ARC), you know what the top hyped trends are right now: autonomous vehicles, the Internet of Things, machine learning and wearables. All of these technologies are on the very top of Gartner’s Hype Cycle, about to enter the Trough of Disillusionment.

But what about technology that has passed the hype cycle and is actually starting to become part of the fabric of our lives?

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It might seem counterintuitive—as one of the pipe dreams of science fiction for decades—but virtual reality has entered the Slope of Enlightenment on the Hype Cycle. And augmented reality is not far behind.

People could argue that AR and VR are not really about to wholly change the lives of the masses, but that would be a faulty assumption. While there are no popular VR headsets yet available to the public, the prototypes and developer preview units from the likes of Samsung, HTC and Oculus have been in programmers hands for several years now. Google Glass, for all its faults, opened the door to augmented reality and Microsoft’s coming HoloLens will take it a massive step further.

Gesture control is now on the Slope of Enlightenment as well. The Wii remote that helped popularize the technology in 2006 now seems quaint compared to much of the gesture-based technology that is coming down the road, like Leap Motion or Microsoft’s Kinect.

The next technologies ready to enter the Enlightenment and Productivity stages appear to be cryptocurrency (see: Bitcoin) exchanges and hybrid cloud computing. Both technologies have seen massive bumps in the road in the last couple of years, but those bumps are necessary when making the jump from hype to reality.

Lead image: “RAF Chinook Creates Dust Cloud Landing in Afghanistan” by the UK Ministry of Defense via Flickr, Creative Commons.