What Does the Node Guy Know?
I have been puzzling over the extremely cool Node sensor platform since I first talked to the CEO of the company that makes it back at the beginning of October. George Yu, through his company Variable Technologies, has managed to create a product that’s second only to my old Osborne Model 1 as engineer bait at my desk. Having stuff like this is how I get the real geeks to talk with me.
The Node is a beautifully-made little tube with built in orientation and motion sensors. Onto each end you can attach other sensors: An infrared thermometer, a climate sensor (temperature, air pressure, ambient light, humidity), or a color sensor for now. More sensors are in development (a carbon monoxide sensor, for example). The platform transmits its data over Bluetooth, and a sample app for the iPhone sets up in seconds. The Node platform uses Bluetooth 4.0, which automatically pairs hardware with software.
Trust me. It’s cool.
But what is it for? At Evernote, we believe there’s something here, although we can’t tell what. So we just ordered a bunch of Node gizmos. We’re going to give them out to engineers and see what they come up with. We don’t know what that will be.
I challenged Yu to tell me a use for his platform, pointing out that modern smartphones are pretty good sensor platforms themselves. Yu says that for real applications, you need more than what’s in a phone (more sensors and better resolution) and that you don’t necessarily want to strap an iPhone onto a robot drone or a shipping palette or the side of your wingsuit — wherever you think you want to measure. Yu also says “We’ll thrive with smartphones,” since they’re great for receiving and recording data that the little Node probes can collect.
The concept gets more interesting when you start thinking about the aggregate of data that a distributed swarm of Nodes could generate if they were pervasive. Just as the collections of people using smartphone navigation apps generate traffic data that’s better (and more cost-effective) than the old road sensor model, a mesh of Nodes gathering atmospheric data or (maybe radiation readings in the future) could help create real-time data maps that currently can’t be created inexpensively.
Like I said, we don’t know. But Yu is building a business that he thinks will be able to jump on any sensor opportunity that emerges. “We’re turning out sensor modules like apps,” he says. The economics of his platform mean that it should be possible to build devices that compete on price with dedicated hardware like color meters, or surface thermometers. Or that enable the creation of persistent sensor mesh networks.
To be intellectually fair about it, I’m not sure if that’s a great opportunity for a business, or just an indulgence for geeks. But I will echo the emotional reaction of other other people who’ve seen the Node: I want it to succeed even if I can’t tell exactly what it’s for. Yet.
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