Sensor devices able to keep tabs on what's happening to the world around you will play an important role in the Bright Green Future. The rapidly-changing global (and local!) environment require us to pay closer attention to current and emerging conditions. More information doesn't always lead to better decision-making, but it's better to choose to discard information you have than to lament the information you don't. At the same time, collaborative, DIY technologies will also play an important role in the world we'd like to see. More participants doesn't just mean more of a chance to spot problems -- although that's true -- a greater number of participants offers a greater opportunity for diverse innovation.
What makes SPOT interesting is the program's emphasis on sensing devices as the primary purpose of this tiny, low-power, ultra-programmable system:
By simplifying the development of wireless transducer applications, the Sun SPOT System from Sun Labs will help transform the potential of wireless sensors into real-world products.
The possibilities for wireless sensors have excited scientists and researchers, the business community, military and government officials, and consumers alike for many years. The potential applications for wireless sensors and transducers (sensors combined with actuator mechanisms) are limited only by the imagination. Sensing alone is not enough for many applications-the ability to act on the sensory data is also required. A small, battery-powered platform capable of sensing and actuation is needed.
The SPOT unit isn't a sensor in and of itself, but a hub that allows easy communication with and programming of inexpensive wireless remote sensor units. The development kit, due out in May, will likely include a light sensor and a temperature sensor, but Sun has designed the system to be functional with a wide variety of sensing applications. This document from last June (PDF) outlines Sun's plans.
Sun isn't doing this simply because it's cool or it's useful, they want to be able to showcase the capabilities of the latest version of their Java programming language. Admittedly, Java is a bit easier to program than, say, C++ or Fortran, but it's definitely not a casual hobbyist's language. However, there's nothing that would prevent the development of a drag-and-drop style interface to make programming sensors something that even non-specialists can do.
Nothing, that is, other than the cost. Sun projects the cost of the SPOT development kit to be around $500. Although users get quite a bit of power and utility for that money, it's out of the range of people who might want to experiment at home, or people in lower-income parts of the world who see a real need for easy and powerful remote sensing gear.
There's no reason why the SPOT's price won't come down over time, however, even as its capabilities improve.
In the meantime, those of us who want to play with relatively inexpensive, easily programmable sensing devices can always look for sales on Lego Mindstorms.
The design-school project that Bruce Sterling mentored last year used these things. I couldn't tell, from the limited examples shown on his blog, what the aim or results were. Something involving blimps, apparently.
The availability of sensors like these to monitor the environment is very important in terms of work done by Bucket Brigades monitoring pollution.
Very interesting stuff. I notice they don't say anything about which wireless tech they're going to use? Personally I'd love it if they would support Zigbee! Zigbee is the ideal wireless tech for this application, in my humble opinion ...