Earlier this month I had the chance to visit Hewlett Packard Labs in Palo Alto. I spent my time there talking to a number of senior engineers and scientists about the exciting technology they’re working on, much of it related to the Internet of Things (a trend I’ve paid particularly close attention to over the past 18 months).

I started the morning with a visit to the laboratory of Dr. Peter Hartwell, a senior researcher at HP Labs and one of the brains behind HP’s ambitious CeNSE project (“Central Nervous System for the Earth”). As I walked into the lab, Hartwell was busy playing with a new accelerometer that measures very fine vibrations – which I would soon find out has potential applications in industries such as medicine and mass transport.

The basic premise of CeNSE is to create a worldwide network of sensors that is connected to the Internet, which in turn creates a feedback loop for objects and people. An example HP often gives is putting thousands of sensors on a bridge, to measure vibrations. Peter Hartwell explained to me that there are around 600,000 bridges in the United States. 30-40% of these bridges are in need of maintenance, according to Hartwell. A large bridge such as Golden Gate in San Francisco would need anything between 1,000 – 10,000 sensors in order to give a good picture of its ‘health.’ Hartwell added that it’s not simply the bridge data that HP wants to measure, but the system itself.

Sensor Data Services

In time HP foresees services arising out of sensor data. One example, said Peter Hartwell, is traffic services based on sensor data from bridges and roads. He said that this sensor data would allow companies to “build awareness” and perhaps even deliver services that people will pay for. Consumers may be willing to pay for the “best decision” about which route to take to a destination, he explained. That decision would come from a combination of sensors in the road and real-time analytics performed by HP, or a company that processes the data.

HP is actively looking for partners for such services. Its first major project was announced in February, a partnership with Shell on a seismic solution which has up to 1 million wireless sensor nodes.

It’s early days though and Hartwell admitted there are issues still to be resolved with sensor data – in particular privacy, security and trust of data. He noted that if a hacker was able to spoof data, then that could cause havoc on the roadways (which made me think of the plot of Live Free or Die Hard, but I refrained from adding that to the conversation).

Despite the risks, CeNSE is a compelling vision and HP is one of the few companies in the world that has the money and technology to pull this off. Peter Hartwell’s slideshow about CeNSE is a great introduction to the basic concepts.

Why is HP Interested in Internet of Things?

HP is at heart a computer hardware and IT services company, not an online company. So some of you may be wondering why HP is so interested in the Internet of Things? The reason is that millions (or a trillion, as HP is planning) of sensors will result in an explosion of data coming onto the Internet, which in turn will lead to huge demand for more powerful computers and better processing of all that data. Or, in the words of Peter Hartwell’s slideshow: “One trillion nanoscale sensors and actuators will need the equivalent of 1000 internets: the next huge demand for computing!”

So this trend of Internet of Things will directly impact HP’s bottom line.

HP also says that producing sensors is “very similar” to producing ink cartridges. Perhaps one key difference is that sensors, when produced on mass scale, have a cost near to zero. Let’s hope that means HP and other companies don’t put a hefty price premium on them like with ink cartridges!

Example Application: Healthcare

It’s not just roads and oil wells where sensors could be put to good use, but in the human body too. This video, of Peter Hartwell demonstrating the same accelerometer he was experimenting with the day I talked to him, gives us a sense of where this technology is headed.

In upcoming posts, we’ll explain more about why HP and other companies are so excited about the Internet of Things.