An “internet of things”, an idea long considered by computer scientists in which everyday objects have individual online profiles, will come to life this autumn at 20 Oxfam charity shops.
Technology developed by a UK university consortium allows information such as geographical location, stories about previous owners, video clips and tweets to be combined to form a “social network for objects”, Andy Hudson-Smith of University College London told the British Science Festival in Bradford on Wednesday.
Mr Hudson-Smith, who leads the Tales of Things research project, said computer scientists had been discussing an “internet of things” for 15 years, but the idea was only now beginning to bear fruit.
The project, funded by a £1.5m grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, labels objects with RFID (radio frequency identification) tags or QR (quick response) codes – the square printed barcodes that are increasingly being taken up in commerce and industry. Each tag is associated with a special website for that object.
Using a smartphone, anyone can scan the tag and extract the information from its website – or contribute their own information to it.
A pilot scheme at an Oxfam shop in Manchester tagged clothes with QR codes so that stories about their previous owners could be stored along with their geographical location.
Takings at the shop increased by 41 per cent, according to Mr Hudson-Smith, with the store drawing public interest in clothes that could “talk” about their history
“We are still finding our way into applications – and the technology is moving on,” he said. For instance, washable RFID tags could be sewn permanently into clothes, giving them a permanent online identity.
“In 20 years’ time, it may well be possible to enter a shop where each object is able to offer up its own history – what sort of person owned the object before, where they got it from and what memories are associated with it,” said Mr Hudson-Smith.
The technology is also on trial on bus stops in Norway. When someone scans its tag, the bus stop automatically tweets, tells you when the next bus is due and invites you to leave a message or video clip.
“One bus stop tweeted, ‘Someone has left their gloves here,’ ” said Mr Hudson-Smith.