Friday, December 17, 2010

Ad Hockery

Being a geek, I love thinking about the next technologies that may make a splash. One technology whose time is slowly approaching is wide-range ad hoc networks.

We're nearing a point where ad hoc networks among personal devices will become very common. You're probably already using wireless keyboards and connecting your phones to wifi networks - both of which are examples of a nascent, budding ad hockery between our various devices. Your thumb drive is only an inch away from not needing to be plugged in. Your DS is only an inch away from being able to interact with people playing the same game on their phones.

In addition, the technology has reached a level where individual people can create/deploy large numbers of ad hoc wireless nodes. Hell, we're maybe a year away from being able to print them on our home fabricators, aside from a few generic parts like batteries.

It seems to me that, even though nothing has really started moving yet, this is about to explode. Especially when net neutrality fails and the EU passes its internet censorship bill.

A lot of people want to fight against governments and corporations screwing up the internet, but I'm more interested in what comes next. It seems far more likely that geeks can come up with a new technology that slowly replaces the internet, and far less likely that geeks can oppose all the money on the planet working against them. So, I'm betting on ad hoc networks.

What I see initially is ad hoc networks largely limited to your personal devices - your computer recognizing your phone, and your lights detecting your iPad, for example. Already happens to a large extent: every time someone turns on the 360, my computer tells me I should share my media with them. If my DS is near another DS playing the same game, it often pops up and offers trades. I simply predict more of it.

I see this network expanding to allow approved foreign devices. Your friend's phone automatically connects to your phone and tags your friend's location when he's in walking range. Hold up your phone, and you see markers where your friends are. This voluntary sharing requires fewer privacy breaches since A) your friend is only reporting his position to you, not to a central network, B) your friend is free to obscure or hide his presence in any way he sees fit (or lie), C) you do not have to report your position to him.

This kind of connectivity will rapidly grow into a painfully insecure ad hoc network that supports your game playing habits, connects you to random passerbyes because you signed up for the same dating service, pops up today's menu from the restaurant you're passing, and trades computational data about traffic patterns.

At this point, the ad hoc network will shoulder more and more of the bandwidth that a user tends to use. Not because it's good at it, but because it's available. A lot of products will come out that rely heavily on short-range ad hockery or extending ad hoc networks to wider areas. Ad hoc networks will begin to integrate with internet connections, such that a phone browsing the internet might connect to a node through an ad hoc network instead of relying on a 3G connection.

The nature of ad hoc networks of this size strongly favors individuals and open source products. Even if a corporation or government seeds an ad hoc network with a few thousand nodes, it's unlikely they'll keep up the project, and it's also likely they'll have misimplemented something (on purpose or on accident). Individuals are likely to deploy their own devices (either stationary or carried) to take advantage of better technologies, better implementations, and higher security. In addition, owning a reliable ad hoc node will probably give good karma and interesting tidbits of information.

Once a baseline ad hoc network reaches a certain level, it essentially replaces the internet. It may use many of the same data backbones for ease of long-range high-bandwidth transmission, but even if you are surfing "the internet", you are surfing through a largely anonymous connection via an untracked route. Similarly, you probably won't be surfing that obsolete old thing any more: a large ad hoc network will support applications and data presentations we will have a hard time imagining. But they'll be just as much part of our day as the internet is today.

(There are some REALLY wacky things you can do with large ad hoc networks, especially ones with moving pieces. But that's definitely a whole other article. Lets just say that the most straightforward few of them are augmented reality.)

Anyway, I've spun a tale of large ad hoc networks springing up in the relatively near future. Let's say... five years from now, it'll be obvious they're starting, and in ten years they'll be a major part of many lives.

As predictions go, I'm pretty comfortable with it. There are a lot of barriers in the way, but most of those barriers go away instantly if individuals can manufacture low-energy wireless relays in their spare time, or buy open hardware versions on the cheap.

I just can't imagine the internet remaining as it is today. It's so... seventies. And the only route I see away from the internet involves massive ad hockery.

Fortunately, if there's one thing we geeks are good at, it's ad hockery.

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