A Future Network Developer Kit

Now that 5G is just around the corner we’re excited to finally share this one! It is something we did a few years ago together with our good friends at the Oslo based design studio Voy as part of our ever ongoing strategic design exploration of future network technology. The aim for this project was to create a tangible artifact that could communicate future mobile network as something structurally diverse and more dynamic in comparison to current networks with more centralized and stable properties. The projects was based on our previous work on approaching network technology as a design material.


Now that 5G is just around the corner we’re excited to finally share this one! It is something we did a few years ago together with our good friends at the Oslo based design studio Voy as part of our ever ongoing strategic design exploration of future network technology. The aim for this project was to create a tangible artefact that could communicate future mobile network as something structurally diverse and more dynamic in comparison to current networks with more centralised and stable properties. The projects was based on our previous work on approaching network technology as a design material.

Structural and operational characteristics are a little more complex to explain through a designed artefact than the typical higher performance/improved efficiency story. For example, our 5G lab test are pushing 25 Gigabit of data per second. That is 50 times faster than I get through my fixed fiber broadband at home, which at 500Mbps is already pretty decent. In more visual and comprehensible terms, 25 Gbps is bandwidth enough for 1600 simultaneous 4K Netflix-streams, which is a still technical, but relatively straight forward way to explain how much that is.

Anyway. In this project we wanted to explore some of the other things in future networks that are not about maximum performance.

A network for every thing
We keep going on about these things because it is probable that every or at least most products will become connected. At a high level, the part of the world that is physical and human-built is becoming part of a global network of networks, which — assuming the best of circumstances — can help provide prosperity and well-being by making us able to discover new knowledge, develop new economic models, transform industries, create greater social cohesion and ensure environmental sustainability etc.

At a more practical technical level, the needs and requirements on speed, bandwidth, latency, processing power, power consumption, data storage, not to mention cost, will vary wildly between different things from professional industrial and medical equipment and remotely operated machines and vehicles at one end - and for example tiny sensors, miscellaneous utensils, clothes, toys and all other kinds of nicknack at the other.

A single data network model will not fit all, technically or commercially, and our long term vision about future mobile networks takes this into consideration.

So in addition to deliver super high performance, the network will at the same time have to be nimble and inexpensive, and the direct profitability of this end will probably be negligible. Hardware is however a necessity in order to enable services and functionality in the software layer, in which there is great potential to find opportunities for innovation as well as new business models.

“By 2020, component costs will have come down to the point that connectivity will become a standard feature, even for processors costing less than $1. This opens up the possibility of connecting just about anything, from the very simple to the very complex, to offer remote control, monitoring and sensing”

But, it is also important for the ICT industry to understand that companies that makes products that benefits from being connected will not necessarily be interested in dealing with the technology as such. They may need it because it will make their core offering better in different ways, but the connectivity itself may not count as a feature. Connectivity will soon be a given, something that is just an integrated part of the whole, just like electric power and electronics.

This means that developing, designing and using products with connectivity will need to be much easier and flexible than it is today.

Pick and mix connectivity platform
So with product designers and maker communities in mind, we developed this concept of a pick-and-mix connectivity platform. Inspired by the way Sparkfun offers a range of modular function-specific hardware pieces for micro-computing, sensing and actuation, we created a series of pick-and-mix modules for network technology; a range of function specific modules that illustrates both the structural and distributed characteristics as well as how 5G could be offered as an innovation and product design platform. This is something that could enable rapid and effortless development of connected products for makers, designers and R&D departments, at the long-tail of both tech and non-tech companies.

If you have networked things everywhere containing sensors, processors, memory, data or other resources that could potentially be accessed directly between them, we have the foundations for making local distributed computing systems that we could develop applications on top that. We could have software that run on borrowed near-by processors and sensors. It will essentially be a bit like accessing the components of a smartphone or on a computer, but they are in fact belonging to many physically separate objects in the vicinity.

A distributed, open, ad hoc system where apps, products and services exchange hardware capabilities with each other, is the conceptual basis of the "5G developer kit" that we imagine in this project. It is a tangible concept for how a modular pick-and-mix prototyping system of stackable service-integrated networking and connectivity components for single-board micro-controllers and nano-computers, such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino, based on the capabilities of future mobile networks, could enable long tail Internet of Things as the next evolutionary stage of the Web.

Imagine a system where the hardware is a series of shields; stackable modules that can be added onto Arduino boards or Raspberry Pi computers. The modules are interpretations of features and characteristics that are now part of 5G, with names and descriptions that indicate their essential capability, not technical specification.

The Fat Pipe shield is basically providing very fast high bandwidth connectivity. This is multi-Gbps 5G connectivity. It can move huge amounts of data very fast, but it also requires much more power in comparison to the Thin Pipe, which is a very economical connection for small amounts of data.

The Thin Pipe is something like a NB-IoT connection, which provides low-performing but still reliable connectivity with almost no power consumption.

The Decentralisation-shield is about the structural diversity characteristics. This component is a extension to any of the connectivity shields that makes them able to set up as telco-assisted ad-hoc mesh networks, i.e. connect in direct mode or by daisy-chaining, in addition to the other shields' default hub-and-spokes connection.

The Adaptive Radio Frequency shield represents the Aware and Responsive characteristics and is a software defined radio component that adds the capability to dynamically switch between and/or combine radio frequencies independent of protocols to adapt to local frequency-usage conditions.
Then there are two shields that are about making different resources available in a distributed system, and accessing these resources.

The Helpful shield is basically a hardware-controlled API that lets other devices with a 'Helpless shield' access resources such as processing, storage, sensors, data, connectivity etc..

The Helpless shield is a stand-alone micro-computer with no own cpu or memory. The Helpless shield depends entirely on available resources from devices near by using the Helpful shield. For very low cost and energy-economical applications with relatively advanced functionality.

In addition to the network and connectivity-related modules we also have three special shields: an ultra high definition video camera, an audio/video encoder/streamer and a security component.

The hardware components is not the main thing, they are just enablers. What really makes this kit valuable is that it comes with integrated software services that run in an edge cloud in the network itself. The services we made here is for things such as data analysis, processing, storage, distributed cloud management, security, authorisation, connectivity, transactions etc.

The first four are a group of services related to data. The Wit service is for analysis of data, correlation of datasets, data modelling, data transforming, data mining, business Intelligence etc. The Mill is for data processing, things like image- or object recognition, image enhancement, audio recognition and enhancement, conversions, encoding and transcoding etc. The Depot handles general data storage The Harvest deals with data collection, filtration, sorting, ordering, surveillance, logging etc.

The Caddie is a service in the distributed resources management system. It is taking care of the on demand decentralising of cloud functionality and enables for example the Mill and Depot services to temporarily and partially run at the outer edges of the network, even in the nearest smartphone or computer, bringing pieces of cloud to where it’s needed, when it is needed.

The Guard and Passport Central are services taking care of security, encryption, identification and authorisation. An extension to these is the Telcade, which is a system for ensuring priority in the networks to certified important functions and devices. This corresponds to a network slice in 5G with a maximum quality of service, and is rather expensive and may require a separate government-issued license.

Telco Assist is a way to make network configurations, on-boarding and set-up of devices much easier and 'Global Connect' is a service that provides global connectivity based on a carefully calculated estimate of the needed data speed, access frequency and amount of data that is needed.

The Bourse is a service suite for financial transactions, e-commerce and crypto currency, and the Network Forecast is a service related to the Aware and responsive characteristics, which makes a product or application able to preemptively optimise and adapt to forthcoming changes in connectivity conditions.

We also made a few showcases, fictional product prototypes, to illustrate some things that could be developed with this network-based development kit. Here are two of them:

Ellaphant is a playful and friendly companion for kids that encourages curiosity and wonder about the physical world. Ellaphant brings the Web into pockets and backpacks. The Ellaphant has a camera in it’s trunk and a speaker on its back. It constantly tell you facts and trivia about everything it recognises, which is anything you point it’s trunk at.

The camera captures images and sends them to a cloud service that analyses the images, gets information about recognised objects, environments or persons, renders a summary of the available knowledge and returns the information as a spoken text.

The product is kept simple and rugged without any buttons, lights or screens. It only communicates through its camera and speaker. As a product for small kids it is important that it works out of the box and does not require technical know-how, setup or maintenance. Ellaphant is a mobile toy that works everywhere; at school, on the bus and everywhere else in the world.

It was prototyped using a camera with a streamer module, a fat pipe module, all computing done in the Mill service with configuration and global connectivity through the Telco assist and Global roaming services. When product development was finalised, the hardware could be swapped with miniaturised components for mass production while keeping the services intact in the cloud. A specialised connectivity with integrated cloud functionality allow for a very smooth transition from prototype to final product since it is scalable all the way from a single prototype to mass production, both functionally and economically.

Songbirds is a group of ornamental mechanical birds that sings together after creating an ad-hoc mesh network between them. When they notice the presence of another songbird they start to sing in concert.

The birds have unique identities and can recognise and adapt their behaviour. When a flock of birds come together their song synchronises and evolves. They use a minimum of data and a short distance radio to communicate. The birds take turns to now and then connect to the cloud for configuration and updates for the whole group.

Songbirds are small yet inexpensive objects that belong on the shelf alongside other household ornaments and pieces of bric-a-brac.

Songbirds were prototyped using a Thin Pipe + a Decentralise module connected to infrequent and very light use of the Wit service. Configuration and connectivity through the Telco assist and Global roaming services.

You can find more images of Ellaphant and the songbirds on our flickr account.

Long-tail innovation and transformation

“Makers and startups, not tech providers, consumer goods companies or enterprises, will drive acceptance, use and growth in the Internet of Things through the creation of a multitude of niche applications", according to Gartner.

If we list companies in the IoT-industry and sort them by size starting with the largest ones, we get a summit of big corporations to the left and then a steep drop down to a long tail of small companies. The tail, according to Gartner, is where we will find the most powerful innovation and transformation in IoT.

Many of these companies may not even identify themselves as technology companies. Many of them don't even exist yet. We will see other kinds of companies, large and small, with other values, cultures and different focus than the ICT-industry has, and they will not necessarily want to become tech- or engineering oriented companies just because they can see the benefits of developing their products and services into connected and networked ones.

The tail represents about 50% of the total internet-of-things market, and this may be the most important half. However, large amounts of small diverse players are much harder to reach and sell services to than the few giant enterprises that may add up to the other 50% of the market, but a strategically deployed and easy-to-use prototyping and product development platform for connected products, based on 5G, may be a viable route for the telco industry to begin to capture that market and boost the value of it while doing it.

Also, considering that a few of the small companies will become big one day, be acquired and folded into by big companies, and that lots skilled people in small companies will also work for big ones during their careers — strategically targeting the long tail of many small companies and startups can have an impact on the big enterprises too as skilled individuals and companies bring their tools and development platform with them, as well as the knowledge and understanding of the diverse utility of mobile networks.

The Ericsson Blog

Like what you’re reading? Please sign up for email updates on your favorite topics.

Subscribe now

At the Ericsson Blog, we provide insight to make complex ideas on technology, innovation and business simple.