There’s a Renaissance going on at Carnegie Mellon University right now.

A $500,000 Google-funded project led by a team of CMU tech experts will turn the campus into a “living lab,” creating a platform to allow Internet-connected sensors, devices and buildings to communicate with one another across an infrastructure that radically enhances human-to-human and human-to-computer interaction.

It’s called Internet of Things, or IoT.

And it’s such a cultural game-changer that CMU researchers named their campus-wide project GIoTTO after the revolutionary Florentine Renaissance painter.

Their goal? “A large-scale deployment of Internet of Things that ensures privacy, accommodates new features over time and enables people to readily design applications for their own use,” says Anind K. Dey, lead investigator of the project and director of CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute.

Dey and his team of six others from CMU, with expertise in the areas of networking, privacy, machine learning and more, have been selected by Google from a pool of hundreds based on their proposal on how to build a central piece of middleware infrastructure.

Middleware is software and hardware that others can build on and personalize in their own environment.

The idea, explains Dey, is that if something happens in one place then it can make something else happen in another place. In other words, “how can you take advantage of information that is in the physical world and not just the online world and make those into useful things for people,” he says.

Like being able to use a projector in a classroom that recognizes your computer, simply by walking into the room and having the projector upload your files without a physical connection. Or like letting someone know that their coffee is warm by flashing a light in the room in which they are working.

GIoTTO project leader Anind K. Dey (right) and Ph.D. student Adrian deFreitas. Photo courtesy of CMU.
GIoTTO project leader Anind K. Dey (right) and Ph.D. student Adrian deFreitas. Photo courtesy of CMU.

Or by having your smart phone alert you when someone you’ve been emailing for the last three days is right around the corner.

Privacy and security within the entire infrastructure is the number one task to consider—so much so that an additional CMU team, led by Computer Science Professor Norman Sadeh, will develop a novel technology to protect the GIoTTO users.

“We will demonstrate the use of personalized privacy assistants that help users configure the many privacy settings necessary to ensure that they retain adequate control over their data,” Sadeh says.

The biggest concern is monitoring who has access to all this information that is being collected and who has control over our own devices.

“We have two different approaches for looking at the issue of privacy and one fairly unique effort for how to deal with security,” Dey says. Those solutions are still in the process of being tested.

Along with the added CMU privacy team, groups from Cornell University, Stanford University, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Google will work alongside CMU researchers to create GIoTTO in various areas that include the underlying hardware layer and additional applications.

The benefits of GIoTTO are plenty, adds Dey. Along with being an amazing research platform for students, there are opportunities for making life more convenient by having the right information show up on a device at exactly the right time.

And having a complete system of interoperable IoT technology also provides money and energy saving advantages.

“A smart building that knows where occupants are and can predict when a room is going to be occupied for better control of heating and lighting is going to save money,” he says.

The CMU team has already started placing sensors on various campus locations, including laboratories and in public spaces inside various departments.

“Our goal is that by Christmas we will have started to roll out to the rest of campus and then maybe in a year from now we would go back and talk to the city which has been very supportive of us,” Dey says.

“The City of Pittsburgh has emerged as a leader in embracing innovation to enhance city services and improve the quality of life of our citizens,” says Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto. “Collaborations with its university community have been an important element of the city’s innovation strategy. We welcome the opportunity for the city to join with CMU and Google to create a living laboratory for the Internet of Things.”

The group has also spoken to officials at the Pittsburgh International Airport, David L. Lawrence Convention Center and a “few other major sites in Pittsburgh” about the possibilities of creating smart environments.

“The plan is that (Google) is going to provide additional funds, depending on how successful we are,” he adds. They’ve also met with additional companies—like phone, sensor and lighting manufacturers interested in setting up their own IoT initiatives—for additional equipment and funding to continue their research.

“We funded the Open Web of Things (Google’s term for the project) expedition to encourage universities to explore various aspects of system design that could help enable the Internet of Things,” says Maggie Johnson, director of university relations for Google. “From the many excellent proposals received, we’ve chosen Carnegie Mellon to lead because of their vision for a living laboratory, validating system design through daily use.”

Laurie Bailey

Laurie Bailey is a freelance writer who has reported for many local publications. When she isn't writing she serves as a media consultant for nonprofits and other local companies.