July 11, 2008 Mark Weiser, the celebrated computer scientist, stated in 1991 that “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” An EU funded project called CONET, or “Cooperating Objects Network of Excellence”, aims to realize this principle, by encouraging research into networking technology that can be subtly integrated into all aspects of our lives – from the supermarket, to the pub, airport and ski slopes.

The CONET initiative is headed by the University of Bonn, in association with 10 other Eurpean universities, SAP, Boeing, and Schneider Electric. The 10 million euro project is scheduled to continue until 2012. While the researchers claim that the applications of the investigation are vast, most of the technology required is refreshingly familiar - with emphasis being placed on the role of wireless internet, solar power and RFID. The biggest necessary development, claim the scientists, is in our perspective. That’s why the three prime objectives of CONET are to create a community of researchers on cooperative obejects, promote awareness on the topic, and stimulate cooperation between researchers.

Cooperative objects are individual entities that act in confederacy to reach a common goal of sensing or control, using their available resources. Translated from Jargonese, the term describes so called “smart objects” that communicate with each other in order to achieve a variety of tasks. Mark Weiser used the term “Ubiquitous Computing” to describe such a set-up – at Gizmag, we’ve written a bit about ambient media, which covers similar ideas. The theory runs that computer technology began as a centralized process, with a team of people interacting with a large, individual computer. As our technology has refined, the relationship is moving the other way, until you reach the point of ubiquitous computing - individuals interacting with a variety of small, integrated computers. We’re seeing the start of this trend with mobile phones, GPS systems, cameras, and laptops, but the CONET project hopes to make computers so commonplace we barely register using them.

One of the enabling technologies is Radio Frequency Identification; a simple but versatile device that can be used for receiving and transmitting signals. RFID tags are already present in domesticated animals and cargo for tracking purposes, but as ubiquitous computing is catching on, people are finding more inventive uses for it. (Or perhaps more accurately, companies are finding more inventive ways to advertise with it). Paxar has developed a store mirror system that displays product information when RFID-tagged clothing is brought near; Allwrite has developed an RFID pen that interacts with cash registers and user’s laptops; and bioneers like Amal Graafstra have even implanted themselves with RFID chips that hook up with their home security systems.

Professor Pedro José Marrón, head of CONET, envisions RFID chips being placed in all supermarket products, allowing consumers to avoid tiresome queues and unenthusiastic “how’s yer day”’s from check-out chicks. Similar technology is already in place in some ski resorts, allowing people to access chair lifts quickly and efficiently, while RFID chips in airplane baggage would ensure that both you and your spare clothing enjoy the holidays in the same country.