One way to look at your smartphone is to view it as a “remote control for your life.” You can use it to start and stop videos with either a gesture or sound, to operate your TV and home theater, alert you and the police if your house is being burgled, lock your house, and track real-time health data. A few weeks ago Google unveiled Maze, which transforms websites in your Chrome browser into a videogame-like maze that can be controlled by tilting your smartphone.
Not to be outdone, engineers at Kaazing, a startup based in Mountain View that sits atop the “living Web” – “the dynamic, interactive online world populated by applications that are always on, always connected and always real-time” – have created a way to control a toy truck with a souped up mobile phone. Aided by a credit-card sized PC, Raspberry Pi, and Kaazing’s WebSocket technology, they were able to retrofit an ordinary smartphone to function as one of those old-school Hot Wheels remote controllers I always wanted.
This sort of technological showboating is not new to the engineering company. Last July, at the HTML5 Developer Conference, Kaazing showed off its smartphone-controlled Pong game. And in January, it showed how to use a smartphone as a videogame controller, this time with a 3D rendering of a car, not the real thing. Kaazing’s notion of the remote control smartphone seems to precede Google’s, and its engineers have been playing around with it long enough to impressively fine-tune the technology.
This latest advancement is exciting because the car was driven so to speak through the Internet. In a blog post, the company asks, “By controlling the car over the Web, could we control the car from another room? From another continent?” So we’re not just in toyland anymore. While the idea of steering an actual car with your phone is cool, it’s also freaking scary, especially since we know that autonomous cars are on the precipice of the American industry. (For now I won’t delve into questions of liability and licensure, although you can be sure Geico executives have.) But with side projects like Kaazing’s, these questions are not too far off. More to the point, you have to wonder where all this will lead.
While the idea of an iPhone controlled cars is borderline dystopian, there are other, more amenable offshoots. It could lead to merely paying a parking meter remotely, to using your phone as a remote for various household items like Apple TV, to automatically changing parking spaces on street-cleaning days (a common burden for numerous New Yorkers), to even self-programming your car to get routine maintenance on its own so you don’t have to wait in those terrible waiting-rooms for hours with bad TV and terrible coffee. I am seriously riffing here, and am (obviously) not a developer by any stretch of the imagination. But who is to say what will come next?
Needless to say, the smartphone is much more than just a phone, it’s a centralized point of action for modern existence and this is even before Google Glasses become widely available. Many of us don’t feel dressed until we’ve stuffed our smartphone into our pocket. If a smartphone can control a car, what else will it be able to do? Kaazing hopes it will be one of the companies providing the answers.
According to Kaazing CEO Jonas Jacobi, the remote control car represents the endless potential of the Websocket platform. “Right now it’s a showcase,” he says, “a very compelling showcase.” The Websocket protocol the Kaazing platform relies on aims to tackle the Web’s shortcomings. They include high latency, bandwidth consumption, problems with data translation, and technical obstacles Tim Berners-Lee and his ilk didn’t foresee when it was invented some 30-plus years ago. Kaazing touts its platform’s easier connectivity, faster speeds, and fewer snafus. Its clients include management businesses, online betting companies, and gaming conferences. Jonas deems the toy car project as “partially work, partially fun,” but it was really meant to highlight the platform’s other applications.
Right now the game seems to be revolving around burgeoning developers pitching ideas for apps. Jonas claims that Websocket technology has opened up the playing field for communication to happen on a more instantaneous level, because the technology solves the high latency issues that have plagued the Web since the dawn of the internet. “We are a technology-enabling company,” he says “We are selling infostructure. For us it’s important to showcase what our technology can be used for.”
The Kaazing project is just an example of possible new avenues due to this modern malady, and Jonas is not hiring developers to create the next autonomously run Mercedes anytime soon. But Kaazing has been making waves for quite some time now. Its platform has recently become a standard by the IETF for two-way communication with a web server that do not need multiple HTTP requests. Subsequently, it acquired $17 million in funding in June to further develop its web communications technologies.
Inversely, there is a flipside to this: The expectations humans form from interactions between one another are now being imbued on the small pieces of metal in our hands. People, more and more, are humanizing their devices and expecting instant feedback, in one way or another. We are witnessing new apps borne of this new need. The car, for Jonas, represents any and all type of hardware using the Websocket platform. For everyone else it represents the possibility for developers to latch on to this burgeoning technology and take it further. The ideas are endless.
And, as has been evidenced, developers are beginning to catch on. The iPhone is becoming a remote control in more ways than we can imagine. If people continue to rely on their smartphone for problems beyond merely its capabilities as a phone, new exigencies will be created. Kaazing is only showing that the web is adapting to meet with this new demand, lord only knows what is to come.
[Image courtesy Kaazing]