NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is interested in finding enterprise uses for consumer “toys”, using them to monitor firewall traffic, manage internal jargon and control model space environments.
IT Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Tom Soderstrom told the recent Red Hat Summit 2016 that he sometimes calls himself “chief toy officer”.
“I wear that badge proudly,” he said.
“I call myself the toy officer because today’s toy is tomorrow’s tool, but we don’t know which toy is tomorrow’s tool so we’ve got to experiment.”
Soderstrom has come up with a strategy to decide which toys to try to bring into the enterprise – one he calls E4 –“engage and enable everyone and everything”.
Although that tends to point towards an Internet of Things (IoT) strategy, Soderstrom believes IoT is only one “toy” that will become an enterprise tool in the future.
“[Rather] it’s the combination of existing technologies that is creating new opportunities,” he said.
“So what we need to do is experiment with all of these things – analytics, IoT, clouds, collaboration, [and] how we work.
“If people care when we show it [to them], then we keep doing it. If they don’t then we drop it.”
The experiments have already begun.
One experiment involves teaching an Amazon Echo “JPL-speak”.
“We have over 4000 acronyms in there - you can just ask it [for the meaning of one],” Soderstrom said.
He said he hoped that by becoming an early enterprise adopter of the Echo that JPL might “influence the industry to build [the technology out] in a way we can use it.”
Soderstrom also showed off early internal uses for Intel’s RealSense 3D camera technology, such as to enable people to work with computer models of a solar system.
“This is very inexpensive consumer technology,” he said.
In addition, Soderstrom showed how JPL’s security team were using smart light bulbs to monitor their firewall.
The bulbs are connected to a management portal for firewall data, and they change colour depending on the amount of traffic being blocked or let in through the firewall.
The colour changes provide a kind of “situational awareness” of changes in traffic in and out of JPL, even if the security team are working on other things: problems can be recognised by subtle changes in room lighting.
This is a similar idea to that explored by futurist Ben Hammersley in colour-coding his own personal computer systems.
One thing that is attractive to Soderstrom in converting toys to tools is that it speeds the kind of innovation he can bring to JPL’s environment.
“What’s coming now is that in the consumer space lots of innovations are happening all the time – iPhones, smart watches, Android – and what we really want is to put them in an enterprise and use them.
“If we can give the scientists and engineers that put rovers on Mars better tools quicker and see the disruptions coming they will be even more productive and it will help humanity,” he said.