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I just got back from Zurich for SenSys 2010. I really enjoyed the conference this year and Jan Beutel did a fantastic job as general chair. The conference banquet was high up on the Uetliberg overlooking the city, and the conference site at ETH Zurich was fantastic. We also had record attendance -- in excess of 300 -- so all around it was a big success. I didn't make it to all of the talks but I'll briefly summarize some of my favorites here.
Sandy Pentland from the MIT Media Lab gave a great keynote on "Building a Nervous System for Humanity." He gave an overview of his work over the years using various sensors and signals to understand and predict people's behavior. For example, using various sensors in an automobile it is often possible to predict in advance whether someone is about to change lanes, based on subtle prepatory movements that they make while driving. His group has also used wearable sensors to gather data on conversational patterns and social interactivity within groups, and used this data to study practices that influence a business' productivity. This was an amazing keynote and probably the best we have ever had at SenSys -- very much in line with where a lot of work in the conference is headed.
The best paper award on Design and Evaluation of a Versatile and Efficient Receiver-Initiated Link Layer for Low-Power Wireless was presented by Prabal Dutta. This paper describes a new MAC layer based on receiver initiation of transmissions: receivers send probe signals that are used to trigger transmissions by sending nodes with pending packets. Their approach is based on a new mechanism called backcast in which senders respond to a receiver probe with an ACK which is designed to constrictively interfere with multiple ACKs being transmitted by other sending nodes. This allows the receiver probe mechanism to scale with node density. Because A-MAC does not rely on receivers performing idle listening, cross-channel interference (e.g., with 802.11) does not impact energy consumption nearly as much as LPL.
There were a bunch of talks this year on use of cell phones and other sensors for participatory sensing applications. One of my favorites was the paper on AutoWitness from Santosh Kumar's group at the University of Memphis. In this work, a small tag is embedded within a high-value item (like a TV set). If the item is taken from the home, accelerometer and gyro readings are used to determine its probable location. Using HMM-based map matching they showed that they can reconstruct the path taken by a burglar with fairly high accuracy.
Chenyang Lu from WUSTL presented a paper on Reliable Clinical Monitoring using Wireless Sensor Networks: Experience in a Step-down Hospital Unit. This paper presents one of the first studies to make use of low-power wireless sensors in a real hospital environment with real patients. My group spent about seven years working on this problem and we were often frustrated at our inability to get medical personnel to sign on for a full-scale study. Chenyang's group managed to monitor 46 patients in a hospital over 41 days (but only three patients at a time). Their paper showcases a lot of the challenges involved in medical monitoring using wireless sensors and is a must-read for anyone working in the area.
Finally, Steve Dawson-Haggerty from Berkeley presented his work on sMAP, a framework for tying together diverse sensor data for building monitoring. Steve's observation is that while different companies have worked on various protocols for standardizing building monitoring applications, most of these systems are highly proprietary, vertically-integrated nightmares of multiple entangled protocols. Steve took a "Web 2.0" approach to the problem and designed a simple REST-based API permitting a wide range of sensors to be queried through a Web interface. This is a really nice piece of work and demonstrates what is possible when a clean, open, human-centric design is preffered over a design-by-committee protocol spec with twenty companies involved.
Speaking of companies, one disappointing aspect of this years' conference is that there were very few industrial participants. None of the papers were from companies, and only a couple of the demos had any industrial affiliation. Part of the reason for this is that the conference organizers didn't approach many companies for support this year, since the budget was adequate to cover the meeting expenses, but this had the negative effect of there being essentially zero industrial presence. My guess is that the companies are going to the IEEE sensor nets conferences, but I am deeply concerned about what this means for the SenSys community. If companies aren't paying attention to this work, we run the risk of the wheels of innovation grinding to a halt.
There was one talk this year that was highly controversial -- Tian He's group from University of Minnesota presented a paper on an "energy distribution network" for sensor nets. The idea is to allow sensor nodes to push energy around, in this case, using wires connecting the nodes together. Unfortunately, the presenter did not justify this design choice at all and the only experiments involved very short (1 meter) cables between nodes. It seems to me that if you connect nodes together using wires, you can centralize the power supply and bypass the need for a low-power node design in the first place. The fact that the presenter didn't have any good arguments for this design suggests that the research group has not spent enough time talking to other people about their work, so they've built up a herd mentality that this actually makes sense. I don't think it does but would love to hear some good arguments to the contrary.
Apart from SenSys, I had the chance to (briefly) visit Timothy Roscoe at ETH Zurich as well as connect with some colleagues at the Google Zurich office. ETH Zurich is a very exciting place: lots happening, lots of faculty growth, tons of resources, good students and postdocs. I was very impressed. Even more impressive is Google's office in Zurich, which has the most over-the-top design of any of the Google offices I've visited so far (including Mountain View). The office is beautifully laid out and has a bunch of humorous design touches, including an indoor jungle and firepoles that connect the floors (with a helpful sign that reads, "don't carry your laptop while sliding down the pole.")