Thursday, November 5, 2009

SenSys 2009, Day Two

Report from Day Two here at SenSys.

Last night at the organizing committee dinner I had the pleasure of chatting with Kris Pister, founder of Dust Networks and the originator of the term "smart dust". I got to pick his brains on the state of sensor networks in industry and the gap between academic work in the area and real-world demands. Kris had a couple of interesting comments. Dust Networks has made major inroads into wireless sensing for industrial automation and is behind the Wireless HART standard. He noted that academics are generally allergic to leveraging fine-grained time sync to enable TDMA and coordinated channel hopping, which can greatly improve reliability. It's true that most academic work favors a CSMA approach. I think there are two reasons for this: first, we don't happen to have a good TDMA implementation for, say, TinyOS that is easy to integrate with existing code. Second, once you go down the TDMA route it taints many aspects of your system design as it tends to violate layering between application logic and the communication substrate.

Kris also noted that a lot of the academic work in this area (including papers in this years' conference) are reporting results that are worse (or at least no better) than what the industrial solutions manage today. I can't prove or disprove this claim but it is true that the academic community is largely unaware of what the industry state-of-the-art is capable of. Kris has been trying to publish papers on their Wireless HART protocol but these kinds of papers are generally not well received by program committees. I do think it would help to have a strong evaluation-driven paper published about this protocol.

A few highlights from today's talks.

Kevin Klues from Berkeley gave a talk on TOSThreads, a threading mechanism for TinyOS. One of the main complaints about programming in TinyOS is that the event-driven programming model requires fairly straightforward programs to be broken up across a set of event handlers. Threading support would make it easier to write simple applications, although it's not clear how much benefit this will have for more complex applications with a high degree of concurrency. Mostly I'm concerned about how one reasons about interactions between threads and the ability to couple activities across them to increase energy efficiency. TOSThreads is a somewhat minimal approach to introducing threads into TinyOS, making it easy to couple threaded and event-driven code, but introduces the distinction between low-priority application threads and a high-priority "kernel" (not a distinction that we have seen in TinyOS before). I think the jury is out on whether this is the right direction but it can make writing simple programs much easier.

My former Ph.D. student, Konrad Lorincz, gave a talk on our Mercury system, which manages energy and radio bandwidth for a network of wearable sensors being used in neuromotor disease rehabilitation studies. Naturally this was the best talk of the conference.

Nithya Ramanathan from UCLA gave a talk on Suelo, which is a system for monitoring contaminants in soil and groundwater. The key challenge is detecting and dealing with faults in the sensors, especially as they are deployed for long periods of time in challenging environments. Suelo adopts a hybrid of autonomous and participatory sensing, by automatically dispatching people to check or replace sensors when data outliers are detected. The system also incorporates feedback from humans to tune the fault detection algorithm. This is a curious paper - it is not a conventional "technology centric" solution. The paper is backed up by data from three deployments (Bangladesh, San Joaquin River, and James Reserve). This is a very important problem for real, long-term sensor network deployments and needs techniques that sometimes are outside of the conventional CS literature. I'm glad this paper is at SenSys.

Rajesh Gupta moderated a panel on "Sensor Networks - The Next Ten Years", looking at the future directions for the field now that we are about a decade in. Mani Srivastava argued that we've moved away from sensing as a key aspect of WSNs, and even further from the potential to do actuation. He admonished the community to focus more on mobile personal sensing. Of course, this involves human factors, such as incentives, user interface design, and privacy. Jack Stankovic thinks the focus will morph into "cyber-physical systems", involving greater interaction with the physical world. To make this work, he argued that we need guaranteed real-time wireless communication as well as formal validation for safety. Joe Paradiso talked about sensor nets as an extension to the nervous system and asked how people will interface with them. His claim is that ubiquitous computing will arise from existing, commodity devices originally intended for other purposes. Finally, Pedro José Marrón talked about the European Cooperating Objects initiative which brings together pervasive computing, sensor nets, and embedded systems.

One thread across these position statements is that the set of open problems is very diverse - and often the solutions are not easily quantified. Perhaps one reason these problems have been less the focus of SenSys is that it is hard to get a quantitative handle on them: it's more difficult to publish papers when you can't show graphs that go up and to the right. By the same token it's hard to get a grad student to go work on a problem dealing with, say, human factors -- at least in the systems and networking community. Joe pointed out that this is more common in other communities, although the methodology (e.g., user studies) can be fairly limiting as well. As a community I think we tend to gravitate towards problems that leverage the techniques and methodologies we feel comfortable with, which in turn constrains the set of problems we tackle.

The poster and demo session followed the presentations. The demos are a real highlight of SenSys and give researchers a way to showcase real systems.

At the banquet we announced the two best paper awards. They are VTrack: Accurate, Energy-Aware Traffic Delay Estimation Using Mobile Phones from MIT and UIC, and Low-power clock synchronization using electromagnetic energy radiating from AC power lines from CMU. Congratulations to both sets of authors!


  1. I'm not sure how much I agree with your contention that TDMA schemes muddy the water between communication substrate and application logic. Nobody's claimed that about token-ring, and IP runs over lots of TDMA links (GSM,LTE,WIMAX, even the GTS parts of 802.15.4). IP doesn't have any particular considerations for this to work… Furthermore, it's simply a fact that TDMA has higher spectral efficiency and can make QoS guarantees. It's not that I'm particularly in favor of TDMA, I'm just agreeing with KJP that it often seems overlooked.

    Of course there are scheduled or pseudo-scheduled MACs around- SCP-MAC or synchronous LPL/B-MAC are pretty well known. I think a better objection is a sort of wariness to baking in a dependence on consistent schedules to your protocol, especially for ad-hoc, multi-hop applications.

    FYI 802.15.4e is on the horizon that has a lot of elements of TSMP-- there's even a (new,open) implementation out of Kris's group-- see
    I'm definitely going to be taking a close look at it.

  2. TDMA vs. CSMA? This is what gets sensor nets people excited? My god! The panel sounded like the only useful thing there. Wake up guys. You need to figure out what to use this stuff for! And being limited by quant. analysis is a big problem in other communities also. You need to figure out a way around it. I think the HCI community (my community) is suffering from this same problem, but it is just a "looser" level of rigor. Forcing everything to look like a tight experiment limits what you can ever build and explore. There should be room for both styles of work (tight experiments about something small and looser explorations of big ideas).

  3. Steve - the issue in most WSN scenarios is that we don't have the luxury of completely decoupling the communication and application layers, due to limited buffer capacity and the need to tightly coordinate communication schedules with sampling, computation, etc. The dependence issue is a big part of it; once you have signed up to use TDMA it's hard to back out.

    James - check out the full program; I'm only blogging on a small subset of the papers. It's true that the community is dominated by networking research so the question is, as we start to actually solve those problems, how do we get the community to evolve to work on the next set of hard problems. One problem is that papers that branch out often get out of the comfort zone of the program committee so having the right people on the PC is essential.

  4. James, 802.15.4 actually specifies TDMA and CSMA working together. TDMA is in fact exciting for one major reason and that is power savings. In WSN, that is almost everything. You can duty cycle the whole network so that all devices save power while remaining synchronized to each other's wake up cycle.

    The frequency hopping serves a different purpose which is robustness to channel interference. Believe it or not, the reason why WSNs haven't penetrated more is because people are still tryin to figure out the power issues to keep them on for years at a time without replacing batteries.

  5. Thank you for the information.
    Why this guy Kris Pister don't do that kind fo bussnies with microsft or apple ?
    I think it would be better, well It's just an idea?


  6. What a great company Dust Networks is, my older brother works there and he tells me only wonderful things about the company and how they treat their employees.


Startup Life: Three Months In

I've posted a story to Medium on what it's been like to work at a startup, after years at Google. Check it out here.