Microformats are like RFID tags for the Web

Today, I took a much needed break to attend a Microsoft Research talk by Paul Dietz, who is a scientist at the Mitsubishi Electric Research Lab (MERL).

In describing one of his inventions, a system that automagically pings your waitress when your glass is half empty, Paul described RFID tags as a "passive, non-interactive component". He then proceeded to describe how he and his associates at MERL have figured out how to enable two devices to communicate using low cost LED lights, at hundreds of bits per second. But I'll get back to that, in a second.

Suddently, it hit me: a quick and simple way to describe microformats to my friends and colleagues!

A microformat serves the same function on the Web as an RFID tag in a Walmart warehouse! Microformats are descriptive but passive. They just sit out there and wait to be discovered by an interested agent. They are small and easy to miss, unless you're looking for them. Microformats, like RFID tags, talk to everyone.

What is a microformat? A microformat is an RFID tag for Web pages. Do you see any problems with this analogy?

Now, back to LEDs and Paul Dietz... I invite you to chew on this for a second:

LED a + LED b = communication medium

Think about the hundreds of LED lights that you encounter on a daily basis: on your keychain, desktop, dashboard, keyboard, remote control, auto, kitchen appliances, telephone, TV, computer, and even your kids. Paul Dietz is not just another Talking Head.

Someday, you may find yourself living with a cheap cell phone...
And you may find yourself, holding that cheap cell phone to the tail light of a large automobile...
And you may find yourself, uploading information about that large automobile to your mechanic...
And you may find yourself, connecting to the Web by opening your laptop under an LED light.
And you may ask yourself, "How do I work this?"
And you may say to yourself, "MY GOD, WHAT HAVE LEDs BECOME?"

Paul Dietz is an engineer who strives to create elegant circuits and systems that bring a smile and make the world a slightly better place. He is best known for his work on interactive systems including DiamondTouch (an identifying, multi-user touch screen), iGlassware (RFID-based, level-sensing glassware that automatically calls for refills) and Pal Mickey (a location-interactive plush toy sold at Walt Disney World). In his spare time, Paul runs the Animatronics Workshop – an extracurricular activity for kids 11-14 years old where they build complete robotic shows. He holds a Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon and is currently a Senior Research Scientist at Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs.