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Communicating in the age of the network: Benetton gets into M2M with Sandbox collaboration

Fabrica, the communications research centre of the Benetton Group, has teamed up with the company behind the Little Printer to explore the possibilities of the internet of things.
Written by Cristina Prina Ricotti, Contributor

As I navigate my way through the quiet, tree-lined streets in the Trevigiana countryside, I keep rethinking my choice to live and work right in the middle of Rome. Approaching the entrance to Fabrica, the communications research centre of the Benetton group, I steer my car into an area that more closely resembles a vineyard rather than a parking lot. Most people travel by bicycle around here, I notice, and you can hear birds singing. Maybe they're doing things right here.

And Fabrica has done quite a few things right over the years, starting with its breathtaking location.

Set in the Venice hinterland, Fabrica's home — the Villa Pastega Manera — is the product of architect Tadao Ando who brought his own aesthetic principles to an original Italian 17th-century villa. The spaces that make up Fabrica — including laboratories, common rooms, an auditorium, and a library — are arranged around a circular structure, a sort of agorà, in order to encourage collaboration within the Fabrica community.

Set up in 1994, Fabrica hosts around 50 or workers people every day, including creatives, artists and innovators. Many of them are students under the age of 25 and completing internships, gaining hands-on experience in how communication is changing in the networked age.

The original vision for Fabrica from Benetton founders Luciano Benetton and Oliviero Toscani was of a communications centre for the company — a centre intended to explore all fields of communication, media, art and design. While 'mission' is still at the heart of Fabrica today, thanks to the emergence of the internet and connected systems, technology has also been added to Fabrica's roster of interests.

Fabrica's tweet distorting News Machine. Image: Cristina Prina Ricotti/ZDNet

The Fabrica Sandbox

One such tech-based project that's now being worked on at Fabrica is Sandbox, a collaboration between the research centre and London-based Berg.

Berg is best known for its Little Printer, a palm-sized networked device that prints out a customisable stream of content — news, games, social media or GitHub updates — at the user's request. But the company's ambitions are bigger than that: it hopes to turn the Berg Cloud platform that underpins it into a prototyping platform for connected objects.

According to Fabrica chief executive Dan Hill, Sandbox is "an advanced beta test and an interesting proposition: a community of multidisciplinary, multinational creatives sharing a workspace and testing possibilities of [Berg Cloud]. We are almost our own guinea pigs."

Sandbox is the first sandbox for the Berg Cloud platform. The sandbox area is defined by the reach of ZigBee coverage from the Berg Cloud Bridge, a small piece of hardware which plugs into traditional routers, conveying instructions from the Berg Cloud APIs to the prototype internet-connected object.

"This is an amazing little box," Hill says. "We can connect multiple things to it... [we thought] what would happen if we were to dot a number of these around the building and have teams like Aaron's [Aaron Siegel of Fabrica's interaction department] hacking on them, exploring the possibilities?"

The collaboration proper only began a couple of weeks ago and at the moment the Sandbox team is testing their new Berg components, the Berg Cloud platform and all the associated possibilities.

Among those components are Berg Cloud dev boards which act as shields. Shields clip onto things like Arduinos or Raspberry Pi computers in order to extend their capabilities — connect to a GPS module, for example, or give it a joypad. The shields communicate commands from the Berg developer platform to the hardware, carry out those commands, and if required, report back to the object's creator.

The Berg Cloud firmware gives the object web APIs, as well as access to the same tools that underpin Little Printer (such as user management and endpoint validation) — meaning the connected object can be controlled or monitored remotely via Remote, a Berg app for Windows Phone, iOS or Android. There's also an activity feed aimed at users, whereby an object's owners can get regular updates on what's happening via the Remote app too — readings from sensors, for example, or actions taken by the object.

With Berg Cloud's mix of simple hardware and web APIs, makers can quickly create connected-object prototypes, from novelties like Little Printer to homeware or white goods with internet connectivity built in.

What Berg Cloud has to offer, according to Siegel, is the "possibility to do compelling things with the interaction of the physical and virtual, and to make products — not just a one-off thing, but a large number of products that are customisable".

At Fabrica, all departments (video, graphics, design, media) interact on every project, and Sandbox is no exception. In a recent workshop with the Berg people, teams were created with diversity of skills in mind and put to work on ideas including reinventing an everyday radio set.

Little Printer, with its Guardian publication
The Guardian is one of 70 publications for Little Printer. Image: Berg

The teams are new to the Sandbox experiment but the possibilities are beginning to take shape. Siegel shows me a basic device on his desk created with an Arduino board and a Berg dev shield, with which people can interact through his website: visitors to the site are invited to remotely change the colours that the lights at each corner of the board display. It's simple example of a long-wire use of the internet which can be used in a million possible applications.

The origins of the collaboration

The Fabrica-Berg collaboration stems from shared connections and an interest in what Hill describes as "how the 'age of the network' has changed the way we live, work, play, organise, decide, build... how do product design, product making and the products themselves change as a result of the age of the network?"

"Like all good commercial design firms nowadays, Berg is at the same time a research centre, doing research through making," Hill says. "If I had to have a motto, three words to describe Fabrica, that would be it: research through making."

While Fabrica is small, Hill's approach remains both pragmatic and ambitious. "[Fabrica is] really good at two things: we can make things and we can expertly communicate things. And that is a powerful engine, if we do it right. I hope that in some small, tiny, humble way Fabrica can be, as Roberto Saviano said during his recent talk, part of the renaissance of ideas in Italy, I’d like that, I’d like us to be a part of that."

Growing up in Italy during the 1980s, to me Benetton was not a mere clothing brand. Its campaigns and involvement in a number of ethical, political and human rights issues turned it into a controversial communications giant. Oliviero Toscani’s campaigns were behind all the successes (and scandals) that propelled the group forward until the late 1990s. Controversy may not be Fabric'as style, but Hill feels that the research centre has the responsibility to connect and put difficult subjects in front of people, in a thought-provoking and constructive way.

At Fabrica, they are not interested in quiet ventures, or as Hill puts it, "pseudo-academic projects aimed at a niche audience" — they are out to connect. "Our job is to think: in the network culture, how do you provoke change? How do you stimulate a discussion? How do people communicate, now that objects and spaces are communicating too?," he says.

Fabrica can be a hub for research and development. Italian businesses suffer because of their lack of investment in this sector. "We can be of value, mainly because of the way networks and communications have changed the way things happen now, they changed what products are possible, what services are possible. Marketing is no longer something that is done at the end of the process, after all your R&D, development, production… this does not happen anymore. Communication changes what the product is[...]

"But still the network enabled an entirely new class of products coming from outside the industry, a radical disruption. That’s what communication does. It is no longer at the end, it is the start of the process."

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