The Internet of Things (IoT), A Primer

Connected devices, big money, and the rise of our robot overlords.

 

What does the Internet of Things look like?

It’s your day off and you’re headed downtown to buy some new clothes for spring. You walk into the mall and your phone gives you a notification, “Welcome back! Swipe for a list of stores and map of the mall.” You swipe the message and receive an alphabetical list of stores where you find your favorite store in the list. You tap on the name of the store and it loads a map of the mall with a highlighted path for you. The floor underneath you illuminates and you begin along the path, watching as it disappears right underneath your feet as you walk. As you approach a coffee shop you get another notification, “20% discount when you purchase an iced coffee and a pastry.” You decide to swipe and the path beneath your feet makes a veer from your predetermined path to the coffee stand and a scan code loads on your phone. When you get to the counter, you put your phone up to the scanner and ePay automatically takes out the cost of the purchase from your linked bank card. The barista fills your coffee and hands you your pastry and you continue along your path.

As you approach your destination, another notification pops up on your phone asking what you’re interested in today. When you select Women’s Clothes and Shorts, you receive special offerings on various women’s shorts with a map leading you to that department. You select a few spring-time colors and styles and head to the dressing room. Once inside, the mirror lights up and provides you with a list of images and prices for the four items you’ve brought with you. You try them on, settling on two pairs. You place the shorts that you’re not interested in into a slot in the wall which closes, and they are removed from sight. One of the pairs you have is slightly too big so you tap on the mirror where the image for those shorts is being displayed and select a smaller size. Another drawer opens and you take the smaller size pair out, replacing it with the larger pair you no longer need.

Upon finishing trying on the clothes, you press a checkout button on the mirror and a bag that is just the right size comes out of a slot. You put the clothes in the bag, throw it over your shoulder and as you walk out of the store your card is again charged automatically. A notification pops up on your phone thanking you for your patronage, informing you of how much you spent, your applied discount, and your current reward point status. As you walk out of the store you receive an update on where your car is parked or the closest public transportation to get where you’re going.

How does this all work? It is powered by the Internet of Things, a vast assortment of technologies that is revolutionizing industry through a network of physical objects that communicate with the cloud, various applications, and each other.

It’s likely you’ve heard of the Internet of Things, especially if you work in high-level manufacturing or tech industry, though for the most part the public is unaware of this current evolution in technology.

The concept of a network of smart devices was discussed as early as 1982, with a modified Coke machine at Carnegie Mellon University becoming the first Internet-connected appliance, able to report its inventory and whether newly loaded drinks were cold.

The first use of the term “Internet of Things”, or IoT, occurred in 1999 by Kevin Ashton when discussing RFID technology for use in retail stores.

Wikipedia gives a definition as “the inter-networking of physical devices, vehicles, buildings, and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and network connectivity which enable these objects to collect and exchange data.”

 

Too vague? Here are a few real-world examples:

I’m sure you’ve heard of Bill Gates: Microsoft founder; Harvard dropout; richest man in America; glasses; the coolest freaking house in the world. Gates was an innovator of IoT, and may have started the trend of Smart Houses (think of Amazon Alexa, Google Home, or even Philips Hue the personal wireless LED lighting). In his book The Road Ahead, Bill writes that every guest in his home would have an “electronic pin [that] will tell the house who and where you are, and the house will use this information to try to meet and even anticipate your needs — all as unobtrusively as possible.” The house (completed in 1997) can alter light levels, temperature, music, and scenery on wall screens just from your (the pin’s) presence. Two people in the room? Not a problem. The technology will take an average of the two peoples’ preferences and provide a middle ground, though I’m not too sure what the hybrid of a tropical beach and mountain vista looks like.

Boeing, one of the two largest commercial airplane manufacturers (the other is the French Airbus) and the company that created the original Jumbo Jet (the Boeing 747) has been using IoT in their engines for about a decade. Their engines are manufactured by a variety of companies (Pratt & Whitney, General Electric, and Rolls-Royce), and these companies have implemented engine monitoring systems through satellite activated sensors that report on the health of the engines during flight. This implementation has reduced the costly action of replacing engines prematurely as a precautionary measure. Prior to IoT, the alternative of a catastrophic failure was much worse than the cost of early engine retirement, but with the data provided by the engine sensors, both failure and early retirement can be drastically reduced.

Boston Medical Center has recently begun using IoT technology across the entire campus. With implementations in the lab, kitchens, patient rooms, and medical devices, you could say that BMC is the first smart hospital. They have devices that ensure a regulated environment for biological samples and medications. All infusion pumps, EKG machines, heart monitors, and oxygen sensors report data and can be controlled remotely. They even have a ‘biodigester’ that is monitored to ensure efficiency as it composts food scraps from throughout the hospital. Goodbye dogs, robots are now eating our leftovers.

There are plenty of integrated applications of IoT that range from industrial machine monitoring to supply and value chain optimization and most uses of IoT are truly groundbreaking. Some examples being tested include using sensors to monitor waterways for pollutants, adjust medical implants, and automate city transportation.

 

So, who’s investing?

With the increasing prevalence of wearable devices, internet connected appliances, and machine to machine communication, a lot of hype has been created around IoT. Companies have created non-integrated systems that leave users with a basket of remote controls and even home appliances as ludicrous as Juicero, the juicer (https://evrythng.com/lessons-learned-from-the-pointless-400-connected-juicer/) that will order more bags of fruit when you’ve run out.

However, the hype doesn’t mean that big names aren’t interested, and most of the tech powerhouses have begun purchasing startup IoT companies and investing their own capital into research.

  • Microsoft has created their own IoT Cloud Solution called Azure. Self described as “an open, flexible, enterprise-grade cloud computing platform”, Azure aims to provide customers with the ability to deploy IoT within their already existing data platforms.
  • Google has acquired a multitude of companies including startups in hardware, software, analytics, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Some of the big-name companies they’ve purchased include Boston Dynamics, Nest, and DeepMind.
  • Apple has created the HomeKit that provides a framework for communicating with and controlling connected accessories for smart homes. They’ve even implemented Siri to assist in control of user devices.
  • Amazon has entered the world of IoT with Amazon Web Services now offering data management and device connectivity in the cloud environment through AWS Greengrass and AWS IoT. Not to mention Amazon Alexa, the smart home device.
  • IBM is employing their AI system, Watson, to provide edge computing for business enterprises to optimize operations, manage assets, rethink products and services, and transform the customer experience.

In addition to the big companies stepping up to the plate, there are thousands of young start-up companies who are fighting for a piece of the IoT pie.

 

But, just how big is the pie?

Some are estimating that the potential of growth created by implementing IoT in just industrial applications will generate somewhere between $10 and $15 trillion of global GDP by 2030. That’s trillion with a T.

How is this going to happen? The creation of affordable manufacturing has dropped the prices of sensors and devices, and when coupled with the advent of IPv6, which will allow an immense number of IoT devices to interact, you have a cheap solution with an infrastructure ready to handle the upsurge in devices. Due to this, the estimates for IoT connected devices will consist of about 30 billion objects by 2020.

That’s just three years from now! While monumental effort and innovation has occurred surrounding the new technological revolution, humanity is still taking its first steps in this field. With all the hype, some are saying there could be an IoT bubble, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

 

Where have I seen this?

While working on this post, I spent more than a few hours in a humble coffee shop down the street from my apartment. (Shout out to Kava Shteeble for letting me grumble and curse and drink too much coffee.) It was the perfect environment because they have an internet connected (IoT) printer that you can connect to through their Wi-Fi. Pretty rad.

Anytime someone asked me what I was working on, I told them it was an article on the Internet of Things. When they would (inevitably) make a confused face, I could point at the printer and say, that thing that allows you to print just by connecting to the Wi-Fi is part of IoT.

The advent of the internet connected world is coming, and I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.

One thought on “The Internet of Things (IoT), A Primer

  1. Awesome read. Coming from the home automation world most of the time I think of IOT as smart thermostats, plugs, door locks, and cameras. I forget about the other things involved. Smart meters for monitoring power use and solar production is my new focus. However, I don’t really think much about all the other things. Great content.

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