Internet of Things Hitting Mainstream

Yesterday I caught up with my boss for my fortnightly review meeting. He was nice enough to head down to Mornington near where I live to have a coffee and a bite to eat. I’m used to being mobile when I work so obviously I cracked open my tablet and started reviewing and responding to e-mails, cutting code and making notes.

One of the e-mails was from Graeme Strange (CEO of Readify) asking for some thoughts on what people are calling the “Internet of Things”. Internet of Things (or IOT for acronym fans) is really just an umbrella term for the way everyday devices are being connected up to networks and linked together to behave in intelligent ways.

My Personal IOT Journey

As it happens I’m interested in home automation and there is a strong overlap between IOT and the technologies traditionally used in IOT. Not only that but IOT technologies are raising abstractions that make dealing with physical hardware easier so that software developers like me, and even complete novices can achieve some pretty spectacular results.

Over the years I’ve played with Arduinos, Netduinos, Raspberry Pis and NinjaBlocks. At each step of the way the level of abstraction has increased to the point that it is pretty much point and click that anyone who understands the basics of cause and effect can work with.

Of course these devices are really just the distributed brains of IOT technology. They need devices to connect to and control. Even here there have been some interesting developments. Two that have really piqued my interest are the Philips Hue lightbulbs and the upcoming LIFX lightbulbs. The former is a light bulb that can be controlled centrally from a base station and can display any colour you want. The later is basically the same thing but where it is different (and in my opinion where it is better) is that the bulb itself includes WiFi connectivity, no base station required.

Both of these devices can be hacked into an IOT infrastructure so that when you walk down the hallway in the middle of the night it puts on a low intensity glow to light your path. I’m looking forward to the LIFX shipping and am extra excited because it has Australian founders.

These kinds of LED bulbs are quite expensive (around $70 per unit) but remember that a LED bulb should last significantly longer than a traditional bulb and also consume less power so you may even come out better in the long run.

Business, the next IOT Frontier

Business already uses process automation technology, particularly in manufacturing and mining. However, IOT technology is going to make it cheaper and easier to integrate systems together which will make similar technologies accessible in other industries. As I mentioned to Graeme I think the industry areas to watch around commercial application of IOT are:

  • Environmental control systems on commercial real-estate.
  • Process automation in manufacturing facilities.
  • Metered services (parking etc).
  • Medical device integration.

All of these sections are already consumers of technology in some way, but they are not as well integrated as they could be.

Doctors Perspective

I recently underwent some minor hand surgery and during the process had to fill in about a gazillion forms (you think I am exaggerating). Yesterday I caught up with the surgeon to review the results and I mentioned that I think that the booking process for surgery is a complete nightmare (there are four different parties that you have to deal with: surgeon, hospital, anaesthetist and health insurance).

He agreed and said that he has long advocated improved use of technology in hospitals. He remarked that he has previously told hospital administrators proud of their latest and greatest new building that they have succeeded in building a facility that hasn’t changed much since the 1900s.

One example he cited was the integration of various specialist devices (automatic drip feeders) into some kind of overall connected system.

From my point of view this is exactly where IOT technology would help. Each one of these devices sends a continuous feed of structured data into a bus which then analyses it against a set of rules (and previous results) and then pushes messages to other devices for display or action.

Keystone Technologies

Overall I think all the technology exists today to make this possible but it is important to call out a few of them (or associated trends) which I think are really the keystones:

  • Miniaturisation of entire PC-like devices to the size of a credit card.
  • Standardised connectivity over TCP/IP (specifically TCP/IP).
  • Simple key-exchange for WiFi devices (push a button to connect).
  • NFC tags for negotiating casual connections to devices.
  • Increased solar panel efficiency for outdoor applications.
  • Reliable mobile data communications.

I think that these are the key ingredients. I think the next step is for intelligent device manufacturers (devices with flexible microprocessors and connectivity options) need to come up with a way of exchanging data about their devices with control systems in terms of “messages sent” and “commands accepted”.

Summary

Right now I think that IOT is still on the leading edge of the wave. But I think it is becoming more mainstream, particularly in the consumer space. I think that business will start to take advantage of loosely coupled IOT technology in the years ahead which will lead to cheaper implementation costs, better integration and ultimately better services.

I would go one step further and say that adopting these technologies to improve efficiency is critical for Australia if we want to maintain first-world status.

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