Depending on who you talk to, the Internet of Things (IoT) is defined in different ways, and it encompasses many aspects of life – from connected homes and cities to connected cars and roads (yes, roads) to devices that track an individual’s behavior and use the data collected for “push” services. Some mention 1 trillion Internet-connected devices by 2025 and define mobile phones as the “eyes and ears” of the applications connecting all of those connected “Things”. Depending on the context, others give examples that are less phone-centric, speak of a class of devices that do not exist today or point to Google Goggles as an indication of things to come.
Everyone, however, thinks of the IoT as billions of connections (a sort of “universal global neural network” in the cloud) that will encompass every aspect of our lives. All of this public discussion suggests the IoT is finally becoming a hot topic within the mainstream media. Many recent articles point to the IoT as the interaction and exchange of data (lots of it) between machines and objects, and now there are product definitions reflecting the same concept. Hence, from a technology perspective, the IoT is being defined as smart machines interacting and communicating with other machines, objects, environment and infrastructures, resulting in volumes of data generated and processing of that data into useful actions that can “command and control” things and make life much easier for human beings … similar to the world envisioned in The Jetsons, only better.
Estimates of the future market size for the Internet of Things cover a broad range, but most pundits agree that it will dwarf any other market. In mature markets today, the ultimate, pervasive consumer device is a mobile phone. Consider your own household, and count the number of mobile phones you currently have. Then count the number of windows, doors, electrical outlets, lights, appliances and heating and A/C units you have. You’ll quickly see why the IoT market will significantly surpass the mobile phone market, at least in the western world.
Making things smart
Do an IOT-related web search, and you’ll quickly notice the overuse of the term “smart.” So, what does it really mean when something is smart, and what makes an object smart? How would a refrigerator or a toaster oven that hasn’t been considered smart become a “smart appliance”?
Today, we are seeing the electrification of the world around us. Almost any manufactured good now includes an embedded processor (typically a microcontroller, or MCU), along with user interfaces, that can add programmability and deterministic “command and control” functionality. The electrification of the world and the pervasiveness of embedded processing are the keys to making objects “smart.”
Your old toaster that mechanically controlled the color of your toast now has an MCU in it, and the MCU controls the color of your toast. The toaster completes its task more consistently and reliably, and because it is now a “smart” toaster, it has the ability to communicate with you electronically using a touch pad or switches.
After a device becomes smart through the integration of embedded processing, the next logical step is remote communication with the smart device to help make life easier. For example, if I’m running late at the office, can I turn on my house lights for security reasons using my laptop or mobile phone?
Communication capability and remote manual control leads to the next step … how do I automate things and, based on my settings and with sophisticated cloud-based processing, make things happen without my intervention
? That’s the ultimate goal of IoT applications. And, for those applications to connect with and leverage the Internet to achieve this goal, they must first become “smart” (incorporate an MCU/embedded processor with an associated unique ID) then connected and, finally, controlled, and ultimately deliver a new class of services that makes life easier for the users of those services.
Let’s look at some categories for IOT-related applications. While there are literally hundreds of applications being considered and identified by different industries, they can be categorized in a simple, logical way.
Category one encompasses the idea of millions of heterogeneous “aware” and interconnected devices with unique IDs interacting with other machines/objects, infrastructure, and the physical environment. In this category, the IoT largely plays a remote Track, Command, Control and Route (TCC&R) role. As with all aspects of the Internet of Things, safety and security are paramount. These applications are not about data mining of people’s behaviors (along the lines of “big brother watching”) but rather they extend the automation and machine-to-machine (M2M), machine-to-infrastructure (M2I) and machine-to-nature (M2N) communications that can help simplify people’s lives.
The second category is all about leveraging the data that gets collected by the end nodes (smart devices with sensing and connectivity capability) and data mining for trends and behaviors that can generate useful marketing information to create additional commerce.
Credit card companies and membership shopping clubs already track and use people’s behavior, to an extent, to come up with offers that may promote incremental sales. Now, the question is how far will this data mining go? Use cases could include a store tracking which aisles you visited, where you spent the most time within those aisles and even what type of items you lifted and browsed. This scenario is easily possible using a mobile phone‘s GPS capability, RFID and smart tags in stores and wireless tags. The result could be as simple as providing email offers or “push” services at the point of sale. Or, it could go farther, with your car insurance company tracking your driving habits and places traveled to assign risk factors that help determine your monthly premium, for example. You can see how this category can become a slippery slope, and how IoT can allow data collection from every aspect of one’s everyday life, assign a “category” to a person, with pleasant or alternatively unpleasant consequences.
When others become aware of the context
associated with an entity, a person or a group (hence, knowing identity
, and time
), to what extent can that data be used, and to what extent should the entity, person or group have a say in how that data gets used? This second category, especially, spurs discussions about privacy, security, governance and the social responsibility that comes along with such a “self-aware,” connected world.
For now, we’ll focus on category one – specifically, the technologies and devices required to enable the IoT for tracking, command, control and routing (TCC&R) purposes.