What you need to know about the Internet of Things

A short introduction for non-technical readers

image via Axis Communications

I have not touched a light switch in months. No, I haven’t started some weird new lifestyle program where I live faithfully by the schedule of the sun. Rather, I recently upgraded all the lightbulbs in my house to smart bulbs. Combined with the Apple HomeKit app, these bulbs sense when I enter and exit my apartment and adjust light levels accordingly. They also use data like weather, time, and sunset/sunrise and can control everything from light levels to tone to timing. For example, evidence shows that short wavelength light (i.e. blue/other cool tones) has been linked to sleep issues; mindful of my sleep schedule, my lights become more orange-toned a few hours before bedtime. Although the lightbulbs in my apartment are a personal (and somewhat frivolous) example, the possibilities of the Internet of Things are limitless.

Before we go into the how’s and why’s, let’s review what, exactly, the Internet of Things is. Writing for Wired magazine, Daniel Burress provides a great summary:

The Internet of Things revolves around increased machine-to-machine communication; it’s built on cloud computing and networks of data-gathering sensors; it’s mobile, virtual, and instantaneous connection; and they say it’s going to make everything in our lives from streetlights to seaports “smart.” — Daniel Buress, Wired, November 2014

Simply put, the Internet of Things is the network of physical devices (like watches, lightbulbs, cars, and more) embedded with sensors, network connections, and more. These devices use sensors to collect data that is then used to make choices regarding certain functions and actions. For example, my smart lightbulbs use internal clocks and weather data to detect when the sun goes down and turn on my hallway light accordingly.


A brief history of the Internet of Things

“When we talk about the Internet of Things, it’s not just putting RFID tags on some dumb thing so we smart people know where that dumb thing is. It’s about embedding intelligence so things become smarter and do more than they were proposed to do.” –Nicholas Negroponte
image via TriStar

The term Internet of Things was originally coined in 1999 by Kevin Ashton at a presentation for Proctor & Gamble but the idea behind was much older. In the early 1980s, a computer science student at Carnegie-Mellon University developed a sensor to detect when the cans of soda in a Coca-Cola machine were both in stock and cold. He then rigged the sensor to send him an alert, bypassing the need to check if the machine was empty and avoiding the unholy possibility of a lukewarm drink.

For many years, the main implementation of IOT technology was sensing stock, often using RFID. A pharmacy, for example, could use sensors to determine which items needed to be restocked, rather than sending employess out to visually check or relying on customers to request more items. In 2011, the number of devices connected to the Internet finally passed the number of humans connected.

image via ValueWalk

Examples of IOT uses

CASE #1: Household

Perhaps the most famous implementation of the Internet of Things is in the household. Smart thermostats, like the Nest device, can help control power bills and keep a house more comfortable, while smart doorbells like Ring help promote personal safety.

image via Bloomberg

CASE #2: Gardening

Another example is gardening. A common first IOT project is to set up a weather station using a simple Raspberry PI. The station can use humidity sensors to detect when a plant should be watered and then send a command to a watering station to complete the action. More and more data can be gathered (average temperature, quality of soil, etc…) and an entire garden can be almost completely automated.

For those interested, this Maximum Yield article is a great overview of gardening and the Internet of Things, particularly hydroponic gardening.

CASE #3: Travel

There is not much that’s more annoying than commercial airplane travel. From packing to security to delays, the whole experience is rife with frustrations. Using IOT devices, however, we can simplify and enhance the process.

CASE #4: Transportation

Having grown up in the deep South, I never learned how to drive on ice or snow. I live in California now so this is generally fine. On a recent trip to Oregon, however, we hit an unexpected winter storm and I was forced to drive on some pretty patchy black ice. Although nothing bad happened, the situation could’ve been even safer had my car been able to sense the ice and drive slower or otherwise adjust because of it. Using sensors on the road, as well as sensors on your car and national weather data, IOT devices are making this a reality. Beyond individual cars, IOT devices like smart cement are making the roads safer for everyone. This cement can sense everything from minor traffic jams to major cracks and structural stresses, alerting the proper authorities of danger before a tragedy has occured.

For more on smart cement and related technological advances, be sure to check out this article detailing relevant research at the University of Houston.

CASE #5: Wearable Tech

One of the more obvious examples of IOT technology is the meteoric rise of wearable tech in the last decade. Fitness devices like the Fitbit send data like steps taken, flights of stairs climbed, and heartrate to their proprietary apps, claiming that this information can be collated and analyzed to provide insights and health advice. Other, more robust devices like the Apple Watch combine fitness applications with many of the properties of a cellphone.


But what if someone hacks my toaster?

! image via xkcd

It would be disingenous to talk about IOT without at least mentioning the possible security concerns. Yes, it’s true that any device connected to a network can potentially be compromised. Realistically, though, no one is going to be clamoring to hack a virtually meaningless device like a toaster or a lightbulb.

Of greater concern is the potential for surveillance and the sale of personal data. The applications of this data for marketing and advertising sales are infinite. Imagine if your toaster, for example, could sense exactly what type and quantity of bread you ate every morning (and of course it could. That’s pretty basic stuff.) Now imagine that data being sold to the fine folks at Super EZ Bread, Inc. All it takes is one carefully placed ad to your toaster-associated email address offering a similar product for an unbeatable price and they’ve made a new customer.


The Future of IOT

Just like any company that blissfully ignored the Internet at the turn of the century, the ones that dismiss the Internet of Things risk getting left behind.” — Jared Newman

One major concern driving IOT advancements is the need for specific, actionable standard regarding privacy and security. Companies like Microsoft are approaching this by developing planning committees for their internal projects, while government agencies are spending endless hour debating proper standards. Whatever the appropriate guidelines end up being, they will set the course for the future of IOT development.


Getting Started

So you’ve read the above article and now you want to start exploring the wide world of IOT projects. Where do you begin? The first step is to purchase a small, single-board computer like a Raspberry Pi or an Arduino. These boards can be used with simple Python code to make introductory projects like the weather station discussed above.