The “Internet of Things” (IoT), loosely defined, is a revolution. It’s a renaissance in networking that is connecting smart hardware technologies to enhance and improve the human experience in the real world. Most importantly, it is rapidly pushing boundaries and breaking down barriers and, although you may have never heard the term before, the concept is already changing your life.
From the smartphone in your pocket that responds to your voice, to a new thermostat that learns your preferences and habits, to life-saving invisible medical devices that are being imagined and developed – the IoT is growing in every direction, in every industry and field. It is redefining our world in ways that never seemed possible, and the possibilities for the future are endless.
It’s this intensely close relationship between new technology and people in everyday existence that sets the rapidly expanding IoT movement apart from previous technological advances, and that also makes it nearly invisible. This relationship also inspired Tim O’Reilly to recently suggest expanding the name to, “the Internet of Things and Humans” (IoTH) – just one of the exciting new ideas that will be discussed at the O’Reilly Media’s Solid Con this week. We’ll be there. We’re looking forward to it!
IoT: We’ve Already Met
Regardless of how familiar you are or are not with the concept of the IoT, it is already sneaking into your daily routine and changing the face of some of our society’s most fundamental services and industries.
The Big Picture
The Internet of Things was revolutionizing our lives before there was a name for it, and it has been picking up momentum wherever it’s allowed to do so.
Thomas Q. Brady is the Technology Director at Reaction, where he designs and builds smart, temporary housing for people displaced from their homes. He will be presenting at Solid on Aging in Place: How the Internet of Things Can Bring the Mountain of Social Connectedness to a Massive, Growing Market of Elderly Users.
I think we’re still at the forefront of what people are talking about when they say, “the Internet of Things,” but, we can definitely already pick up on a few things.
Smartphones, I think, are the first killer application of the IoT — the first time that the everyday user saw the raw power of having these seemingly irrelevant sensors grouped together on a connected device that they carried all the time.
Automobiles were pretty close. They had, and have, many more sensors and computers in them before our mobile phones did. The key differences, though, were (1) that our cars were not networked, and (2) the overall product experience wasn’t designed to reward the user. When the sensors in your car sensed something, it was bad news: time to turn on the dreaded “check engine” light, for instance.
People weren’t going to get excited about having to take their car in to be serviced. When their smartphones could suddenly rotate their screens into landscape mode because the device itself had been rotated in the real world, that was something to get excited about.
Kelsey Breseman has a degree in neural engineering from Olin College, and is currently a member of Technical Machine – a company that aims to empower web developers to enter realm of connected devices. She will be presenting Beyond the Screen: Humans as Input-Output Devices at Solid Con on May 22.
The Nest thermostat is a good example of this sort of technology. The device sits on your wall, and you don’t spend much time interacting with it after the initial setup. It learns your habits: when you’re home, when you’re not, what temperatures you want your house to be at various points in the day. So you, as the user, don’t think about it. You just live in a world that’s better attuned to you.
A completely interactive tool, one that seamlessly incorporates humans as a piece of the system, is a tool that people don’t even think about. That’s the end goal: Ubiquitous Computing as Mark Weiser imagined it. Every object is an embedded device and as the user, you don’t even notice the calm flow of optimization.
There aren’t a lot of devices yet that interact seamlessly with humans in this way – as a society, we’re just beginning to explore ubiquity in computing. Smartphones and wearable devices are reaching in that direction, but I think within five years, we’ll find most of these interfaces fairly clunky.
Travis Lee helps lead Product and Venture Design in the IDEO Chicago studio. He enjoys applying cutting-edge technology and creative engineering to diverse design challenges, and will be launching IDEO’S Noam Platform at Solid Con during his presentation Noam: IDEO’s Human-centered Approach to Software/Hardware Prototyping.
There are already so many pervasive examples of connected devices, like the smartphone, that they define a new normal. What is most exciting is how broadly these technologies are being considered.
On a recent project, we were looking closely at Whistle, an activity tracker for dogs. I think when connected tech is now available for your pet it’s safe to say we’ve entered a stage of explosive growth , but also maturation of what works and what does not. What struck me about Whistle is how effectively it provides a sixth sense and emotional connection to a pet owner — knowledge about what your dog is up to when you’re not with them, whether it’s when Fido likes to nap or auditing the length of your dog walker’s visit. The best uses of connected technologies put people at the center of a connected object and data network that empowers us and adds small moments of delight.
Whether you consider your smartphone a clunky prototype or an innovative forerunner, it’s hard to argue that the Internet of Things is here. Like a toddler, it’s growing into itself and awkwardly learning how to walk, but, also like a toddler, once it finds its feet it will take off running and fundamentally change our lives forever.
Down to Details
Innovators are using the power of the IoT in some of our most basic, and most necessary, services and industries, to enhance the human experience in ways that just years ago would have seemed impossible.
David Van Sickle, PhD, is pioneering digital therapeutic solutions for asthma, COPD, and chronic respiratory disease with Propeller Health, the Madison-based company that he co-founded.
We use connected devices to digitize the day-to-day experience of chronic respiratory diseases so that we can better understand how to help people more efficiently and effectively manage these conditions. Our job is precisely not to expand the human experience of these diseases, but rather to build technology that accomplishes the work of illness and minimizes its role and pathophysiological manifestation in daily life.
Craig Levine is a Director with Blueforce Development Corporation, which is developing network-centric computing software for government, law enforcement and security services.
At Blueforce Development we are already implementing many of the ‘connected’ devices in our work in the law enforcement sectors. We work with heart rate sensors, body-worn video cameras, nuclear detectors, etc. – all with a Bluetooth interface allowing it to stream real time data to the smartphone.
With law enforcement, we can tell if an officer is standing or lying down via the inherent gyroscope on his/her smart device, and share that data in real time with their teams/commanders. With thresholds and alarms, you can send assistance in an instant to his/her current location – without yelling on a radio, which can break down communications (during the Boston Marathon bombing this was very evident). We interrogate the phone and give the real time location of officers, children, etc., so assistance can be sent without wasting time or ‘not hearing’ the voice on the phone.
From enhancing fundamental health and safety services, to enhancing on-demand video playback, the Internet of Things is already everywhere, and it’s already raising the bar, challenging the norm, and improving our lives.
Change is Hard
A fumbling toddler learning to walk can be cute, but that uncoordinated growth combined with a tendency to push boundaries can also be challenging.
There are a lot of technical challenges to work on within this space: how to power all of those devices, how to make them all talk to each other, privacy, security, processing of the huge amount of data coming in, environmental impacts of a zillion little electronic devices … the list goes on. We haven’t seen a lot of collaboration and coordination among connected devices yet, but that’s something we’re actively working towards at Technical Machine. As part of the open source movement, we’re in the process of opening up all of our code and hardware designs and collaborating with other companies working on connected devices. – Bresemean, Technical Machine
Sometimes the boundaries push back, which will often further drive innovation.
Honestly it’s hard to think of limits. I think constraints are helpful. For me, picking a demographic that is not inherently enthusiastic about technology is a constraint. Making a “great user experience” on a mobile phone application is one thing – where you’re more than likely addressing a user that’s already pretty confident with the use of a touch-screen mobile phone. Making a “great user experience” for someone who may not like or trust technology, or who might not even know they are using your technology, is the kind of constraint that can lead to truly great user experience design, because it has to in order to succeed. – Brady, Reaction
And the next big steps will be in cross-platform and multiple-device interoperability.
Take the Nest company. They build some great products and platforms, but they only work with Nest-related items. What if I had a Nest fire alarm, Samsung washing machine, and Comcast security system? Would I need multiple devices/platforms? That is the issue. We believe pure and true interoperability is key. This is the missing link in many of the commercial applications/solutions – their products and solutions only work on their proprietary software. They are missing the boat here, and we believe our solutions – by having true interoperability and having an ease of integration – can make an impact quicker, and be more efficient and effective. – Levine, Blueforce Development Corporation
The Internet of Things is here to stay, so the challenges that arise will be met head-on, which means we can expect to see creative solutions and even more ground-breaking innovation in the future.
Please Keep Your Hands and Arms Inside the Internet
The IoT is growing quickly in every just about every direction as new inspiration and new challenges all lead to creative innovations. Fresh applications are in the works in almost every industry or field you can think of.
We just came out with a sensor that streams the real-time internal body temp of K9’s. This is huge out west and in the south, as the heat is extreme and these dogs are sadly dying. They work so hard and overheat so fast that the handler cannot react. With our sensor and receiver, the handler and the team are constantly aware of the dog’s internal body temp, and with alarms and thresholds they can be alerted to danger BEFORE it happens. Each dog is different so you can set benchmarks and thresholds individually to compensate for lower/higher tolerances. – Levine, Blueforce Development Corporation
Jim McArthur is the Managing Director at BIGonMars, an organization aimed at blending technology with creativity to empower and entertain people across a multitude of new communications platforms.
The ubiquitous heads-up display applications developed in tandem with the evolution of Google Glass (and the like) will be groundbreaking. It’s a simple paradigm but one with far-reaching implications. How does information served to you passively – in real-time, when you need it – affect a person? Will they be healthier, better at their jobs, more effective at sports, etc.? The answer is yes. It will be the advent of “Performance Enhancing Information.”
To Infinity and Beyond
Past tomorrow or the year’s end, the IoT will only continue to become more and more the norm. What might the future look like with these new technologies and innovations?
Consider the myriad medical applications:
In our case, we are trying to build networked, interactive and responsive objects out of inhalers – to awaken them to their own potential role in ensuring that they deliver as much mechanical advantage in the hands of patients that they can. When applied to the community, these strategies can be extended up and down the built environment in ways that give infrastructure and services a more reflective and participatory social life. – Sickle, Propeller Health
One area in particular that I’m excited about is the unserviced markets – the people on the other side of the digital divide. These devices have the unique opportunity to cloak the complexities and abstractions of traditional computer usage within the shroud of common household item usage. As a simple example, imagine the classic touch-tone corded phone — picture the Bat-phone, if you need a reference. Bring that physical design back to the market, a design the elderly consumers are already quite comfortable with. With next to no investment in materials, design-time or the like, you can do as little as adding a heart-rate sensor to the hand piece. Now when the user is making a phone call, you can invisibly sample her heart rate. You no longer need to interrupt her daily routine in order to take a measurement, meaning you have just removed one of the many daily reminders that her health is not what it used to be. You’ve just improved her life on both fronts — you’re probably getting more data, and you’re definitely disrupting her life less. – Brady, Reaction
The impact on collaboration, research and development:
The future is a connected place. Collaboration will be the norm , and on levels with which we can barely understand today. The information we can gather and how it is used will color every single business decision made from this day forward. This paradigm will continue to “democratize” until it affects even the most mundane task. For example: Applications designed to help engineers work in a “virtual Lab” on common tasks with maximum collaboration and minimal overlap are a certainty. – McArthur, BIGonMARS
The possibility for fresh and unique interfaces:
I think that one of the most interesting things we’ll see in the near future is the creation of non-screen interfaces. Interacting with technology, we rely almost solely on screens and buttons, but in the physical world we use so many other interfaces. Though audio has been used for a long time, innovations such as audio spotlighting open up possibilities for personal/non-disruptive audio without the need to put a plastic device (headphones) on your head. That’s inputs into humans, but there’s a lot of fascinating work going on to receive outputs from humans. Research labs are working on that in a field called, “epidermal electronics.” This field puts electronics right on people’s skin, for example in the form of a temporary tattoo or more like a band-aid. A circuit adhered to your skin could monitor and wirelessly transmit your heartbeat, temperature, motion, location, or any of various other sensor data, 24/7, while keeping a low profile on your body. – Bresemean, Technical Machine
And the inherent potential for unparallelled creativity:
Predicting the future I leave to those who are smarter or more foolish than me, but what I know is that we’re seeing an explosion of accessible tools and platforms for building new human applications of technology. This evolution toward accessibility is a repeatable pattern. Just as Arduino made the microprocessor accessible to a huge new audience, the hardware and software abstractions being built in the IoT space are opening up the creative potential of entirely new groups. When you eliminate the cost and skill barriers to entry, it fundamentally alters the nature of what can be built with these technologies because people who are not electrical engineers or professional software developers can start to play and experiment. – Lee, IDEO
The Frame Becomes the Framework
“The Internet of Things” (or “the Internet of Things and Humans,” if you prefer) may be an appropriately vague title for a classification of technologies and innovations that is pushing boundaries and re-creating norms faster than we can construct a frame for it. But it may not be long before we don’t need a frame or a title for it anymore anyway, because the IoT will just be the human experience, the usual, another day in the life of a networked, savvy world.
Zuora will be hosting a lively panel on the Internet of Things at the upcoming Subscribed ’14 Conference in San Francisco, featuring principals from Qualcomm, Autonet Mobile, PTC/Thingworx and The Neat Company. Please join us!