[This article was written by Andreea Borca, developer of patient-empowering solutions for the healthcare industry, co-host of Farstuff: The IoT Podcast, and featured author in DZone's 2014 Guide to Internet of Things].
The creation of the Internet was a significant shift in the way people acquire information, interact with each other, and make decisions. Now, the Internet is expanding its reach to a range of devices that can gather and analyze physical data and react to that data in a variety of applications that we’ve never seen before. This “Internet of Things” marks another dynamic shift in the history of technology.
This new stage in the Internet’s evolution is changing it from a tool that we actively need to engage with—deliberately using a browser to access it—to one that passively endows the world around us with a “mind” of its own. We are developing a world where things interact intelligently and cooperate to achieve goals without explicit guidance from human operators.
Defining the Internet of Things
First, we need to define the Internet of Things (also called “The Internet of Everything” by Cisco). A system falls under the Internet of Things definition if it meets the following criteria, known as the “3 Cs”:
1. It must Connect – to the physical world around itself collecting information, to other things in order to interact with them effectively, to the internet or a network, etc.
2. It must Compute – by processing the inputs it receives in some way and making them meaningful to other systems.
3. It must Communicate – with the network, with other things, and with the user if necessary (more often than not, as you’ll see, communicating to the user may be an unnecessary burden).
Challenges for the Internet of Things
Devices within the Internet of Things (IoT) only need to do the bare minimum necessary to effectively work within the existing ecosystem. Many of the newest products rely heavily on the power of your smartphone to connect to the Internet and orchestrate devices, but there is also extensive pressure to reduce the size, energy consumption, and cost of the processing entities within IoT devices. In order to reduce power consumption and manage node outages, there is a concept of daisy-chaining across a network of devices into a more powerful central hub. This is known as mesh networking, and it’s becoming quite popular for IoT systems.
Security, Privacy & the need to Share
A core requirement of a well-functioning IoT device is to collect, transfer, and store data from a wide variety of sources. As more sensors arrive in cities and healthcare institutions, that increasingly connected information will unavoidably lead to more concern about security and privacy.
The debate is still raging over balancing the clear benefits of new discoveries from processing Big Data with the strong personal fear of losing privacy. With IoT now in the picture, there is concern about devices that continuously and passively collect information on users. One recent clash over always-on sensors came with the release of Microsoft’s Xbox One Kinect console, which has a camera that is constantly pointed at your living room. Although the camera itself is not always on, the backlash over that possibility was fierce . Finding this balance will quickly become a requirement for continued progress.
Furthermore, the very nature of IoT and the connectivity network necessary for its success does make it particularly vulnerable in certain instances. Devices are especially vulnerable when connected over WiFi, because low tech sensor nodes with minimal computing power tend to be less secure, making them the ideal point of entry for infiltrators.
As with all new technologies, the battle over standards is always a struggle. Nest, the company that developed the most popular smart home thermostat, and its new owner, Google, are now making significant strides trying to establish the Nest platform as the foundation for all consumer-based IoT devices and their software counterparts . Cisco, Qualcomm, IBM, Microsoft, and most other major players have a similar strategy for creating standard models for approaching the Internet of Things.
The pressure to standardize is especially clear when new devices are appearing weekly. ZigBee already has extensive reach as an established standard for many household IoT devices. However, as a preferred codebase has yet to emerge as the standard of choice, it is recommended to connect with major standardization organizations like the IEEE, IETF, and the ZigBee Alliance . Currently, the most common sensor networks use protocols such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), RFID tags, ZigBee, and Wi-Fi. There are also iBeacons, which allow devices like smartphones to better identify their location and potential needs with NFC-powered micro-location and GPS technology.
Opportunities for the Internet of Things
There are numerous prospects to consider when looking to develop IoT products. Given the multi-trillion dollar projections for the future IoT economy, we should take a look at these emerging markets for IoT tech .
The consumer IoT space has bred a small but growing segment of followers that have invested early into “smart” tech. At this year’s CES, we saw everything from the Babolat Tennis Racket that becomes your personal tennis coach to the Kolibree Toothbrush that monitors your gum health while you brush. The fastest growing consumer IoT segment seems to be in smart home technology, with products such as self-managing refrigerators and resident-sensing door locks.
Retailers have already proven adept at collecting a consumer’s shopping history. With the functionality of NFC-powered beacons, these retailers are eager to personalize your shopping experience in a whole new way. Essentially, each physical shopping trip can now be as littered with targeted ads as any typical online search, much like a scene from the 2002 sci-fi film Minority Report.
Walk into a store and instantly the advertising screens on the wall change to address your particular demographic, income level, and shopping preferences. If you’ve connected your Google calendar to certain applications, these screens would show outfits targeting your next big event. Signs on clothing racks sense you coming near and change prices, fully leveraging a custom pricing model that would have economists drooling. And as you try on outfits, the smart mirror in the dressing room recommends accessories or comments on alternatives that might be a better fit for your body type. After all of these IoT events have helped you with your purchase, there’s no need to checkout. You’ve registered with the store and there’s a beacon at the exit that registers what you picked up and charges your card automatically as you leave.
With the recent U.S. mandate that all health records must be digital, there has been an explosion in the marketplace of new, patient-centered, smart health devices. The excitement of a healthcare revolution among top innovative companies, incubators, and startups predicts that this trend is not likely to taper off anytime soon. The key areas of focus so far have been: monitoring technologies like wearables (especially passive monitoring), function improving technologies, education, and notification technologies.
Wearables are generally the first consumer touch point in the IoT health sphere. With the popularity of Fitbit pedometers and Withings scales, the market is starting to experiment with internal monitoring and potentially replacing some organs completely in the near future. A study at Boston University has had incredibly positive results creating an artificial pancreas for Type 1 diabetics by inserting an insulin and glucagon pump that responds when an attached glucometer goes below a certain level, just like an actual pancreas.
Proteus, a promising startup out of San Francisco, has created an all-natural microchip in a pill that the patient swallows in order to monitor whether they are remembering to take their medication. The pill sends data to an armband that the user is wearing, which then can send notifications to family members regarding the patient’s status. The most impressive feature is the fact that these chips are powered by the energy in the patient’s digestive system.
Cities, Infrastructure, and Industry
The long-term vision of the future includes technology such as self-driving cars and city lights that alert police when there’s been an accident. In this stage of development, the majority of value is coming from technologies that monitor and collect data in urban settings. From an evolutionary perspective, the IoT city as a whole is still in what many would consider a learning phase. The main objective is to collect as much data as possible, make it available via open APIs, and encourage motivated data analysts to find opportunities for improvement in utility usage, environmental impacts, and service management for larger populations.
This is one area where being an industrial country like the U.S. may actually impede the ability to progress as quickly as our less established counterparts. Third world countries that haven’t yet built a solid infrastructure allow for the creativity and flexibility to implement sophisticated solutions unfettered by generations of previous development. Silicon Valley powerhouses like Facebook and Google are actively engaged in projects to create a free global Wi-Fi network, and key locations in Africa have allowed them to experiment with these projects.