The Internet of Things Primer: Open the pod bay door Hal…

nestYou’re going to start hearing a lot more about this over the coming year. Global tech giants stake their claim early in an effort to sway customers by hyping the new technology as much as possible. That is already well under way with the heavyweights in the market not only marketing, but also building some prototype pieces, in fact, Google has gone beyond that with the acquisition of Nest Labs, a home automation company.

The “Internet of Things” was titled by Kevin Ashton, in 2009. He was a cofounder of the Auto-ID (as in automatic) Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which amongst other things created the standards for RFID (Radio-Frequency identification) and other sensors.

Roll back three decades. The Internet was a series of fixed cables attached to fixed devices. That meant that anytime you wanted to use it you had to clog up your phone line and you had to sit at your computer. The most content you had was a few early news sites and access to various libraries. The network layout was called “star-burst”. Imagine a cable from the U.S. coming to New Zealand to a Telecom node. Then, dozens of cables coming out from that node (think of a star exploding), to other nodes, then more, and so on, until it got to you sitting at your personal computer listening to Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory” on your Sony Walkman and reading about the Bush’s bombing Iraq.

Fast forward to 2007 with the release of the Apple iPhone, and the world is starting to look quite different. The Internet backbone has grown significantly though is still effectively a star-burst topology. Wireless is now starting available in most homes and offices, mobile Internet access suddenly kicks off as the iPhone makes it much more useable for the masses, and rather than listening to Amy Winehouse singing “Rehab” on your iPod, you probably listen straight off your phone. The smartphone starts to change the dynamic of the Internet structure as people are no longer likely to be bound to an end point for Internet connections.


A previously unknown singer from New Zealand, Lorde, is set to win a Grammy. Cars can drive themselves (sadly they still can’t fly), ICT Mega-Corps are pondering creating their own floating city-states, the pollution in Asia is so bad that massive screens are installed in public places so that crowds can watch sunrise and sunset, private space travel is a step away, the U.S. is embroiled in an international spying incident bigger than “1984”, news barons abandon objective journalism for rampant propaganda, smart cities are popping up in Europe and the Middle-East, computers are wearable, augmented reality is available, Climate Change is starting to wreak havoc, and Internet connectivity is bringing the poorest parts of the world online.

It’s just a little bit Cyberpunk don’t you think? Well, perhaps not Lorde…

In essence, the Internet of Things is the connection of devices to the Internet that are either sensors or controllers, which operate without human intervention and more likely in a grid rather than star-burst topology. In other words, a semi-autonomous collection of billions of devices that not only talk on the Internet directly, but also to each other when they are close together. 

The ICT Globals are desperately interested in the area because a) their revenues are flattening due to rapidly changing technologies (such as Cloud Computing) and b) it’s a potential gold rush as the current (very analyst hyped) figures say that the market will be worth trillions in a few years.

That’s why Google has bought Nest Labs.

Nest is a home automation system that can connect to the Internet, and so you to it remotely, which does clever things like learn about your energy habits and then intelligently control your heating so you don’t need too. The other system that they have built is a smoke alarm, which will notify you, wherever you are, of a fire or smoke in your house. You can buy that now for $129USD. (Oh, a tip for beginners, often these products aren’t directly shippable by the company (or Amazon) to New Zealand. Use eBay. It gets around the problem.)

Google has likely bought the company for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the products are well known and has been expertly aesthetically designed. These things look great. Second, it provides a technology platform to home automation, which is proven. In other words, the important part of Nest is how it talks to the Internet and how it learns.

I already have in my household nine devices that attach to the Internet, whereas two years ago it was two. The Apple Tv, two tablets, two smartphones, two laptops, an XBOX, and a printer. That number is likely to be closer to fifteen by the end of the year, mostly because I will be playing with some newer tech as it arrives in the market. The point is, if I have increased the number of personal devices that attach to the Internet by five times in the last two years, what does that mean on a global scale as people do the same? It means tens of billions of devices all talking to each other and learning in real time.

Greenbox is a startup (via Kickstarter) that builds smart, learning, irrigation systems at a base cost of $219USD. It has a series of its own sensors, but here is the Internet of Things tie in, it also looks locally for other sensors in the form of home weather stations on the Internet.

It works like this. You set the controller to water your garden, by zone, if you like, so you can have a lawn setting and a vegetable garden setting, and then tell the system when you want it watered. So far nothing new. But now it gets clever.

The system hunts out local weather stations that are connected to the Internet, as well as more official weather sources, and watches them. So, if you are away and have it scheduled to irrigate your vegetable garden at 4pm, but it sees that either a) its raining or b) it is going to rain or c) it has rained, then it alters the schedule accordingly. Ditto if it is particularly dry and hot. It can up the schedule. In addition, it sends all its raw data back to a Cloud for further crunching so that the algorithm that drives it can be improved over time.

The name “Internet of Things” is a misnomer in a way, its not actually about the things that make it up, its about that next step in computing, powered by the Internet and Cloud, which is personal, intelligent (learning), automation. Trillions of sensors that connect to each other in a grid formation, sending data back to Cloud based intelligent systems, learning as it goes. Altering its behaviour based on yours and others usage.

Are there risks? Absolutely. Recently we saw a demonstration whereby a series of fridges connected to the Internet (thousands of them) had a piece of malicious software installed on them whereby they were turned into a spam army. Security will always be an issue.

Power and connectivity are going to be a problem. Each sensor will require some kind of power. Smart companies are making that solar where they can, however the rise of wireless sensors and devices will drive power consumption up. Significantly. Connectivity, if we don’t sort out broadband, is going to be an issue as more and more devices need to talk across the Internet. That spectrum will need to be worked on too, given that a lot of the devices are going to use that, rather than cable, to connect.

Entire careers will be lost over time. Jobs in transport for example. Taxi drivers, truck drivers, bus drivers, train drivers, ship captains, and so on will all be impacted as automated transport kicks off. In the U.S. the death of the Courier has been sounded with companies looking at using drones to automatically deliver packages to houses and businesses (which could be a stretch in Wellington’s weather).

If that grid goes down, everything will go down. We’ll be blind.

Smart Cities will, once the dinosaurs retire, become a reality. Actual public transport times, free wireless in CBD’s, water management, general traffic management, free data to whomever wants to develop new applications, strong investment in metro networks (again), automated quality alerts for beaches, rivers, lakes, & pollution, and a host of other new, connected services.

The Internet of Things is the new wave of personal automation based on intelligent systems.




One comment

  1. Working in this area, I particularly enjoyed your “Smart Cities will, once the dinosaurs retire, become a reality” poignant comment, and couldn’t agree more. We may have a plethora of standards in this area, but we could be making big productivity gains and immense savings in the public sector in the “Smart Cities” arena right now!

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