The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of those vague terms (like “the cloud”) that you may have heard—or not. I’m writing this while visiting my in-laws, and they have no idea what the whole IoT is all about. The basic idea of the IoT is that physical objects (“things”) are augmented by electronics (especially sensors), software and network connectivity so they can communicate with other IoT devices, network-based systems and (sometimes, but not always) people.
One of the earliest examples of the IoT (1993, more than 20 years ago) was the Trojan Room Coffee Pot at the University of Cambridge Computer Lab. Someone trained a network-connected camera on the single departmental coffeemaker to monitor how much coffee was left in the pot. This was no 1080x720 HD web cam running at 30 frames per second: The image was updated about 3 times per minute. You couldn’t even view the picture in a Web browser (early Web browsers didn’t support images or video). But again, the combination of a common device (coffeepot), sensor (camera) and network connectivity made for a smarter device…of a sort. Certainly, it made life better for the people who used to walk up several flights of stairs only to discover the pot empty.
(The Internet coffee pot was preceded in 1990 by a toaster that could be turned on and off via the Internet, but that didn’t really add much to its basic function.)
In the late 1990s, there was a lot of interest in Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags. The idea was that a cheap RFID tag, costing pennies, could be slapped on almost any “thing,” and a sensor system would track all the things as they moved about. In fact, this has come to pass, but because the RFID tag is a “dumb” device (meaning it simply contains a number that can be read by external sensors), applications for it are more limited.
For a good example of the current state of the IoT, look at Withings (www.withings.com), which adds software and Wi-Fi connectivity to a bathroom scale. The scale sends its measurements via Wi-Fi to a database (in the cloud), and you can track your weight over time using a Web browser or smartphone. Of course, it’s no longer a bathroom scale, it’s a Withings Smart Body Analyzer. Similarly, FitBit added Bluetooth connectivity and some software to an accelerometer (motion sensor) and created a whole new type of device: the fitness tracker. The Nest thermostat, which learns when to turn the heat on and off based on your activity patterns, is yet another example of a common device made smarter, more useful, and more autonomous through the addition of software and network connectivity. Your SleepNumber bed, with SleepIQ technology, tells you how well you sleep by measuring your nighttime movements. Your car lets you know when it’s time for an oil change. The list of devices that are part of the IoT grows every day.
But let me tell you about my favorite: the Internet of Cows (which, apparently, no one has trademarked—yet). If you raise dairy cows and want to grow your herd, successfully breeding your cows is extremely important. As it turns out, there are only 16 hours out of every 21 days when a cow is capable of conceiving (estrus), and during those fertile hours, the cow changes its activity pattern. So, Fujitsu developed a tracking collar that analyzes the movement of each cow in the herd, leading to a 120 percent increase in the success of artificial insemination. The system determines when a cow enters estrus with an amazing 95 percent accuracy. Sensor (location tracking), plus software, plus network connectivity equals the Internet of Cows. In case you happen to be a North Bay dairy farmer, Fujitsu calls its product “GyuHo,” or “cow steps,” and it’s presently in field trials in Japan.
The primary driver of the growing Internet of Things is the extreme cost reduction in the price of microprocessors (the brains of an IotT device), sensors (driven largely by the volume of smartphones, which incorporate GPS sensors, accelerometers, cameras and the like) and network connectivity (Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, again largely due to growth in the number of mobile devices). The expensive parts are typically the packaging (tiny, mobile), the device software (running on the cheap microprocessor) and the infrastructure (the cloud database, the server software and the smartphone or desktop app) which make the data accessible and useful to users. But another important contributor has been the rise of crowdfunding, which lets companies gauge the market’s interest in their IoT device through pre-sales. Monies raised through a crowdfunding campaign enable the development of new and innovative devices.
What does the IoT mean for you and your business? I think it represents a huge opportunity for people who can see possible applications for their industry as a whole and who have the ability to develop a product (there’s a reason why Fujitsu, and not a dairy farmer, is the force behind GyuHo). Here in Wine Country, the IoT takes the form of smart irrigation and water monitoring systems that are networked together. As a business person, the best thing you can do is to be aware of how sensors, software and connectivity are creating new opportunities for you (and your competitors).
This column marks the start of my 16th year writing Tech Talk. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org with your technology-related questions and topic suggestions. I’m always happy to hear from readers.
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