The Internet Of Things – Are You Ready?

The Internet Of People

The Internet Of People

No doubt you’ve heard the term Internet of Things being bandied about lately. If you’re wondering what exactly it means, here’s a quick explanation.

The Internet to date has been a network of computers, each of which generally represents a human content provider. People write blogs and articles, they post updates and images, and they browse and download stuff. In other words, they provide and request content, and they communicate with other people. But as more and more devices get connected, these “things” become content providers and consumers – creating, requesting and providing data to each other, making up an “Internet of Things.”

Privacy and the Internet Of Things

Privacy and the Internet Of Things

Your New Worst Friend?

The question is, how will this change the way the world works? For one, this introduces a whole new level of privacy and security issues. It’s one thing when your friend posts check-ins advertising your bar-crawl habits to the whole world. What happens when your GPS connected martini glass does it automatically?

Similarly, we all saw the kind of digital disaster increasing levels of connectivity wrought on Wired journalist Mat Honan. What happens when it’s not just your MacBook, but your home that gets hacked into? (If you haven’t heard about Mat Honan’s experience, you can read about it here.)

Next Steps

Of course, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Internet Of Things is not quite in all our homes yet, which is an excellent time to start thinking about such things. Is the security and stability of these networks up to snuff given the kind of safety-critical systems we are connecting to them? When your music, media and entertainment related apps crash or lock up, it can be rather frustrating. On the other hand, it’s a little more serious when your heating system crashes and overheats, or your alarm system refuses to let you out of the house, or both!

In an upcoming post, I’ll cover some issues found in the automotive industry as they moved from straightforward electrical and mechanical systems to wireless networked systems. I think there’s a lot to learn, since cars are probably are our most successful networked, sensor-driven environments yet.

In the meanwhile, what security concerns do you see in your increasingly networked world?

Icons in images designed by Double-J Designs.

Sense The Excitement

Google Sky Map

Google Sky Map

For a long time, I was a bit of a Luddite when it came to smartphone technology. I spend so much time around computers, I didn’t really see the need for another one in my pocket. But when I finally got one, I realized that smartphones are, in fact, so much more than the average computer. It’s not the portability of the device – yes, you can take it everywhere all the time – but what’s truly amazing is that it knows. It knows where you took it, it can see, hear, sense its location, position and acceleration.

I can get directions to anywhere from here. I can have it listen to a song and tell me who sings it. I can point it at a star in the sky and learn the name. On the other hand, my significantly more powerful traditional computer can’t remember my home address for directions, even though it never goes anywhere!

It Knows!

The magic, of course, is all in the sensors. My LG Optimus V, a fairly low-end Android smartphone, has a GPS sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, camera and microphone. It’s this varied collection of sensors that makes a smartphone such a technological leap forward. And it is just the beginning. With new devices that sense your activity levels, health, climate, the possibilities are endless.

My [..] fairly low-end Android smartphone has a GPS sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, camera and microphone. It’s this varied collection of sensors that makes a smartphone such a technological leap forward.

The FitBit

The FitBit

The Fitbit device uses sensors to report your daily levels of activity so you can limit sedentary behaviour and increase activity during the day. It can even monitor your sleep patterns at night. LumoBack is a newly funded Kickstarter project that senses your posture and delivers a gentle vibration when you slouch – a virtual “Sit up straight!” from Mom.

Previously, I mentioned Twine, a sensor module you can use for a variety of applications in the home. Similarly, Node is a powerhouse version of the same idea with modules for sensing magnetism, altitude, barometric pressure, humidity etc.

Txting Sheep!

Txting Sheep!

I could go on, but I’ll leave you with the most entertaining one I’ve seen of late. Swiss scientists have been developing a collar that will allow sheep to cry wolf all by themselves. A heart rate monitor on the collar detects a sudden rise in the heart rate of the sheep, signalling likely danger, such as a wolf. The collar can then send a text message directly to the shepherd.

“OMG, Wolf!”

Which sensor-based devices do you find exciting?
Do you have any you’d recommend?

The front page image for this article is by Flickr user amcunningham72

Make Your Laundry Tweet You When It’s Done

Laundry Day (Image by Erik J. Gustafson)

Laundry Day (Image by Erik J. Gustafson)

For ages, I’ve wanted to create an Arduino project that will sit in my laundry room (shared in a small complex) and monitor whether the machines are being used or not, so we don’t have to keep checking. I figured it could talk to my WiFi and I’d put up a site that the whole apartment complex could use.

I’ll admit, this is supreme laziness on my part because we literally share a wall with this laundry room. It takes oh, about 30 seconds to walk over and peek in. However, as someone once said, “If necessity is the mother of invention, then laziness must be its father.” Plus, it just seemed like a good, straightforward project to learn more about Arduino, the DIY microcontroller hardware kit. So, I got as far as taking an Arduino workshop, and then life took over – the project got relegated to the backburner. But now, a kickstarter project called Twine has beat me to the punch (and bank) by creating a cool new product for just this sort of scenario!

Enter Twine!

Twine is a 2.5 inch square of plastic that has WiFi, temperature and vibration sensors and expansion capability for other sensors. It talks to a web application called Spool that allows you to “program” the Twine with simple rules, and monitor it from anywhere.


The rules are built using an array of available conditions and actions. If you’ve ever programmed rules for your email, this looks pretty similar. Something like ‘WHEN moisture sensor gets wet, THEN tweet me!’

Screenshot of Spool

Screenshot of Spool

Your Very Own Internet Of Things

The Twine website actually mentions the laundry scenario so they clearly have my needs in mind.  Out of the box, it can sense temperature, vibration and orientation. With expansion, it can do more, so for e.g. you could also get notified when your basement floods. What’s especially great about this product is the versatility and simplicity of the solution. You buy one product but it has multiple possibilities – Today you can use it to monitor your laundry, next week it could babysit your neglected herb garden. Buy a couple and you have your very own Internet of Things, how neat is that?

Got any cool ideas for ways to use Twine? Let me know in the comments!

Awarepoint – UbiComp for the Healthcare Industry

RTLS for hospitals

RTLS for hospitals

Recently, I was emailing with a colleague who uses 3D printing for prototyping at his job. The company he works for makes healthcare related wireless devices. They prototype these devices using 3D printing to ensure their mechanical soundness and usability, before having them manufactured.

On probing a bit more, I found that his company provides Real-Time Locating System (RTLS) solutions for hospitals. RTLS is a local positioning system where small, inexpensive electronic tags are attached to people and objects, such as equipment, patients and caregivers in a hospital, to help track interactions and improve services.

This means hospitals can better track when doctors and nurses entered the room, interacted with the equipment and patient etc. This non-intrusive logging means that the system could alert nurses when a patient hasn’t been checked on for a while. It could also be used for better asset-tracking; Hospital staff no longer need to manually log every time a piece of equipment moves rooms, but can locate equipment instantly even in large hospitals. Tags on the patient’s wrist can pull up their electronic medical records immediately and accurately, reducing the risk of dangerous errors.

The ability to do communications this way – with no recharging, changing batteries, or worrying about the thing – really changes the game.   – Gary Jorgensen, Awarepoint

Awarepoint Tag

All this is done through small, wireless tags that are low-power and need no recharging for the life of the tag. I wrote earlier on why I think the no recharging aspect is important. My colleague, Gary Jorgensen, concurs, “Our products run 3-5 years (we’re Zigbee based) off a single coin cell battery, which is usually the obsolescence life of a product anyway. The ability to do communications that way – with no recharging, changing batteries, or worrying about the thing – really changes the game.”

I think this kind of system is a good start for UbiComp in the real world. The system is non-intrusive in that it doesn’t require users to change their behaviour, but instead integrates into their environment and provides benefit through improving patient care and reducing risks and errors. The tags are small, need no maintenance and easily integrated into wristbands, asset management tags etc. The basestations for talking to them are simple devices that can be plugged directly into a wall socket.

My Home Badge!

My Home Badge!

In the hospital environment, it’s reasonable for all machines and people to wear tags, badges and wristbands. However that’s not so true at home – the first thing I do when I get home is rip off my work badge! Would I really be willing to wear a home badge? Still, there are ways in which this technology can be used for home automation. At the very least, sensors can detect environmental features like light, humidity and temperature and report to a main home system. You could get tweeted if your basement floods, or if your lights are unexpectedly turned on while you are not at home.

What kinds of uses do you see for this kind of technology?
What kinds of privacy issues could it bring up in a non-hospital scenario?

The Nightmare of Ubiquitous Chargers

The Future, as seen by the 90s

Remember the future the way we imagined it back in the day? Where everything was magically all-knowing and connected – Your home detected when you returned and played your tunes, lit up the walls with your favorite art and warmed the house up just the way you like it. Your clothing was instrumented with all sorts of useful sensors and passed on this information to your home and computer. Your watch made measurements, and then talked to your shoes which called up your doctor’s shirt to exchange notes – I’m not sure what about.

Unfortunately, we aren’t there yet – not by a long shot – but why is that? Well, part of it is standardization of how these things talk to each other. But another important limitation? Keeping all these things charged. Wireless connectivity uses a lot of power so connected, portable devices just can’t last long without needing a charge.

Charging Ahead

Nest of Chargers

Nest of Chargers

I can barely manage to keep my cellphone charged everyday, not to mention my laptop, nook, cameras, etc. But a key theme of ubiquitous computing is that the technology should seamlessly integrate into your life and not demand attention. Any device that forces you to check and maintain it several times weekly, or even monthly, cannot be called seamless. The dream of ubiquitous computing has transformed into a nightmare of ubiquitous chargers and power bricks.

This maintenance adds a significant cognitive load to our daily lives, which essentially decides whether we buy a new gadget or not. In other words, it sets a threshold for ubiquity – devices must provide more perceived benefit than their cognitive or maintenance cost, or they won’t succeed.

Devices must provide more perceived benefit than their cognitive or maintenance cost, or they won’t succeed.

Cutting Loose

Bluetooth Low Energy

So, is there a solution? Thankfully, yes! There are a number of new low-power wireless technologies, such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and ANT, that are expected to be able to run off a coin cell battery for months, if not years, depending on the application. This means you may not have to charge this device or change the battery for its entire product lifetime!

Of course, these technologies are meant for low data bandwidth applications, like sensing devices and not for laptops and cell phones. But many small, low-power devices could easily talk to a local higher-powered device, and they would never need charging.

Standards, standards

And as for the other issue of standardization? While there have been other low-power wireless protocols in use already, BLE is standardized and included in Bluetooth 4.0. It  needs very little modification of older Bluetooth hardware to work. Already, the Apple IPhone 4S can communicate with BLE devices, and other phone manufacturers will likely follow suit as devices start showing up in the market.

Soon, a whole host of devices that would never have met the threshold of ubiquity before will become available, enabling a new wave of interconnected, low maintenance technology. So, are you excited? Your shoes certainly are.

[Disclaimer: I am currently doing an internship for Texas Instruments Low Power RF group, but I haven’t been paid to write this. On the contrary, I picked this internship because I am excited to learn more about these technologies.]


When SDGE and Google Powermeter provided a web interface for energy consumption back in 2010, I found myself hopelessly irritated and helpless with the lack of usable information. I could see that my power consumption had spiked a week earlier at 6pm but I had no idea what caused it. The tool provided more information than I had access to before, but just enough to be more frustrating than useful.

One unique way in which our environment can interact with us is by providing information that we are not able to access through our normal senses or abilities, an example of which is power consumption. With the increasing cost and consequences of high energy usage, we all want to reduce our footprint but how? What we need is better information to make good decisions.

Google Powermeter. Image from Mapawatt.

Google Powermeter. Image from Mapawatt.

What’s On?

Enter ElectriSense – a solution for detecting and classifying electrical devices in the home. Basically, ElectriSense is a component you would plug into one power outlet and be able to detect the switching on and off of multiple different devices throughout your home. It uses the unique pattern of noise that SMPS or Switch Mode power supplies (the brick on most of your power adapters) generate on the home’s power wiring.

Demo Interface from ElectriSense

Demo Interface from ElectriSense

This research comes from Duke University’s UbiComp Lab, from Sidhant Gupta, Matthew Reynolds and Shwetak Patel, and the implications are fascinating. A product with the ElectriSense technology and wifi could communicate with a display in your home, or even your computer or cellphone, and provide information on the current level of power consumption. It could collect usage information and allow you to look back at periods of high consumption to figure out what appliances were running at the time. My exasperating Powermeter problems would be solved! One of the most compelling features of this technology is that it requires no installation and can simply be plugged in to one power outlet – just one!

Of course, the one issue that I can see would be privacy. Many homes have one outlet outside the house and a malicious person could plug this product in that outlet to obtain not only a list of electronics within the home, but also information on when the house is likely unoccupied. However, I suppose every new technology comes with new privacy issues and since this one requires access to the house, it is limited in its scope.

If your interest has been peaked, you can read an interview with one of the publishers of this paper, Shwetak Patel, who has gone on to win the MacArthur Genius Award. He’s full of great ideas for the future of the home. In addition, Belkin has acquired his company in 2010 so watch out for some innovative ElectriSense products to hit the shelves.