The Internet of Things (IoT) is the latest buzz-phrase to catch the world by storm. What exactly are these “things” that are mounting a new wave of change in our society? And aren’t “things” just “inanimate, material objects” anymore?
Err… no. Welcome to 2016; a year in the budding phase of this potentially remarkable phenomenon where “things” are no longer just “things” – when they’re connected to the Internet and can perform futuristic feats.
Because any techie out there can explain IoT -- another acronym we need -- in terms of clarity similar to that distorted voice you hear at the drive-through, I thought it might be helpful to present an easy framework for how to understand it. The key to unlocking the meaning and significance of IoT is to see it as part of the natural evolution of the Internet.
In truth, nothing radical exists about IoT. You may not “know” it yet, but you instinctively understand how it came to be: IoT is exactly what its name implies. That is, the combination of parts we easily recognize: the Internet, and things. How those two parts combine is the special aspect of IoT and, in many ways, is a product of the natural evolution of the Internet.
Twenty Years Ago Data Access was Limited
The Internet as we know it was born in the 1990s and made the instant sending of information possible between desktop computers located anywhere around the globe. We were limited, however, in the sense that 1) people (not things) took it upon themselves to send and consume the information, and 2) those people had to be actively using the desktop computer in their private or public spaces.
As you may fondly remember, those were the days when people printed out Mapquest maps to get to where they were going because they lacked Internet access in their cars.
Ten Years Ago Data Access was Possible Everywhere
In the 2000s, and ever since the introduction of the smartphone circa 2007, people could access the Internet from practically everywhere. Wireless Internet coverage allowed people to roam freely away from their PCs with access to the Internet just a few mobile swipes away. However, we were still limited as the creators and consumers of all data information.
Back then, we graduated from printing out pre-travel map directions to accessing Google maps on our mobiles to navigate while driving. Reporting a traffic jam to the Internet required specific mobile apps to manually send the data and, as yet, your car (a thing) wasn’t yet capable of sending its location to the Internet or to re-route itself automatically as a vehicle.
People could access data information from anywhere, but still needed to interpret the information and handle all devices themselves, e.g.: manually drive the car to a faster route. Conventional device-“things” cannot readily share information or be controlled dynamically.
Today Devices Access Data from Everywhere
As we find ourselves in the mid-2010s, the Internet has evolved to become even more open and accessible to humans and machines alike. As a result of WIFI and LTE, wireless Internet connectivity is pervasive everywhere and allows for even things to connect and generate, and react automatically to data stimuli sent over the Internet.
Typically, the “things” of the IoT encompass items with microchips or sensors that enable them to be managed remotely through the Internet. An IP address is associated with each chip so that it transmits the data to an app or central server on the Internet, which then processes the data and consequently instructs the device what to do.
Tech companies are incorporating sensors into increasingly more devices, which, these days, span from driverless vehicles to data-emitting pacemakers to hand-embeddable biochips used for making payments. A lot of these devices also communicate in different human languages, made possible by the careful work of translation and localization companies.
Comparison of IoT vs Conventional Devices
The Honeywell thermostat, the August door lock and the Phillips Hue lighting system are examples of such “smart” IoT devices. These devices are radically different from their conventional, non-Internet connected counterparts: the conventional thermostat, the conventional garage door opener and the conventional lighting system.
Of course, we don’t have to turn to the Internet to automatically light a home, regulate temperature in a home or open a garage door. However, conventional device-“things” cannot readily share information or be controlled dynamically.
For example, the conventional garage door opener does its job when a single remote control is clicked – this requires an irksome, person-to-person handoff. In turn, the August door lock is operated by an app, which permits the homeowner to grant access to anyone with the same app on their smartphone.
At the same time, the August door lock automatically alerts a homeowner when a visitor opens the door (data is sent automatically) and the homeowner can set a timeframe for when a door can open for a visitor (automatic reaction to data stimuli).
In a similar vein, the conventional thermostat measures temperature using just one data input: the home’s temperature. The IoT thermostat, in turn, dynamically considers several data inputs, including the weather outside (e.g.: a heat wave is coming in, so the home is made to cool sooner) and where the homeowner is (e.g.: away on vacation, so turn off all heating to save money and energy).
Likewise, the Phillips Hue lighting system works with a smartphone app to adjust the lighting in a home. The lights can be programmed to slowly brighten as you wake up in the morning, or an IFTTT equation can be set up to have the lights notify you of an email you’re expecting, a TV show you’ve been wanting to see, or any other type of reminder.
A homeowner could even use its “Light Recipes” to set the lights at just the right hue for whatever activity is being carried out, from dining to relaxing. An old-style conventional lighting system, in turn, would have to be manually operated.
Things can now generate and react to information automatically through the Internet.
Significance of the IoT Revolution
The natural evolution of the Internet has made it possible for certain devices to share data and take action with minimal human intervention – these are IoT devices. Dubbed the “third wave” of the Internet, the Internet of Things is a technological revolution, like the ones that came before with the invention of the telephone and steam engine.
Its potential applications are endless and are set to dramatically reshape our world and future. The world of IoT technologies will keep us safer, for example, in the case of driverless vehicles, while running things more efficiently at our convenience.