The Internet of Things starts with smart thermostats, but it will soon offer smart services, once we crack the language problem, says Ben Ward
Most of us will first become aware of the Internet of Things in the home. Some things will be welcome additions to our lives and others will feel like unwanted intrusions. The Nest thermostat is an example of the first type. It’s very attractive looking for a thermostat and it learns about your lifestyle and routine to save you money on your heating bill. It’s remotely controllable and serves a singular purpose of controlling your heating.
Many of the early devices will be aimed at home automation, but as product designers learn how to work with the Internet of Things we’ll see products which start with the assumption that they are already part of the Internet. That’s when devices become slightly more human or even whimsical.
Something like the Good Night Lamp (below) is a fascinating example. It’s a bedside lamp which, when you turn it off, turns off a counterpart lamp anywhere in the world. The actual application of this family of lights is not spelled out for the user. Instead it’s up to the user as to how one makes use of it. For example, you could use it across time zones to know when it’s a good time to call a loved one, or to give reassurance that Mum’s OK and pottering around the house. It’s the modern replacement for three rings when you get home.
The other, probably more widespread type of home device will be third parties installing things in your home, such as smoke alarms which report their status back to your insurance company or boilers which report a fault and book in a service while you sleep.
These will be installed as part of a mandatory programme or paid service agreement, and are one of the reasons why the Internet of Things could be a short-lived phrase. It then becomes the Internet of Services and regular income subscriptions.
You only have to look at Rolls Royce’s business model to see how different things could become. Rolls Royce doesn’t sell engines to airlines these days; instead it sells airlines “hours flown”, and a service contract to maintain the leased engines. The airlines get a free engine when they sign up.
These types of service subscriptions will pay for our hardware many times over, so the value is in the service you receive. Beware, though. A service that requires a subscription to connect you to its specific part of the Internet unfortunately often leaves you with a useless electronic device which can’t do anything else.
What we must watch out for, and it’s true for the web as much as the Internet of Things, is getting tied into a system which claims to be open, but won’t work with a different provider, requires an iPhone-only app, or refuses to hand over years of your valuable data because you skimmed over the terms and conditions ages back when you gleefully unboxed the shiny thing.
To avoid building yet another M2M (Machine to Machine) siloed network, we will need standards and there are many. Luckily the Internet thrives on competing standards. The way the Internet’s protocols are layered allows parts to be replaced with newer technologies without affecting the other layers. Your laptop’s Ethernet cable probably now sits in a cupboard gathering dust but you’re still accessing the same websites using Wi-Fi.
I think some work is required to share a common language (an ontology) about the things we’re connecting. Accurately describing the location of a connected light switch in your front room is hard enough in words, let alone explaining it to a computer.
Whilst this kind of ontology is useful, it’s easy to take it too far and try to describe the entire world before you get started. There’s a huge amount of value in just making something to start a conversation.
At MLL Telecom, we recently demonstrated a prototype of our remote management devices. These use the Internet to monitor outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots, but at the same time to detect lamppost damage, environmental conditions and air pollution. Before we built it we were hung up on grand architectures, but after building a prototype we know what problem we’re solving. We can build it with modular parts ready for each standard as it matures.
As the Internet appears in previously unconnected devices, we’ll find many new emergent applications. New ideas will form using the Internet of Things as a mere starting point. You might think you don’t need the Internet of Things now, but there’s a good chance you once said that about your now essential mobile phone.
Ben Ward is network design engineer at MLL Telecom,
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