The Blog

The Internet of Things - What's It All about?

Earlier this month the Prime Minister announced at CeBIT that the government will be supplying £45m to research funding and executing a review of how to make the most of the 'Internet of Things' technology.

Earlier this month the Prime Minister announced at CeBIT that the government will be supplying £45m to research funding and executing a review of how to make the most of the 'Internet of Things' technology. In short the Internet of Things enables objects to automatically transfer data over a network without human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.

Why is this important? Well this trend is developing extremely quickly - step back even just five years and you wouldn't have been able to do this. The technology was much more expensive in the past, and not to mention you would have needed an electronics engineer with a PHD to be able to understand it. Now with the introduction of software, a whole world of software engineer 'geeks' can suddenly start to develop hardware that previously was completely unobtainable.

With this now being recognised by the Government as well as industry leaders it shouldn't take long before dumb devices no longer sit in isolation but become integrated, only enhancing our lives. I believe up until now the potential impact of new technologies has been underplayed in the media.

An example of how this might become integrated into our lives:

In the past, photos were taken on your camera and then kept at home in our photo albums - maybe only shared with friends and family when you were face-to-face. The developments of Facebook, Flickr and Instagram over the last 10 years mean that photos are now shared online around the world - putting them into the public domain, sharing in a way never seen before. The same can now be said for the future of hardware. It is and has been in the past that single purpose devices have always sat in isolation (a light switch turns the lights on and off only) with the development of micro-processors they can now become fully integrated, e.g. motion sensors, light switches, thermostats and GPS tracking.

The Internet of Things could include anything that has been enabled to communicate via wireline connectivity, wireless connectivity, and proximity technology such as NFC and RFID. It is fundamentally an umbrella term for anything that can actively or passively communicate via the internet. You could have a window that opens when the temperature rises, or a fridge which orders milk online as soon as the current bottle begins running low, the possibilities are endless.

Household objects can also be attached to smart home hubs. For example you could soon be able to open your front door through your phone. You could also get a notification each time someone else opens your front door, or an image of that person sent to your smart phone. Creativity in the software industry has never been so important.

It really has become so much more accessible to a wider group of 'geeks'. Turning a 'dumb' light switch into a smart device requires only a small number of additional components, which are no longer expensive. A relay (to switch the light on and off) at about £2.50, an ATmega328 microcontroller (like in an Arduino board) to control the relay and respond to communications (e.g. light status 'on' or 'off'/'turn light on' or 'turn light off') at £1.50, a communications module like a zigbee transceiver (£5) and a PCB at about 50p - a grand total of only £9.50, making it much more affordable.

The development of this technology will be as a result of the skill and vision of software engineers, the magic does not happen in the hardware, software is where we will see the difference. When these components have been standardised and are made in countries with lower production costs, it is probable that the light switches will only cost a couple of pounds more than a dumb light switch.

A number of high profile companies have reacted to these developing trends. Google has bought Nest, a company selling smart thermostats and Boston Dynamics, one of the most advanced robotics companies in the world. Nest labs were in fact started by former Apple engineers and they have developed a Learning Thermostat for the home and smart smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

These thermostats have the potential to learn about the homeowner via their activity within the home as well as their GPS (via their iPhone for example). There is the potential to predict a family's comings and goings and integrating motion sensors into the mix would enable micro-processors to see which rooms are used within the home, regulating heating preferences. There is then the ability to regulate heating depending on someone's daily routine and their habitual behaviour.

As Cameron said himself: "This is a world on fast forward. A world of permanent technological revolution. And in this world, countries like the UK and Germany will only succeed if we have a relentless drive for new ideas and innovations."