Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Internet of Things

by: Cees Links

Our Internet connected world is experiencing a revolution that is still in its early phases. New technologies, applications and online concepts are springing forth every day, changing the way we work with the net and how we connect and communicate with each other. Even though it is hard to predict what will happen next, the high rate of change and progress of Internet functions and applications indicates the Internet has not yet matured and will continue to develop and evolve in many interesting and powerful ways.

One area of progress that is difficult to predict and that has been seriously lagging – seemingly just waiting in hiding to emerge and blossom – is the integration of the Internet with our physical world. Today’s world of the Internet and our physical world are essentially two standalone worlds with humans functioning as the interface between the two. In the future, these two worlds will become significantly more intertwined, and this intertwining will become a sort of revolution in its own.

Let’s take a practical example. It has been a hard day of work and you are driving home. It’s a cold day, and you want to turn on your house heating system so your home will be nice and cozy when you arrive. Or you are rushing off to work and all of a sudden you start to wonder whether you remembered to turn off the heat before you departed.

Despite all our technology sophistication you are probably best off by calling your neighbor (who has a reserve key of your house) to go inside and do the job. This is an interesting example because most likely you already have a little control network at home controlling your heater with a thermostat and you probably also have Internet access at home.

Still, the lack of integration between these networks leaves you no other option than calling your neighbor. In addition to checking our heating, this is also how most of us check that the whether the door was locked and the windows were closed. Wouldn’t it be great if you could control your house with a few buttons on your cell phone? Interestingly, it does not require any major technology breakthroughs to make this happen.

All of us are using the Internet today for communication and reading the news (with blogging as an interesting new phenomenon filling the hole between the two). We are also using the Internet for shopping, where every brand or store nowadays has a point of access to the Internet. What is not connected to the Internet are all the functions that could be useful for making our lives comfortable and saving energy.

The Internet is like a big nerve center that still has to build a smaller nerve system that connects to all the supporting functions of our lives. The backbone is there but not the final end connections to our senses and muscles.

So far, our view of the Internet has been quite “human-centric”, but that is going to change. It is quite likely that sooner or later the majority of items connected to the Internet will not be humans, but things: heating/cooling systems, health sensors, security systems, central door/window locking systems, remote controls, etc.

It is here where wireless networks will play a major role. There are many more “things” than “people” and to physically “wire” all things to the Internet is just not feasible. The good news is that recently communication standards (like IEEE 802.15.4 and on top of that ZigBee) have been ratified to make this possible. But it is not only wireless technology that is required - “energy harvesting” from the environment will also be an essential element. In addition to removing the data communication cables, it is also important to eliminate the power cable and the need for batteries, along with their negative impact on the environment as well as the huge labor costs associated with charging and maintaining batteries.

Energy harvesting is the rapidly emerging technology that pulls energy out of the environment (IE - a solar cell on a pocket calculator or a kinetic device that converts vibration to electrical power) and can provide the energy needed for the “thing” to have it connected and controlled over the Internet. The development of energy harvesting devices is making big steps forward, but there is still a long way to go, in particular in reducing the cost of the harvesting devices.

Looking into the future, the “Internet of Things” could very well be the next revolution on the Internet where integration of our physical and virtual worlds will be the main driver. The new “Internet of Things” will enable a new class of applications that will make our lives more comfortable and that will help us to reduce our wasteful use of energy.