The Internet of Things

Smartphone interface for connected pet feeder

These days, everyone carries a smartphone with them. A tiny and powerful computer with a touchscreen and multiple connections to the Internet would have seemed almost science fiction just a decade ago. Now we take for granted that we can always reach into a pocket (or pocketbook), tap our fingers, and get an answer, ring a friend, or check our location.

Billions of smartphones have been manufactured since Apple introduced its iPhone in 2007. The sophisticated and expensive electronics of the first smartphones have been superseded by new generations of technology. But last year’s gadgets don’t disappear completely. As the technology gets cheaper, it finds other uses.

Melbourne-based Catapult Sports took some of the guts of a smartphone, and fit them into a device that can be worn by a player during a footy match. Each player transmits a stream of information about their position and activity, so it can be recorded, analyzed, and used to improve their performance.

Catapult system  © Catapult Sports

Catapult system © Catapult Sports

Many of us carry devices like FitBit, capturing our own movements. Measurement allows us to understand and modify our own behavior. Smartphone technology allows us to measure almost anything: a body in motion, a car, even the electricity flowing through the wires in a home. Once something has been measured, it can be optimized.

Today, with just a few dollars in chips, nearly everything can be connected: lights, air conditioners, doorbells, even a smart feeder for your dog (see image above). Each connected device can potentially talk to every other connected device, creating an ‘Internet of Things’, where your doorbell might be talking to your lights – turning the lights on when the doorbell rings – or the air conditioner has a chat with a smart thermostat, such as Google’s Nest – ensuring no energy goes to waste keeping the house cool when no one’s at home.

Nest thermostat. Image by Kelly Gardner, Flickr

Nest thermostat. Image by Kelly Gardner, Flickr

Practically everything that today can be adjusted by hand has the potential to be connected, measured and controlled. Over the next twenty years, the entire fabric of the material world will get an upgrade, as we embed connected intelligence throughout our built environment. Even things we don’t think of today as adjustable – such as the wear and tear on the foundations of a building – will be measured. The world will be sprinkled liberally with new generations of sensors so small and cheap they’ll begin to resemble a ‘smart dust’.

Plant sensor, Adafruit Industries

Plant sensor, Adafruit Industries

Farmers will sow these sensors when they plant their crops, monitoring the health of every square metre of soil they till, using that information to get higher yields with lower inputs of water and fertilizer. While that tech will first become available in the developed world, within a few years, the price of technology will fall, putting it within reach of the developing world.

Much of the Internet of Things will be confined to industrial and agricultural processes that we will never see: machines talking to machines. Yet as the greater efficiencies produced by measurement reduce costs and environmental impacts, we will all benefit.

Even in our daily lives, most of the connected world will work behind the scenes, almost invisibly, like the ‘downstairs’ members of the household on ‘Downton Abbey’. These devices talk amongst themselves as they respond to the activities of those ‘upstairs’.

In order to inspire that conversation, we will connect ourselves to the Internet of Things. Today, we do that with our smartphones, but within a few years, most of us will wear a ‘smartwatch’, packing much of the capacities of a smartphone into something that fits comfortably on our wrist.

Moto 360, Motorola

Moto 360, Motorola

These smartwatches will use their displays to inform us, but more significantly, they’ll act as beacons, alerting the connected world of our presence within it. Equipped with sensors to measure body temperature and heart rate, a smartwatch could communicate with heating and cooling systems to keep the environment perfectly suited to an individual’s comfort.

Within a generation, we’ll only rarely encounter a built environment that doesn’t respond to our needs. Lights already turn on as we enter rooms or walk down corridors. Heaters and air conditioning will fire up. Our showers and bathtubs will turn on and off automatically (and at perfect temperature), driven by our proximity to them. At first, it will all feel a bit magical, as if universe of Harry Potter had suddenly come to life, though we’ve grown used to technological miracles. Within a few years the Internet of Things might seem as boring as the smartphone now does.

When you look out into the world today, imagine what it will be like when everything you see has some of the pixie dust of connected intelligence sprinkled onto it. That world will look almost exactly the same as ours, but everywhere it will sense, think, and communicate. Once dead, the inanimate world is coming to life.

 

Sydney Design Festival 2014 introduces Protiotype - a magnet for lovers of product design and the Internet of Things (IoT) between 16 – 24 August.