Exploring the Internet of Things 3: Greater than the sum of its parts

Exploring InternetMuch of what I’ve read about the Internet of Things (IoT) is about individual items reporting their presence or status. We can inventory our stock and know where it is. A failing bridge support or a spoiling liter of milk will send a distress signal back to a central entity. The model is many-to-one, the inverse of one-to-many broadcasting. But the Internet of Things gets more interesting when the data is networked across the things.

So interesting to me, that I’m detouring from my survey of the components of the IoT (Actuators  and Sensors). I intend to continue that series, but my explorations have my neurons firing. So here are a few thoughts on IoT capabilities that are on their way:

Complete the set. Purpose-built things that exist in isolation may be interesting and useful in and of themselves. A robot vacuum cleaner cleans the floors and amuses pets (and their owners).  A smart phone calendar tells you about your appointments. Video surveillance tells you if your cat is marching along a shelf jammed with fragile knickknacks. Put it together. The robot sees you add a guest for dinner, and it goes to work on cleaning your rugs. Or it attracts the cat away from your prize Gateway Arch mug before it gets knocked to the ground. Often, mixing and matching capabilities can expand and automate the value delivered from things you already own. Laptop + stereo + position sensor + dance software + wireless + Internet = virtual dance party.

Get the big picture. You can spot someone in a parking lot looking to break into a car just by the path he or she takes. Most people go straight to their own cars. Thieves wander. Now, think of the problems with pirates in the Indian Ocean. These pirates do not move in the same way as fishermen or traders. A satellite tracking the movements of vessels could provide data that could filter a huge number down to a relative handful of suspicious ships. If the things on the ships can be interrogated or if they are broadcasting data, it should be even easier to help naval units to get into position to discourage hijackings. (Of course, if the weapons were smart, that would provide more vital data.)

Discover resources. When a natural disaster occurs, key resources (medicine, food, electricity, fuel, clean water) become unavailable. Part of this is loss, but part does not know where intact resources are. An Internet of Things could be used to quickly inventory what resources exist and where they are. Of course, people (including skilled people) could be surveyed, too. In addition, losses could be measured for insurance and relief efforts.

Mash-up data. We already have sites created by amateurs who have found ways to combine data in interesting and valuable ways. Imagine the hacker/maker culture put to work in a world where actuators are ubiquitous and can be combined with data to do something new.

Learn lessons.  Naturally experiments are occurring all around us. For instance, in a community experiencing the same weather, some people will find ways to keep their homes comfortable in a more effective way. Imagine if their approaches were automatically shared (or even instantly put into action, for those who opt for it).

Work with others. Perhaps the most exciting possibilities come from new opportunities to put the things around us to work for the common benefit. Sharing unused tools. Finding lost pets. Creating learning experiences for students and adults. So much of human capability is mediated by the things we touch. The Internet of Things may become the Internet of Talents, Skills, Play, and Work. To me, this is the most exciting prospect.

I’m still at the beginning of my exploration of the Internet of Things. Next week, I’ll delve into another important corner, output devices.


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