Sensors are changing our lives in ways large and small, seen and unseen.
In this article, Centric Miami’s Chris Martinez reviews how sensors are impacting us now and influencing our tomorrow. Are you ready for the future?
Anyone who is even slightly involved in the smartphone ecosystem is familiar with the term Internet of Things and its odd-looking acronym, IoT.
The Internet of Things is an esoteric, technical term-du-jour, not unlike “Cloud” was a few years ago: “Everything is in the Cloud!” No one bothered to look at a computer science textbook to see that the term Internet Cloud had been around for about 30 years, but that’s a story for another time.
Needless to say, IoT has the same sticky, sugary marketing feel that Cloud had. My goal in writing this article is to wipe off some of that veneer and get to the good stuff that the Internet of Things has to offer.
What is the Internet of Things?
Let’s start with a definition for the Internet of Things. Based on years of industry experience and 10 minutes of searching on Google, this is my definition: “The IoT is a network of physical devices, the services offered by those devices and the interaction between those devices and services.”
Still scratching your head on what the IoT is? Maybe an example can help:
- Chris buys a Bluetooth-enabled light switch.
- Chris plugs in the light switch and connects it to his home WiFi network and smartphone.
- Chris configures the light switch to turn OFF when he (really his smartphone) leaves in the morning and back ON when he returns.
The Bluetooth-enabled light switch is on the Internet of Things. By connecting an otherwise boring physical device to a network, it magically becomes an IoT “thing,” and coincidentally costs at least double what it normally would. Adding in services (turning ON/OFF a light) via that connectivity is where the value/magic comes into play.
Sensor (“a device that detects or measures a physical property and records, indicates, or otherwise responds to it”) is another term that usually goes hand-in-hand with the IoT, for the simple reason that many devices in this space generally use some kind of sensor. As such, the remainder of this article will outline several facts you should know about sensors, with an eye towards the IoT.
Before we get into the list, however, I feel a brief disclaimer is in order. I am, by way of training and education, a Computer Scientist. Despite my best efforts, I occasionally drift off topic onto highly technical material. This article is by no means intended ONLY for programmers or software developers. However, if you are “one of those,” I will try to point out some interesting tips for you along the way.
So without any further ado, here are the 10 Things You Should Know About Sensors (which will make you the center of attention at your next happy hour*):
* This may or may not be a good thing as there is a fine line between cool nerd and just plain nerd.
Ten Things You Should Know About Sensors
Bluetooth is alive and well
Of all the technologies that are part of the IoT, Bluetooth (the short-range wireless interconnection of electronic devices) is by far the most important. BT chips are very inexpensive to add to devices, and all major smartphones have support for Bluetooth. So, before you start looking at a bunch of newer technologies, make sure you don’t overlook the venerable BT stack. Currently at version 4.2, Bluetooth is finding its way into all kinds of places we never imagined. For example, you can buy a BT collar to track your pet around your house for about $20.
Beacons are micro-location Bluetooth devices
In non-technical terms, think of beacons as a GPS for indoor locations, such as a mall, large office building, airport, museum, art gallery, etc. Beacons are about the size of a milk cap and can transmit to a radius of about 50 meters (remember I said micro-location!). So, while one little beacon by itself won’t do much good, a hundred beacons could easily provide an indoor map for a museum. And beacons are inexpensive, currently costing about $10-$20 depending on the manufacturer. With beacons in place at a museum, for example, a smartphone app developer could create a virtual tour guide, displaying proximity alerts with information about each piece of art as you walk past. Turn-by-turn directions are also easily enabled with beacons, using the technology similar to what we use on our smartphones to get driving directions.
iBeacon is an emerging hardware protocol for beacons
Apple rolled out the iBeacon protocol back in 2013 at its annual World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), billing it as a way for users to interact with objects in the physical world. iBeacon uses the newer Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE stack, for its hardware. Even though Apple introduced iBeacon, Android smartphones can also participate, since iBeacon is based on Bluetooth. However, Google also introduced its own beacon protocol named Eddystone. Eddystone promises to be even more open than iBeacon and uses a URL as part of its payload, meaning that any smartphone with a browser could interact with Eddystone beacons. Translation: Eddystone does not REQUIRE a special app on your smartphone.
Drones are becoming autonomous and aware of their surroundings
If you haven’t seen or heard about drones in the last year or so, you’ve likely been living under a rock. Remote controlled (or RC) planes and helicopters were once reserved for very experienced hobbyists who spent years refining their building and flying skills. Along came improved gyroscopes and the software that controlled them, allowing anyone to fly a modern drone with no prior experience. In fact, some of the newer drones are even flying themselves and avoiding obstacles along the way. Amazon has set out to use drones to deliver packages using autonomous drones, which will be a reality before we know it by virtue of GPS and other onboard sensors with which most modern drones are now equipped.
The fitness industry is embracing IoT
If you are a runner or know someone who is, the IoT has transformed the sport. From the weekend warrior running a local 5K to the elite marathoner competing for a spot in the Olympics, sensors help measure progress and gather all kinds of metrics during a race. The bib that runners wear at most races contains an inexpensive RFID tag that tracks when the runner crosses the start/finish line and other checkpoints along the course. A heart rate monitor (HRM) can be found on newer watches and specialized chest straps to let a runner know when he/she is running too fast/slow. Running apps can help improve speed and endurance, as well as track a runner’s route using GPS. The major shoe companies are jumping into the game as well, adding sensors inside the shoe along with companion apps to keep track of you literally every step of the way. Your friends can even watch your progress live on a map as you are running and send you virtual cheers of encouragement. How cool is that?! Even if you are not a runner, there is a whole segment called wearables that aims to help people achieve their fitness goals. For example, the Apple Watch will tell you to stand up every hour. FitBit has a whole line of devices worn on the wrist that track your every movement, including your sleeping patterns.
Pay now with your phone and not your credit card.
Mobile payment probably deserves an article all to itself, but since this is about sensors, I’ll try to condense this to the essentials. Apple and Google have both created payment platforms that use an NFC (near field communication) sensor. NFC sensors work at very close ranges, typically 10 cm or less, and are often called contactless systems. Apple’s solution is called Apple Pay; Google’s solution is called Android Pay. Both work by securely storing credit card info and providing a protocol for point-of-sale terminals to perform a transaction when a customer taps his/her phone near the terminal. As the tag line implies, Apple Pay and Android Pay allow a customer to pay without having to retrieve a credit card. The Apple Pay solution even works with Apple Watch, making the transaction practically hands-free. Some banks are also using this technology for ATM transactions, replacing the need to pull out your debit card.
Your smartphone now includes accelerometers, gyroscopes, and other sensors
The folks at NASA often brag that they were able to land a man on the moon with less computing power than what is available on a modern smartphone. That’s not just a testament to engineers from the 1960’s, but a tip-of-the-hat to modern engineers who designed smartphones. Aside from increased speed and miniaturization, smartphones also have sensors on board to detect changes in speed, rotation and orientation – basically, a smartphone has an accelerometer, gyroscope and GPS sensor, among others, allowing your smartphone to do things like track the number of steps you’ve taken, detect if you’re walking up or down stairs and let you know that you will be late for your next appointment, based on your current driving speed.
Your car and your smartphone are friends now
Sensors have made their way to our cars in a big way, and all of the major automobile manufacturers have made integrating the smartphone experience into driving a top priority. If you’re on a phone call and hop into your car, the Bluetooth hands-free driving feature will kick in, letting you continue your conversation without fumbling for buttons or plugging anything in to the car. In addition, both Apple and Google are jumping into this space with similar offerings: Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Both of these platforms will provide a set of features based on your smartphone but tailored for use in the car including:
Your house is also getting to know your habits
Home automation has long been the bastion of technophiles and people with a disposable income. Protocols such as X10, Zigbee and Z-Wave have been available for a while; however, getting them to work usually requires a lot of patience or a lot of money to hire someone else to get it working. That has changed recently, due in large part to the availability of inexpensive sensors and a push by Microsoft, Google and Apple to connect the various devices in your home. For example, smart TVs or set-top boxes can now show all of your favorite shows, browse the Internet, run apps, order movies, get product information from commercials and pause live programs. And your TV is just the beginning, as the example I used to define IoT illustrates. The possibilities are really only limited by imagination.
With home automation, you can:
- Turn On/Off/Dim the lights
- Control the thermostat
- Lock the doors
- Enable/Disable home alarm
- Turn On/Off sprinklers
- Monitor who comes in and out of a door
- Play music from anywhere in the house
- Open/Close the garage door
Everyday tasks are now easier
Did you run out of laundry detergent? Tap on the Amazon Dash button and more will arrive on your doorstep before you know it. Is that milk in your refrigerator about to go bad? A text message will remind you to pick some up on your way home. These are but two examples of small, inexpensive sensors enabling consumers to simplify their lives. The key to both examples is the integration of services that go along with the sensors. It’s not enough to know that you’re out of laundry detergent; the Amazon Dash also has to complete the transaction and schedule package delivery to your location. The smart refrigerator has to know when the milk was put in the refrigerator and how many times it was taken out and used recently. Both examples illustrate the power of services using data from sensors and logistics up in the aforementioned Cloud.
And so there you have it: At least 10 things you should know about sensors. There are a lot more details for each of these items, some worthy of their own, stand-alone blog posts.
IoT is generating a lot of buzz these days, but also a lot of data. With all of these devices connecting to the Internet and exchanging data with services, someone has to keep track of and make sense of all that data. Which brings me to one final thought: you probably want to learn about how Big Data can be used with IoT. Look for a blog post on that from one of my colleagues soon…