Improving the Internet of Things

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Ahh, all those things on the Internet

Article summary and Modern Health Talk response about improving the Internet of Things (IoT).

I responded to a TechRadar article on The Internet of Things is nothing to fear, which explored the privacy fears when sensors sprinkled around our homes and communities monitor our every moves, and our health. The purpose of this article is to not to downplay those privacy fears but to share my perspective on the Smart House concept.

EXCERPTS:  Health is an area that is already embracing the IoT. The idea of the quantified self, measured by tracker gadgets like the FitBit or Nike Fuelband, is becoming commonplace, and as the tech gets smaller and more embeddable it will be possible to weave sensors into the fabric of clothing or footwear and into the realms of true health monitoring.

Google recently patented a smart contact lens – not as a future iteration of Google Glass but as a way of measuring glucose levels in tears. Anyone at risk of diabetic shock would be able to keep tabs on their sugar levels without having to stop and take a blood test, while an app on a smartphone or other personal computing device could make great use of that data to trigger medication alerts or prompt for medical review. … 

Packing our homes with sensors could give obvious, easy wins like mining temperature, room usage and weather data to fine-tune heating and ventilation. It could also offer a way to help care for the ageing population through projects like BeClose that look for changes in an elderly relative’s daily routine and sends alerts if anything seems amiss.

My Response

There’s good reason that home automation has been stuck in the niche of high-end new homes for more than 30 years without crossing the chasm to mainstream markets, because of the need for professional installation by systems integrators. Since introducing IBM to the digitally connected home industry in the early 1990s, I’ve seen some awfully “stupid” smart home technologies, and I’ve still never seen commercial success of a truly Smart home. They’re all programmed by if-then-else instructions and must be reprogrammed whenever a new device or personal behavior is introduced. Hence, another truck roll by a technician. No wonder home automation still needs professional installation or a patient hobbyist. But it’s possible that Google has noticed that deficiency and has plans to address it.

Rather than continuously “program” the rules of IoT behavior in our homes and communities, the sensor network could be self configuring as new devices are introduced, and the intelligence could be based on artificial intelligence and learning. But then where does that learned knowledge of your home, its devices and occupants reside? In each device? Somewhere else in the home itself? Or in the cloud? I see the biggest opportunity in the cloud, and that’s where Google plays.

Besides lacking the ability to learn, another problem with our relatively “stupid” homes has been that the different device silos have different communication needs and aren’t designed to work with each other. TVs, PCs, and consumer electronics devices, for example, need high bandwidth networks for high-def music & video streaming. They can use Ethernet, coax, or Wi-Fi, because they’re plugged into AC power and don’t have to worry about battery life.  On the other hand, wearable sensors need long battery life and so can’t use use Wi-Fi with enough power to transmit long distances or at continuously high bandwidths. This problem could be solved if Wi-Fi offers low-power versions and Bluetooth becomes a mesh network (low power over longer distances by hopping from one device to another).

We think of the NEST thermostat as “smart” since it supposedly learns our habits and program itself through artificial intelligence, but it doesn’t know if we’re hot or cold, so we still have to manually override its daytime or nighttime schedule. You see, NEST is so “stupid” that it doesn’t know if we’re cold because we just ate ice cream or hot because we just finished vacuuming or our workout. Now if the rumored iWatch has skin & ambient temperature sensors that can talk to the thermostat, NEST may get smarter, but don’t hold your breath, since iWatch is from Apple and NEST is from Google. IoT integration will take a long time across products from rival competitors but could happen more quickly within the Apple ecosystem, or the Google ecosystem. Since I prefer storing the intelligence in the Cloud, my bet is on Google.

There are many other issues to address before we see mass market smart homes, including the go-to-market plan. How are consumers to visualize or experience the value proposition before they buy? They can’t go into BestBuy or Home Depot and see everything working together, because TVs are in one section of the store, window treatments and door locks in another, and appliances still somewhere else. That’s just one of the remaining issues that I’ve not seen any company in this space address.

About the Author

Wayne Caswell introduced IBM to the emerging Smart Home market and held leadership roles in developing Wireless & Home Gateway standards before retiring after 30 years when the company got out of consumer markets. He then established CAZITech, a digital home consulting firm, volunteered with the FCC Consumer Advisory Committee, successfully lobbied the Texas legislature to protect the rights of municipalities to install public Wi-Fi networks, co-founded a nonprofit consumer advocacy to enact new consumer protection laws and abolish an abusive state agency. And, he founded Modern Health Talk. Here’s why.

Wayne is a long-time advocate of BIG Broadband and fiber-to-the-home, because of its central role in telemedicine, telework, distance learning, e-commerce, and e-government. His full BIO and portfolio is at http://waynecaswell.com.