written by Yann Gourvennec on behalf of Orange at Leweb12 in Paris
Geraldine and Loic Le Meur, the founders of Le Web opened the 10th edition of the international conference today in Paris. This year’s main topic is the Internet of Things, a word of connected objects monitoring all sorts of things from blood pressure to your Sunday work-out, your home temperature and even your neighbour’s garden with drones (as long as local legislation allows for it). But what is really the Internet of Things (hereafter abbreviated to IOT) and what has it got to do with the woman or man in the street? Here is a brief introduction to the Internet of Things for those who know little or nothing about it, based on some of the stories we heard today at Le Web.
There is something a bit magical about the Internet of Things, the idea that objects can not only connect to the Internet but also talk to one another. At the same time, the idea of the connected objects can be daunting. Yet, as Tony Fadell, the founder of Nest put it, “we may have an IOT [Internet of Things] but if you look at the history of IT, machines didn’t start talking to one another before they had been around for 40 years!” This is how it happens with connected devices too. When used correctly, the potential benefits are unlimited. What is it and what can it be used for?
What is the Internet of Things?
At first there were computers; they were originally created in order to automate tasks and their first versions were using tried and tested technology (like punched cards which had already been used in the nineteenth century for looms in the textile industry). Then, in the nineteen eighties, the first few connected computers were created (I used to work for Burroughs in 1982 that released the first ever local computer networks around that time). In essence, the same thing happens with objects. We are all familiar with miniaturisation and automation, and we all know how to use, for instance, thermostats or remote controls, but what if your thermostat were connected to the Internet and you were able to control it not only from the wall of your room but from your smartphone, while sitting in your office for instance?
That’s what the Internet of things is about. You connect a device like this and make it available on a network and other devices can either communicate with a central piece of machinery (like a central heating or an air-conditioning unit). It’s not about hooking up online and watching some website, it’s about using the network of networks in order to make more things possible.
So what can we do with the Internet of things?
There are no limits to what can be done with connected devices as long as they are used ethically and correctly. Thermostats are an option, and you can easily imagine how and why you would want to control the temperature of your rooms, while at home or away: comfort obviously, but also energy saving since the device enables you to switch on the heating only a few moments before coming home for instance. But devices like Nest’s thermostat are more intelligent than that; they are learning devices which adapt to your habits and adjust in order to save energy and money. Now you are beginning to understand.
Other applications exist, be they for businesses or consumers. One of the most common is vending machines, which communicate with the head-office and the supply-chain in order to help vendors replenish the stock. The end benefit is for the consumer in that case too. The one that could be seen on the Orange stand today at Le Web was also connected to a mobile payment system which made it possible for you to buy from the machine without looking for small change. Simple things like these are possible, or more sophisticated stunts like Interaxon’s Muse device demo which can be used to add feeling to one’s emails through a little device tracking your mind for emotions (see Le Meur’s typing an email with muse here). Of course, the latter invention is a little bit scarier and less natural. Even though already available now and a technical prowess (the product was announced today at LeWeb by Ariel Garten and costs only $199), it’s probably more difficult for the man in the street to understand how it could be used.
How such new devices are born
Despite what most people may think, innovations like these aren’t always born out of a precise requirement. Nest’s Tony Fadell explained that they had found out that thermostats were a tool which is so present in our daily lives, but at the same time so uninteresting, “that no-one had ever thought of innovating”. He started from the existing and tried to improve on it by make the network work for it.
In essence, the Internet of things isn’t about “crazy devices talking to one another, even though it may become that one day” Fadell went on to say. He also dismissed Google glasses, which he deemed interesting in the long run, as being ready for the market right now. “Originally, we were very conservative with Nest and over the years we started to see patterns emerge and learning from field tests and putting the device on away mode so that it would save on average 2-3 hours of energy per day”. This is how innovation is born: out of observation and field trial.
Smart things’ Jeff Hagins later explained how the Internet of Things is working: it is the result of a subtle ecosystem made of device manufacturers, consumers and developers. Smart things have created a well-integrated development platform which enables “the merger of the physical world and the digital world”. This isn’t solely a matter of hardware though; a lot of that has to do with software and a programming language (integrated development environment in engineers’ parlance) which is open enough so that all programmers are able to add functionality to devices, “even manufacturers hadn’t thought of”.
Why do we need to connect?
The perfect matter for conclusion to my piece about the Internet of Things wasn’t given by a manufacturer of connected devices but from Benjamin Cichy, Chief Software Engineer for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory. After an exciting account of how Nasa managed to send more and more elaborate Rover vehicle on Mars in conditions where communications with Earth is not easy or even impossible, he ended up his pitch by making the right statement: “This says a lot about why we connect?” Cichy said, “while our discovery Rover is the most disconnected object ever”.
At the end of the day, even though innovations are born out of trial and error and the need to try and connect things together without initial purpose, it’s people like you, dear readers, who will make sense out of all these objects, once you have understood how you could use them in your daily lives. It goes beyond the switching on and off of lights in a Minnesota apartment from a smartphone in Paris, as Hagins beautifully demonstrated. However impressive, the demonstration is nothing compared to what can be done for the improvement of our daily lives with these connected objects: comfort, health, science, knowledge … there are no limits. Clearly, you will be the ones who will turn these technologies into daily wonders.