The Internet of Things: Feeling Our Way to the Future

BY TOM WILLIAMS, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

They were wrong about my flying car. But I’ve gotten over that after seeing it as a kid in all those “Wonderful World of Tomorrow” clips that flew around so many years ago. It is, of course, natural to try to project where further developments of today’s technology are going to take us, and it’s certainly no crime to be optimistic. Then again, back in 1958 there was a terrible Boris Karloff film titled, Frankenstein 1970. We won’t go there but needless to say, I’m not holding my breath for a jet pack.

Now as we all know, the “Wonderful World of Tomorrow” we are all talking about these days is the Internet of Things. The Internet of Things (IoT) is very real with predictions that there will be upward of 50 billion devices, all with their own IP addresses, connected to the Internet, generating Big Data up to the Cloud and allowing detailed access and control of all kinds of functions from building management to vending machines, environmental monitoring, energy conservation and more. The interesting thing about the IoT as opposed to some earlier projections is that it is really happening. Well, the proliferation of connected devices is actually happening. The question is, what will this really mean in our daily lives and even more importantly, when?

Take one example, which involves the Smart Grid. We can consider the Smart Grid as either a part of the IoT or a parallel development to it. In either case, it connects with the IoT at certain points. One of those is the idea that we will have “time of day” pricing to help even out power distribution and lower overall costs. Thus power consumed at off-peak hours will cost less than that at peak hours. Major household appliances will have built-in intelligence to receive signals from the grid when rates drop so they can turn on and run. Sounds great and I’m sure we’re all for it. But there may be some bumps in the road.

A while back I checked and our local power company does not yet support time of day pricing, which I took to mean they are not quite up to date. Harrumph. Now I see in the paper that they are getting ready to implement time of day pricing and the article warns that is will raise customers’ monthly bills. What? Ah Grasshopper, in order for this to work, you also have to have the smart appliances. How many of us have those?

When time of day pricing starts, there will be a different rate structure. For example, if electricity now costs 11 cents per kilowatt hour, it may go to 8 cents at night and 14 cents during the day. In order to get the lower rate, how many people are going to get up at midnight to start the washing machine and then again at 2 am to switch the load to the dryer?  But otherwise, the monthly bill will definitely go up. Also, people are not going to immediately scrap their washers and dryers to go out and buy an intelligent washer/dryer to take advantage of the power savings. This will definitely take time. And this is just one of the many potential caveats we may have to recognize as we all await the wonderful world of the IoT.

On the other hand, there are many areas where the IoT is showing definite signs of taking shape. Many of these involve situations where devices are already connected in a local area network and can then be easily incorporated into the IoT by connecting their local server to the Internet. To do that effectively, however, requires implementing the proper management software on both the local server and the remote—often Cloud-based—servers and systems. Such software provides browser access to the connected devices and their applications both individually and collectively and facilitates the gathering and interpretation of data generated by them.

There are already very promising and useful systems emerging from this model in such areas as building and home management and security, industrial automation, transportation, digital signage, vending operations and many more. These are characterized by the Internet-connected LAN, and the more connected devices there are in a given operation, the more data is available to do more creative things. Buildings have long had locally networked HVAC and security systems, and when multiple buildings in a hotel chain, for example, are connected via the Web, the more efficiently the company can manage its overall assets. Home climate and security systems can take direct advantage of such experience to optimize such control and make it available via a smartphone app.

One of the biggest potential boosts to the IoT may come when companies realize what they can actually do with their Big Data. Data that comes in from seemingly disparate sources from systems that may have originally been designed to do different things may suggest uses that were never originally conceived of. But this will take time. The advantage we have over the flying car is that we can realize immediate gains from the IoT and then build on those without even being certain of where it will all lead. In fact, disappointments or frustration mainly arise in the cases where expectations were specific (like ToD pricing). Those are offset by innovative discoveries that justify the initial effort and investment. So strap on your jet pack.

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