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What is the “Internet of Things”: A Deep Dive

  • April 4, 2022

What is IoT? 

The Internet of Things describes the network of physical objects embedded with sensors, software, and other technologies to facilitate an exchange of information with other devices or systems across a network. Today, more and more devices are becoming tagged with a “smart” moniker bringing about the age of connected devices into the 21st century. Appliances, accessories, and more are now collecting various types of information and sending it out into the cloud to be processed, analyzed, and organized for different purposes. At its simplest definition, IoT refers to the devices that collect data from the environment and transmits that data over the internet or other communication networks, both public and private. 

Looking at an average tech user's list of gadgets, we see a smartphone, a smartwatch, a tablet, a laptop, a smart assistant, and the list goes on. All of these demonstrate how much IoT has already been embedded into the everyday lives of technology consumers.  

Smart devices capabe of detecting various information about you and the environment, through their multitude of sensors and peripherals, have a staggering amount of generated data. In an article shared by Techjury, they estimated 1.145 trillion MB of data gets transmitted per day.  

Let that sink in.  

But what is driving this amount of big data? Let’s dive into the digital phenomenon that is the Internet of Things. 

A brief history  

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” the saying goes. Hard to believe that as early as the 1980s, some students from Carnegie Mellon University started the world on the road heading to the modern-day IoT. How? It began when graduate student David Nichols started craving a soda, but the nearest vending machine wasn’t conveniently close. Since the campus housed many Coca Cola-loving students, there loomed a threat of the vending machine being empty or having just been refilled with cans that have yet to be cold. This sparked an idea in Nichols, so he gathered his friends and ventured into creating a solution. 

These students turned a soda vending machine into the world’s first IoT device by retrofitting the soda machines with an indicator light to signify that somebody purchased a can of soda or when it’s all out of soda. The students then connected the machine to the university network, the precursor to modern-day internet connectivity. This soda vending machine could now determine when soda is purchased when it's empty, and if the machine has cold sodas ready for purchase.  

While they lacked the sensors we have today, the turning point in their solution was to monitor the status of the lights on the machine. The red indicator light would flash for a few seconds before turning off when a purchase was made. When the vending machine was empty, the light would remain turned on until refilled.  To extract this data, the students attached a board to monitor the lights and hooked it up to their department’s main computer, which was connected to the ARPANET.  

The students wrote an algorithm that would check the status of the indicator light every so often and “waited” for any changes in the indicator light. When it detected the light turning on and then off, the program would know a soda can was purchased.  

If the light stayed on for more than 5 seconds, the program would know that the machine was empty. Once the light goes back off, the program would know that the machine was recently refilled with warm sodas, and after three hours, it would register as “cold.” 
Once done, these students added their code to the main computer’s finger program and provided access to any user on the ARPANET to access information about the machine. That machine soon became the backbone for more research and experimentation on connecting devices onto a network. 

In the 90s, John Romkey found a way to connect an oven toaster to the internet using a TCP/IP protocol. Within a year, students from the University of Cambridge used a simple webcam to monitor the coffee pot in their laboratory. A program was written to take photos of the pot every three minutes and were sent to local computers in the University alerting others of the availability of coffee. 

Once the 2000s rolled in, media started using the term “Internet of Things” as interest in this field began to gain more popularity. LG Electronics released the world’s first internet refrigerator, called the LG Internet Digital DIOS, in June 2000. This connected fridge had features such as online shopping and a video phone. Then in 2008, the world held the first International Conference on the Internet of Things in Switzerland.  

In the 2010s, the public launching of IPv6 helped pave the way forward for more IoT devices. More and more devices coming from consumer tech giants like Apple, Samsung, Google, Cisco, and General Motors started to become available, ranging from smart home devices to wearables to self-driving technologies. Like it or not, the age of the connected device is here.  

Opportunities in IoT 

Many companies are already offering IoT devices, products, and services to industrial and consumer markets. The opportunities in this space are abundant, especially as preparations for a more digital world in the Metaverse are already in play. Let’s look at some options that the Internet of Things does offer. 

1. New business models and revenue streams 

IoT opens up many new and creative ways to engage with existing customers. The key is to unlock the value of the data generated from IoT systems. Data paired with A.I. and machine learning provides valuable insight to determine better ways to engage customers, offer better value, and perhaps create new ways to generate revenue. 

A great example is how Toshiba developed a solution using IoT and A.I. to map a Virtual Power Plant (VPP) that allows users to control inputs and outputs from various sources to be directed and redirected as needed. This was a handy tool, primarily due to Japan’s power outages caused by earthquakes. Fueled by the Great East Japan Earthquake, Toshiba uses the data from its IoT network to determine how to allocate energy distribution.  

It is important to note that these virtual power plants don’t own distributed power. Instead, they own the data generated by many IoT technology within their network. 

2. Data-driven flexibility and product quality 

Data generated by an IoT system allows systems to predict needs before it arises. A factory, for example, can schedule predictive and preventive maintenance on their essential machinery, which keeps their production lines at high yields and with minimized down-times. With more sensors in the field, more real-time data can be gathered and be made available to every relevant layer within an organization. This data availability gives management the flexibility to make better-informed decisions and improve efficiency across the board. 

Historical data could be used to identify, predict and react to potential trends as needed, making any business more agile in the face of uncertainty. Just think, if the semiconductor industry as a whole had these IoT capabilities in place, would the chip shortage still be ongoing today? 

3. Improved monitoring capabilities 

As manufacturers develop more advanced sensors, IoT allows both manufacturers and consumers to monitor various levels within the supply chain. Industries with high levels of quality assurances benefit from using IoT to ensure safety and consistency of quality.  

Food safety in manufacturing is a prime example, with IoT devices strategically placed throughout the supply chain, enabling better transparency of our food journey from the farm to our tables. Food quality assurance can be monitored using sensors within crucial production stages, shipping time, and even temperature levels. Remote monitoring is improved using industrial IoT solutions, especially for those harsh environments that would be harmful to human contact.   

4. A new way to engage customers 

Data is the most important thing that IoT systems and solutions bring to the table. How that data is dissected, analyzed, and interpreted opens up opportunities to create new and better avenues for businesses to engage with current and new customers.  

Today, many brands are adopting the wave of IoT, such as wearables in the health and wellness industries. Smartwatches, pedometers, and various other gadgets can monitor different biometric stimuli. These devices gather billions of data for software solutions to create personalized recommendations for their users on the back end. Some wearables are already finding new ways for services to be paid through subscriptions and e-commerce. A smartwatch monitoring your health and vitals could be paired with an app that provides recommendations for diet, exercise, and even merchandise customized for the individual user.  

No matter how you decide to look at it, the possibilities seem endless if the data gathered is used properly. 

Data: A double-edged sword 

If it isn’t clear, an essential factor for IoT solutions to be successful lies in the generated data. Even today, our cities and grids are getting smarter and more connected. The Internet of Things helps drive the 4th industrial revolution by connecting the physical world with the digital. Today, many of our tasks can be done digitally. Paying bills, watching movies, playing games, booking a cab, ordering food and groceries, and the list goes on. As we migrate more and more into the digital, the more data we generate. Predictive statistics say that by the year 2025, 200 zettabytes of data will have been stored globally. A zettabyte is roughly a trillion gigabytes. By 2023, Statista estimates that the world will have approximately 25 billion IoT devices. 

While having all these data provides various benefits such as better automation systems, cost savings, efficiency, better communication and engagement, and data availability, it also comes with some critical concerns that many are still apprehensive about.  

1. Data Privacy and Security 

Even today, data privacy is a huge problem. The sheer amount of data generated makes securing these a primary concern for anyone adopting an IoT system and keeping the data shared within a private network and away from potential threats. This opens up a unique opportunity for IoT service providers to facilitate data security and assurance of data privacy with a robust system that consumers require. 

2. Inter-compatibility and complexity of devices 

As more and more IoT manufacturers come into the fray to join this space, the need for interoperability arises. IoT devices from Company A should interact with devices from Company B, a challenge that manufacturers should heed. The difficulty here would be the variety of devices available, each with its inner complexities that make interoperability a complex reality.  

3. Less human touch 

The digital revolution is indeed here. Soon, the Metaverse will become mainstream, and more of our formerly analog lives will already be digital. This inevitably means that as the world around us intersects more with the digital realm, humans will become more dependent on technology to exist. The movie Wall-E paints a bleak yet possibly real future for us in many ways. The scary part is that human interactions may soon be relegated to mostly digital. Something not everyone is comfortable with. 

In summary… 

Like it or not, the digital twin of this physical world is already being built. 5G networks are starting to roll out across the modern world, and soon, IoT devices will be as common as smartphones today.  

The question is, how much of your world do you want to be digitized? 


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