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Defining the Internet of Things
There’s no doubt that you’ve heard of The Internet of Things (IoT) but what exactly is it? if you ask a dozen people to define the Internet of Things you’ll probably get a dozen different answers. And as The Internet of Things is increasingly becoming part of our lives it probably would be a good thing for you to know what it is!
Wikipedia defines the internet of things as follows:
“The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of physical objects—devices, vehicles, buildings and other items—embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity that enables these objects to collect and exchange data”.
It’s a pretty good definition – essentially it means that devices connected to the Internet of Things can be controlled by other devices which are also attached to the Internet.
The Time is Right
Controlling devices remotely over the Internet is not exactly a new idea, however the reason for the sudden explosion of the Internet of Things is really due to a number of recent technological advances.
- Broadband Internet is widely available. Speeds are increasing, prices going down and barriers to access are being removed.
- The use of Wi-Fi has exploded. It’s available in almost every home and can be found in many public locations.
- The cost of technology is continually dropping.
- A new generation of microcontrollers have made it possible for just about any company or anyone to rapidly design intelligent products.
- Large companies like Intel and Texas Instruments have invested millions of dollars into internet-connected devices.
- Smartphones are everywhere and almost everyone has them. These devices make excellent controllers and monitors for Internet of Things appliances.
- IP version 6 (IPv6) has opened up trillions of new internet addresses. These are more addresses than will ever be needed by every human being on Earth and it’s now possible to assign IP addresses to objects as mundane as light bulbs.
The last couple of points make it a lot easier for experimenters to start working with the Internet of Things and when private individuals put their minds towards something it can cause a revolution. Personal computers are a great example of that, the early experiments of basement and garage tinkerers led to products like the Apple. Once technology is priced low enough for individuals to start playing with it the results can be mind-boggling.
In addition to products like the Arduino on the Raspberry Pi, Intel has created a small board called the Photon which has become very popular for designing Internet of Things devices.
How Does it Work?
In its most basic form the Internet of Things is not that different from your television remote control. Pressing buttons on your remote control send a series of codes to a receiver in your television set. Those codes are interpreted by the television and an action is performed such as changing the channel or lowering the volume. Replace the infrared or radio frequency being used in your remote with an internet connection and essentially you have an Internet of Things control device.
This is course is an overly simplistic explanation. For one thing Internet of Things devices don’t just respond to codes, they also provide feedback. An example here would be a thermostat that could not only set the desired temperature of the room but could also communicate the room’s current temperature and other environmental variables back to the controller.
In order for Internet of Things devices to work in harmony they must observe common protocols. This allows devices like your light bulbs, your thermostat and your television to work together. You could arrive home to a well-lit and warm house with your favorite television show cued up and waiting for you! The ability for formerly independent devices to work together is often touted as one of the virtues of the Internet of Things.
How safe is it?
In order for the Internet of Things to be really effective the devices in your home don’t only need to be able to talk to one another, they need to be able to communicate with the outside world. This of course exposes your home to the potential of being hacked over the internet, and this is a very real and justifiable concern for many people. So just how safe is the Internet of Things?
The answer to that question seems to vary between different devices. Early Internet of Things devices were notorious for being insecure and there have been several well-publicized incidents of these devices being hacked. Newer devices have built-in safety and security protocols that make them a lot more secure, sensitive data is encrypted and users have the ability to password protect key components.
The battle between predators and security experts will no doubt continue as the Internet of Things matures. It is important to realize that Internet of Things devices are essentially small computers and as such are equally vulnerable to viruses, malware and external hacking attempts. As with computers it is imperative that users and manufacturers keep their software updated and their networks secure.
Nowhere is this more important than with Internet of Things devices that perform critical functions. Interfacing wearable technology with the Internet of Things opens up a world of fascinating possibilities for medical monitoring and controlling devices such as hearing aids and pacemakers. However it doesn’t take a genius to realize that any exploit to such a system could have devastating and even fatal consequences.
Joining the Internet of Things
Assuming you haven’t been scared off by the security ramifications and are interested in making your home a smart home where would you begin to enter the Internet of Things?
Common devices such as Nest thermostats and Philips Hue light bulbs are the way that most people start to equip their homes with IoT products. These devices replace existing equipment and add functionality and the ability to be controlled remotely using a smartphone.
For those of you who like to experiment (and as you’re on this website that probably means you) Intel offers a number of kits using their small Photon device. These tiny controllers with built-in Wi-Fi can be the heart of many Internet of Things projects and a basic Photon experimenters kit is quite inexpensive. Of course the Arduino and Raspberry Pi can also be Wi-Fi enabled and there are a number of excellent projects for those who want to start tinkering with the Internet of Things using a platform that they are already familiar with.
Software platforms like ThingSpeak and If This Then That (IFTTT) can integrate several devices with applications on the internet. Your Internet of Things devices can respond to events on Facebook and Twitter, opening up a number of possibilities that were previously unimaginable.
The Internet of Things is here now. It is estimated that by the year 2020 there will be over 50 billion devices connected to the internet. So connect a few things today yourself and let’s get started!