Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Emerging Tech Trends: The Internet of Things

This last weekend, I was listening to music while cleaning my apartment. The music, a digital audio file, was playing in iTunes, stored on the laptop in my bedroom. The music was routed across my local network to two Apple Airport Express wireless units connected to separate stereo systems, one in the bedroom and one in the living room, enabling me to play music simultaneously in both rooms. I also use the Apple Remote application, enabling me to manage what's playing on iTunes remotely with my iPhone. Multiple rooms, multiple devices, and many packets of data flowing back and forth, harmoniously working together to create an enhanced user experience. Sadly, my stereo receivers are old and dumb, so I have to manage them using traditional IR remotes.

The Smart Home Evolved
Years ago, when I worked in the DSL industry and we were watching the emergence of broadband, people talked a lot about the Smart Home. Refrigerators and ovens connected to the Internet, your television as a conduit to the Information Superhighway -- you remember the buzz. We've come a long way since that time: home networks are as common as cordless phones and many of our media devices are Internet enabled. And with Apple's iPhone and the success of the iOS platform, component vendors have been freed from competing on the central management unit -- now, they can build a management app for iOS or Android and reach a large, established user base.

Still, you don't see a lot of smart refrigerators or other appliances. Part of the reason behind this has been the challenges involved in adding this kind of intelligence. Several years ago, while I was working with a team on an industrial control device, I repeatedly suggested adding a web-based management interface option for the device. At the time, the project engineer's response was that it was too complicated. In addition to the physical interface, we would have needed an additional processor to handle the network management and another layer of software for the entire process -- it wasn't simply an additional PHY.

On the product side of things, anyone that was considering developing or adding a Smart Home interface needed to take into account many factors:
  • What network would it connect to (protocol, interface, etc)?
  • How sophisticated did you need to make your on-board network/management unit?
  • What would you want to do to the product through that network interface?
As technologies have evolved, it's easy to overlook how technological evolutions have changed these factors. Imagine trying to connect all your smart appliances using Ethernet cords. Think back ten years ago and reflect on the smallest Internet-enabled device -- imagine if every smart appliance needed to have a hard drive and run a version of Microsoft Windows. And when you get down to the question of what would you want to do, remember that many traditional analog systems don't have intelligence -- there's no log file for your stove or your microwave oven.

The IR Remote Control: Yesterday's iPhone
For many years now, device manufacturers have enabled us to manage systems using IR remotes. These devices offered many advantages for manufacturers, but probably the biggest was simply knowing that it would work from a technology standpoint. The network wasn't a limitation and if you wanted additional functionality, you could just add a button or a menu-driven interface. The remote and the appliance didn't really need to worry about anything else on the network, there was no need to worry about communication standards or APIs, it just worked. And that's part of the reason why we wind up with so many remote controls, all with different buttons and different keyboard layouts.

Now, you're seeing more and more entertainment system manufacturers offering management interfaces for the iPhone or iOS devices. Some AV Receivers offer iPhone adapters or applications that enable you to use your phone like a remote. The dedicated IR remote may not be dead, but it's days are numbered.

The Internet of Things: Moving Beyond the Media Center
Adding Internet to your media center is an easy sell: you already have cables running to it, you interact with it, it probably has a display that you can use. What happens when you move outside of that world and into your other appliances? As noted, three of the big challenges are network access and utilization, system sophistication, and application layer functionality, but many of these issues are being addressed through the evolution of the market, advances in technology, and increasingly sophisticated SoCs and IC functionality.

With the widespread use of WIFI, appliance manufacturers can now make some positive assumptions as to the available network access. Bluetooth is also available as a potential protocol for a management interface. Recently, I've also seen announcements about an Android-powered mesh network for LED lightbulbs. In short, these LED bulbs can talk to one another in order, enabling monitoring, management, and potential savings in power and operational costs.

The junction between increasingly sophisticated processing capabilities like you find in smart phones and tablets, and the streamlined functionality of open-source and embedded software is making network functionality more accessible than ever before. As many of these approaches bring common Unix/Linux architectures to embedded software development, many of the common network and application-level programming aspects become more universal and web-ready.

What's more, at a recent Embedded Systems Conference, one company rolled out a series of products for embedded cloud services. Now, instead of having to develop build some application-layer functionality on the device, you can build those applications in the cloud. While the ICs handle the network connectivity, application functionality is provided through remote servers in the cloud. As more and more ICs integrate this kind of functionality, you can expect to see increasingly sophisticated functionality moving into the embedded world.

From firewalls and security to a cloud-enabled application stack, as more and more network intelligence gets integrated on chip and into the embedded world, the more our world -- and our relationships with our devices -- will evolve. The Internet of Things is coming online.

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