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What is the Internet of Things?

What is the Internet of Things and how does it affect the future of physical computing? Read to learn more.
Icons floating above a cityscape representing connected services in a smart city

In this article, you will learn more about the internet of things and its future effect on physical computing.

What is the Internet of Things?

Like many popular terms that capture the imagination, the meaning of the Internet of Things has evolved over the years and is built on earlier work that dates back decades.

The term Internet of Things (IoT) was first used by Kevin Ashton in 1999, when he was developing RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) solutions for tracking consumer products throughout a global supply chain (including manufacture, distribution, and sales). The solution was to use simple tags, and these same tags are used widely in commerce today – embedded into the casing or packaging of our everyday items. If you’ve ever walked out of a shop to the sound of a blaring security alarm, that’s because the shop’s RFID system detected that you were carrying one of its RFID tags that have not been deactivated.

Such RFID devices are, however, very passive. They contain no intelligent components and provide only identification. It wasn’t long before the IoT was generalised beyond supply chain identification to include a much broader range of technologies capable of actively sensing their environment and making that data available in a global context.

Today, the Internet of Things is considered to be any “set of sensors and actuators embedded in physical objects that are linked through wired or wireless networks”. As we have discovered, physical computing is very similar to this definition too. In fact, any physical computing device that is connected to the Internet could also be considered part of the IoT.

However, unlike physical computing, most IoT technologies do not directly involve humans. In fact, most do not. Instead, they focus on large-scale data collection and analysis. Small embedded systems (often using the same sensors and processors as physical computing devices) are integrated into the very fabric of our infrastructures such as buildings, roads, homes, and cities. They measure and record aspects of their surroundings using their sensors. Examples may include the occupancy and temperature of rooms within a building, the number of cars driving over a section of road, the mobility and vitality of an elderly person in their home, and the electricity usage of our homes.

From this data, we can then create useful behaviours. Signage can be changed to avoid busy sections of roads. The heating and lighting of unused rooms of our buildings can be turned off, saving both money and energy. Patients can leave hospitals sooner, safe in the knowledge that they are being monitored just as carefully in the comfort of their own home as they would in a hospital bed. Your car might report that it needs servicing, not because you did it 12 months ago, but because your car was observing the maintenance reports from the other 35 million VW Golfs around the world, and knows it will need a new set of suspension springs soon.

Such applications promise a revolution in many fields including health informatics, transportation, and manufacturing. However, these applications require a trusted infrastructure where all this data can be securely stored and processed – something that can turn the data into meaningful action. In response to such a need, “cloud computing” infrastructures are now provided by many major technology companies including Amazon, Google, IBM, and Microsoft.

Hand drawing cloud computing and connected devices

Again, the term “cloud computing” is basic in its principle. It is simply a computer maintained by someone else on your behalf, that you can use as a service. However, this model also provides the degree of scale, reliability, and integrity required to host and process such large volumes of private data. Debate rages, of course, into how much trust and faith should be given to these global giants of the technology industry… but that’s a discussion for a different course!

The Future of Physical Computing

Physical computing sits at the intersection with the IoT. We will soon see more and more human focussed internet-connected devices, with access to the same high-integrity IoT infrastructures. Future physical computing devices and applications will be far more capable, easier to interact with, and more widespread than they are today. These smart devices will be able to access real-time information from other IoT devices all over the world. Your kitchen might help you keep to your diet, by highlighting the foods and recipes that are in season and would be best for your health. Your washing machine might know the current energy consumption of the country, and hint that if you wait just another 20 minutes or seconds, you could smooth out the power consumption across the country and reduce your carbon footprint.

Tomorrow’s physical computing devices will also make heavy use of machine learning to recognise people, objects, and patterns around them. We will be able to create solutions that interact with people using voice and gestures — just as we do with smartphones today. Imagine being able to easily create an inexpensive, unobtrusive, personalised way to detect if our elderly loved ones are following their daily routines, and securely let you know if they weren’t. Tomorrow we will not only be able to create our own physical computing solutions to our problems, but let them work together for the good of society.

What do you think?

What do you see as the future of physical computing? Is it adding physical computing devices to the Internet of Things, or something else?
How can physical computing evolve?
How would you like it to evolve?
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Introduction to Physical Computing

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