When Things Start to Connect

smart city and wireless communication network abstract image visual internet of things

We take a lot of things for granted. We use hundreds of objects everyday without thinking about them. Clothes, coffee machines and coffee cups, cars, roads, traffic lights, smartphones, computers, showers, newspapers, books, chairs and so on. But what if these objects were not so “dead”? Rather they could respond to their environment and we could communicate with them. Its not clear if we want to communicate will all objects, but for some it might be useful. We could tell our TV to switch on to a particular channel. We could tell the coffee machine to brew a double expresso. The car would inform us that it is due for a checkup and could even suggest a time slot using our calendar. This is what we call the Internet of Things and we are now in the early stages of this new technical wave.

Taking this to an enterprise level, consider products in a store. What if they could be tagged with a radio ID so that they could identify themselves? This is exactly what Radio Frequency ID or RFID does. For years, these small tags have been put on products, shipping containers, livestock and so on. With these tags, systems are able to track them. But an ID is kind of simple. We could also put sensors all around a city to monitor all sorts of changes in the environment. The enabling factor for this is that computers, sensors, wireless capability and so on are getting so small and so affordable that we can enhance normal objects that we use with “smartness” and connectivity.

So what exactly is the Internet of things? Professor Sanjay Sarma of MIT, offers a small but insightful experiment. Ask a kid about the lights in the house. Point to the lightbulb in the ceiling and point to the light switch on the wall and ask them “How is it when I hit the switch, the light bulb comes on?” Now if you think about this, us the older folks, kind of take this for granted. We know there are wires in the wall and ceiling connecting the bulb and the switch, and the switch will just make the connection and activate the electric current. But what would the kid say? The obvious answer is “Wi-Fi.” The light switch will of course talk with the bulb and ask it to turn the lights on! And this is what Internet of things means, having everyday objects connect to the Internet and send and receive data and commands.

While the question of the lightbulb and the switch may be a cute experiment, the eery question remains, which approach is really more cleaver.  If we think about it, the way we are building houses has remained basically the same for decades including lighting. The incandescent light bulb still used today is basically the same as it was when invented by Edison. Wi-Fi connected light system already exist today. Philips, the Dutch technology company, released in 2012 Hue, a Wi-Fi enabled lighting system for homes. You connect a base station (which is called a gateway) to your Internet router. Then each Hue lightbulb (which is called things) will wirelessly talk with the base station. With this setup you download an app to your smartphone and use that to send commands to the lightbulbs via the base station. Since each lightbulb can display any combination of colour the possibilities for lighting the home become endless.

While multi-colour lighting is really cool thing to have – and it is, there are more practical approaches to Internet of things. To explain the real benefits of this technology and why it will have huge impact as it transforms the world, consider an agriculture thing, a tractor.

Efforts to use machines for agriculture started in the 19th century with steam powered vehicles and in the first part of the 20th century the use of tractors and other farm vehicles and replaced manual labour on farms in the developed world. Tractor is a thing. It is just an object that does its job controlled by the operator. It can be used to tow equipment for ploughing, harrowing, planting and so on. But basically, machines like tractors are just analogue machines with the same functionally for decades. What if we take this tractor thing and add to it computing capabilities and sensors? This is the example Harvard professor Michael E. Porter and PTC CEO James E. Heppelmann use in their landmark Harvard Business Review article How Smart, Connected Products Are Transforming Competition.

We equip the tractor with small multiple computers. These could be location sensors, temperature and humidity sensors, and even cameras. Now we have a smart thing, a smart tractor. However, a smart tractor may have new and powerful capabilities but what did this smartness really add? It could provide useful information to the driver about the land and positioning in the field.


An isolated tractor may be smart all right, but still it is limited as the information gathered by the sensors are just stored in the tractor and perhaps just displayed there. To make the tractor more useful, we add wireless capabilities. With that we have a smart connected thing or a smart connected tractor. But still, the real usefulness comes when we take all the information from the sensors and, through the wireless network, use them to create an ecosystem – a farm system.

This is where the true benefits of Internet of things is realised. All this information can be analysed and visualised allowing the farmer to make better decisions about how to manage the harvest. In addition to this, the field itself can have multiple sensors to measure all sorts of things and send these back to the farm system. With a system like this the field can provide valuable information in real-time, allowing the farmer to respond.

Agriculture is a perfect example of how Internet of Things can transform an industry. While there have been many advances with better equipment in the last decades, farming is still very reactive and built on imprecise knowledge of the numerous variables that must be adjusted on a daily basis in order to optimise the production and yield of crops and products. With a farm system, farmers have much better oversight of their farm, can use the land in a much more efficient way and become more productive in a cost effective way.

Farming is just one example. Now think about healthcare, transportation of goods and public transport, urban planning, retail stores, factories, and the list goes on. The Internet of Things is going to transform the world, both businesses and our lives.

This text is based on a new addition to the 2017 edition of New Technology 

Through the VR Desert


The year 2016 is the year VR takes off. This is the year where several high-end VR headset, such as Oculus and HTC Vive are released. And this is the year of the VR startups and VR hype. However, it might also be the year of VR setback and disappointments. Indicators might be that the headsets are barely ready and they are far from mainstream. There simply are not that many people that have VR headsets. And even if they wanted, they would need a PC that is able to power the experience. We still have 3-5 years until we have wide enough adoption of this technology and the immersion and quality needed. Until then it is a walk in the desert.

The second Slush Play conference was held in Reykjavík during 28-30. September 2016. The theme var VR and gaming. The conference is small but getting strong traction. In his opening remarks, Hilmar Veigar from CCP, an early player in VR, explained the company move to VR. Hilmar set the tone of the conference. VR works. It is here. However, we are early and we still need to figure things out. We need to get better headsets, smaller and cheaper. Research is still being done in academia to understand some of the subtle things of tricking the brain in a believable and immersive way.  So it will take 3 to 5 years to get to true VR experience with full immersion and to reach a market that can support big production games. Until then, Hilmar suggested, it would be a walk in the desert.

However, a walk in the desert has its opportunities. It is a quest that few will take but the brave ones have a chance of becoming leaders and creators in a new industry. VR is a new platform, just as the smartphone, the web and the PC. Platforms like these follow the classic S-curve. In their beginnings they are just a dream of crazy visionaries. Then when all the enabling technologies are ready, the new platform begins to emerge and work. The performance of the platform starts to increase as it gets better and more people start to use it. We then get into exponential growth as the performance increases rapidly. Finally, it will level off thus forming a forward slanting S. As we saw with the new released iPhone 7, it has reached the top of the S-curve, just as the PC has and the Internet.

Platforms such as VR usually develop in two waves. First wave is overhyped with lots of expectations and abundance of financial capital. But the solutions offered are similar to solutions older platforms, as people, used to the old platform (PC, smartphones) are taking old way of doing this and cramming them into the new platform. For example, the first web pages looked like flyers and brochures or research papers. Then in the second wave, people figure out what the platform can do. For the web we saw the Web 2.0 wave after the dot-com burst. Second wave is much more sober with realistic expectations and production capital.

So we are in the early stages of the VR platform wave and the smartphone wave is ending. In the coming years we will see VR headsets get smaller and lighter and at the same time better and cheaper. As the components needed to build those improve so will the possibilities. Understanding of how to create immersion will increase. When the second wave comes the desert walk will pay off.



It’s time to Talk

“Hello computer…” Scene from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (c) Paramount Picture

The way we interact with computers has gradually evolved over the years. Early computer systems used punched cards and printers. Then we went to terminal based command line interfaces, then to more simple menu based systems still using command lines. The office desktop metaphor came with windows, icons and folders. First web sites where primitive and much more simpler and limited then the dominating Windows apps. But the web had universal access and became more popular. The second wave of web interfaces, Web 2.0, showed more advanced techniques for user interfaces. First mobile user interfaces were simple menus, usually poorly organised. Then came the smartphone app which is now dominating with cloud computing. But what comes after the app? One trend might indicate where we are heading next and that is conversational user interfaces. Apps of the future might not need to be visual. You just talk with them.

The application that are leading this development are intelligent voice assistants. Apple has Siri on their devices, Google has OK Google on Android, and Microsoft has Cortana on Windows. Amazon has developed Amazon Echo, a small device that can be placed in your home and Google has Home. We are already seeing this trend unfold.

Apple’s Siri has been here for a while and increasingly these system are getting better. When Siri first came out the expected thing happened. It did work remarkably well for simple commands. However, the task of Siri is enormous. You can ask her anything as the scope of subject is unlimited. And that is what people do. Youtube has many videos where people have fun using Siri. Searching “Siri Funny” will give over 500.000 results (11.09.2016).

Two adjacent possible trends are worth mentioning. First, processing power of small devices are getting so advanced that processing live speech in real time is possible. The iPhone 7, released in September 2016, has A10 Fusion processor. The A10 is a quad core processor with a clock speed of 2.34 GHz which would fit any laptop nicely.

Second, the AI behind language understanding is getting better at a dramatic rate. In only few years there has been a leap forward in machine learning. With faster and bigger clusters of computers, and with more data and better neural network algorithms, AI applications are getting more advanced and much better. One key observation is that these systems have some sort of a network effect. The more people use the language recognising software, the better it gets on understanding language. What is more, these systems can learn regional dialects and slang.

With these technological advanced imagine a new world of computing where you just have a conversation with apps. Be it travel apps that helps you organise a trip, a street navigator that can guide you (the device knows where you are), legal apps for legal council, psychiatrist that will listen to your perverted thoughts, a doctor app will listen to your awkward and embarrassing problems, sales representative will explain a product and the list goes on. Then add talking with things in your environment. Imagine talking with cars, elevators, coffee machines, automatic grocery store checks, hotel check-ins and so on.

However, we are not used to talk to devices or what? Just as any new technology, talking with devices will follow the law of diffusion of innovation. In a February 2016 User Adoption Survey results by MindMeld (likely US based), some 62% of smartphone users have and are using voice assistant. That is into the late majority of people adopting technology.

62% of US smartphone users are using voice assistants (source: MindMeld)

Technology moves in strange ways. We learnt how to use a mouse and keyboard and got used to that. Then pressing our touch screen phones. And now we can just talk to these devices. Surely this changes the form factor. What will the phone of the future look like?