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The Internet of Things, beyond the home

technology, hands on computer
The Robin Team
Published on

The Internet of Things (IoT) is tech’s pretty new girl at school thanks to recent media coverage of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and the recent $3.2 billion Nest acquisition.To those who are new to the topic, the home automation and other IoT examples brought forth in the past few weeks may appear niche, novelty, expensive, complicated, and hopelessly primitive.

After all, who, other than nerdy, over-eager hobbyists with money to burn, needs a texting toothbrush? Not to mention there is an inevitable laundry list of privacy concerns due to the tracking and processing of user activity, which powers the Internet of Things.Laughs and legitimate concerns aside, what people may not know is that IoT technology has been around for a while.  

The RFID-enabled E-Zpass has been processing thruway tolls since the early 90’s. The beloved sound-activated Clapper, which turns your lights on when you're happy and you know it, has been a fixture in American pop culture since I was a mere Janlet in the late 80’s. We have street lights, automated irrigation systems, home security systems, animal tracking and wildlife conservation… I'll stop there.

These are just a few examples of motion, sound, temperature, and other data-triggered systems that have existed for years. They just haven't been discussed under the category of “Internet of Things” or “home automation”, but rather, the lesser-known category of Machine to Machine or “M2M.” Such use cases are continuing to expand and improve. They cut costs, drive profits, bring efficiency, and improve safety across industries.

To shed light on the usefulness of the IoT, below we'll take a look at a few examples of connected technology, including what is already being done and what could be done.


1. Merging Online and Retail Experiences

In 2012, Burberry created the “Store of the Future” on London’s Regent Street.  The goal of the space was to create a physical adaptation of their new website. In the space they created “virtual rain showers” on massive screens and using RFID technology to offer multimedia experiences.

For example, if someone picks up an RFID-tagged trench coat in the store, the item triggers content relevant to the products to pop up on displays near the product — information about stitching and craftsmanship or a video, which is displayed on mirrors, showing how the coat was worn on the catwalk.

2. Inventory Management

Managing inventory is a challenge, but the IoT helps by deploying sensors with RFID tags on products to track them in real-time on store shelves or in a storage room or warehouse. Data tracked by the sensors can be integrated with a system to monitor inventory levels, trigger alerts, and automatically place new orders.

The system can be connected with a retailer’s suppliers to replenish inventory by remotely monitoring the data from the sensors, which indicate when stock is low. This leads to greater order accuracy and better use of the funds. Walmart was an early pioneer of this kind of technology.

3. Real-time Promotions

Smartphones are a key part of the IoT for retailers. Many retailers use them to send real-time promotions through SMS, push notifications, and in-app messages. These are typically sent based on variables like the customer’s location and shopping history. For example, retailers can use this feature to send promotions for products in the physical store that the customer has already researched on their computer or mobile device.Although this is a popular approach, it isn’t the ultimate application of connected technology for retail.

Essentially, this is still pushy advertising, just with a fresh coat of paint. A push notification upon entering a store screaming at a customer to “Like us on Facebook for a coupon on those jeans!” is invasive, even if your data suggests the customer browsed those jeans on the website before.A more creative “pull approach” would engage customers with a useful experience.

One example of this method could be a grocery store that offers tablets attached to grocery store carts. The tablet would include an in-store app complete with recipes and maps to help you navigate the store and find the necessary items for the recipe. The shopping list would be customized based on past shopping trips (no need to get more olive oil if you picked it up last week) and on inventory data sent from store shelves back to a central dashboard. For bonus points, the app’s UI could be kid-friendly so that children could help parents with the shopping instead of fussing. After all, we know babies love iPads.


4. Organize Freight Shipments

General Electric plans to use the IoT to coordinate shipping. With what they call the “industrial Internet,” containers, robots, and shipping vessels will no longer move about in isolation. Just like people check in on Foursquare or Path as they go about their day, products like sporting goods and appliances will “check in” as they travel between locations, which keeps things running on schedule. With this technology, GE estimates a potential cost savings of 10-14% solely from using railroads instead of trucking on highways. Plus, just imagine what the decreased traffic congestion could do for your commute!


5. Track Important Medical Equipment

Hospitals can use connected technology to track the whereabouts of clinical equipment. Some equipment is portable and some wards and departments share items. This means it is not always easy to locate equipment when you need it. If an item is removed from the hospital, the system can alert staff members and it is easy to identify the time it went off-site and where it was last located.

6. Medication Management

"Smart" medication bottles remotely monitor and automatically alert patients on their adherence to prescribed medication. According to a 2012 report in the Annals of Internal Medicine, lack of medication adherence as the estimated cause of 125,000 deaths in the United States alone. It was also cited as the reason for at least 10% of hospitalizations and a cost of between $100 billion to $289 billion annually to the US healthcare system. This technology between wireless pill bottles and its servers will help patients, physicians, and the pharmaceutical industry ensure medication compliance, preventing drug abuse, further illness, and death.

7. Chronic Disease Management

With the help of wearable devices, doctors would be better equipped to perform remote monitoring of patients with chronic diseases such as congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and diabetes. Related care would lower costs by delivering healthcare in home settings, which are less expensive than hospital visits.

8. Early Disease Detection

When it comes to cancer, early detection can mean the difference between life or death. Scientists have developed garments that detect cancerous masses earlier than mammograms, increasing the chances of survival.


9. Employee Perks and Location Data

With increased competition for top talent, company perks are all the rage these days. Connected spaces know who is in a space and what they're doing. This is information you can use for cool company perks like rewarding frequent gym goers with a spa trip.

10. Location Mapping

Need to get a hold of your boss, but she isn’t at her desk? An IoT dashboard like Robin maps where everyone is so you can find them and connect face to face, which improves communication.

11. Regulate Office Vitals (And Boost Productivity)

Cut costs, lower energy usage, and keep a happy office by tracking vitals with the IoT. You can use APIs to connect environmental elements like temperature and noise to productivity.

12. Keep Track of Prototypes and Confidential Documents

Don’t let stealth prototypes and private information end up in the wrong hands. Similar to the hospital example, offices can use location-tracking sensors to track the whereabouts of materials as they move around an office, preventing costly lawsuits and millions lost in unwanted competitive insight.

13. Take Physical Product Demonstrations to the Next Level

Similar to the Burberry use case, presentation screens in conference rooms can be connected to objects through RFID sensors. As you present your physical product, key product information could be projected on multimedia presentation screen.

Government and Urban Development

14. Smart Parking

Smart parking systems would provide real-time data about the availability of parking spaces across a city. This would reduce traffic congestion (less driving around looking for a spot) and the data from this system could lay the foundation for a more profitable, dynamic pricing model for metered spots.

15. Water Management

Connecting water meters to an Internet protocol (IP) network would provide real-time information about water use and the status of waterlines. This could reduce labor and maintenance costs, improve accuracy in meter readings, and lower meter-reading costs.

16. Gas Monitoring

Connected gas meters could provide real-time data about gas use and the status of gas lines. This could reduce labor and maintenance costs and improve accuracy in meter readings.

17. Automate Highway Tolls

Automating payments as vehicles enter connected highways would improve traffic conditions and generate steady revenues. This would reduce traffic congestion, offer savings through smarter road expansion and planning, and reduce CO2 emissions and overall carbon footprint.

18. Smart Traffic Systems

Midtown in Motion is a sophisticated traffic management system in New York City that uses intelligent transportation systems to ease traffic congestion, improve traffic flow, and reduce greenhouse emissions and air pollution on the city’s most crowded streets. The project collected real-time traffic data to access bottlenecks and drive solutions, like installing turn lanes at 53 intersections. These new lanes allow vehicles to turn from cross-town streets on to the avenues without blocking an entire lane of traffic.

They also added turn signals at 23 of these intersections to allow turning vehicles to do so more safely without conflicting with pedestrians. The award-winning project has recently seen some criticism for its use of RFID monitoring, namely, E-Zpasses without drivers’ consent. The details of the situation raise well-documented concerns about the connected world and spark a productive conversation about privacy, but the results from the initiative are a useful example of the potential of the space.

19. Pollution and Air Quality Alerts

Air quality is a major concern in China, especially in Beijing, to the extent that some days the pollution is so bad that you cannot even leave the house. Beijing keeps citizens informed online and on Twitter. Beijing could automate this process by integrating air quality sensors with Twitter through the IoT.


20. Smart Sneakers

Nike’s Smart Shoes come with built-in Bluetooth sensors that track exercise vitals such as running distance or height of jump. This information is sent to the Nike+ training app, and from there it can be further analyzed and shared with friends.

21. The Connected Gym

Imagine walking into your gym and an RFID tag on your wearable device checks you in - no lines, a seamless experience. You can pull up your gym’s branded mobile app and it offers you a personalized workout of the day, which is based on your past activity at the gym. This is made possible by tracking your weight and repetitions on strength training machines, activity on cardio machines, and any classes you took that week. Ideally, this system would also be aware of current activity on the machines, so it wouldn’t recommend a 45-minute session on the elliptical if all of the ellipticals were taken.

22. Social Walls

Never get lost in the crowd again. Event attendees can scan RFID-tagged registration badges upon entrance to a conference. A screen at the registration booth will reveal social media connections that are in proximity that the attendee should meet up with.

23. Tracking Attendance and Certifications

Doctors and other certified professionals are required to maintain their certifications by attending conferences. A smart conference room could track who is in a space for how long, ensuring that no one skips out on required sessions to hit the conference happy hour early.


24. Track Crop Health

In the US and Europe, there are 14 million farms that use connected technology, and that’s expected to double by 2020. Millions of tiny sensors have been deployed to track weather and pest infections, and that data can be translated into reports that inform farmers on how to take action with crop treatments and irrigation. This data-driven, more controlled use of pesticides and water in agriculture nets a massively positive environmental impact.

25. Connected Military

The connected military means real-time awareness for combat personnel by connecting command-centers, tents, vehicles, and special forces. This would enable armed forces to monitor the location of both allied and enemy personnel and weapons.Hopefully these examples address some of the doubt around the potential of the space and whether or not there is a real future here. Most of all, I hope this helps naysayers realize that innovation is iterative. You have to start somewhere, and sometimes “somewhere” is misunderstood.

To take the General Electric example to heart, imagine an entire fleet of railroad carts logging in and out of checkpoints along a delivery path. A check-in would deploy robots that would automatically load inventory unto the carts upon arrival at a station, and send a text message to a fleet coordinator when the transport is all set.Cool, right?

To ultimately achieve this scenario and reap the benefits from its realization, among other things you need the technology that triggers text messages. Maybe that starts with a toothbrush.

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