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Internet of Things needs a new interface

Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications, industrial internet, quantified self, connected devices, so on and so forth…so many ways to describe a world where devices, sensors and actuators are all linked together, connected to each other in the cloud, and sharing information + commands across common communication protocols. Reduction in the cost of hardware development, simplification and development of advanced low power communication protocols, and immense advancement in our ability to acquire, store, manage, and process big data has resulted in amazing progress over the last few years in the internet of things.

We are quickly entering a world where we can imagine a vast number of devices around us to be internet connected, collecting data real-time from a plethora of sensors, storing, sharing and processing that data in the cloud, and sending messages back to actuators to affect change. This is not science fiction, or a controlled lab at Stanford or MIT – this is happening around us, in our homes and in our agriculture fields. Our cell phones can monitor our location, surroundings, sleep and our motion, not to mention data that can be mined from our usage of the cell phone itself. A significant number of us wear fitness bands and quantified-self watches. We now have cars, thermostats, weighing scales, lights, door locks, motion sensors, medicine pill boxes that all connect to the internet, and there are multitudes of sensors spread around in public spaces to monitor temperature, pressure, microweather, rain, smog, CO2, and eventually allergen concentrations in the air or our food etc. Does this mean have we are in the promised land already? Hardly.

I believe the interface to interact with the Internet of Things (IoT) needs a refresh, and a complete re-do. The human element is missing. While there is tremendous room for the next amazing piece of internet connected hardware to be designed, developed, marketed and integrated into our lifestyles, we need a better way for humans to interact with the Internet of Things. Right now we have a cludgy way of interacting with the IoT. We are building numerous mobile apps to interact with our internet connected devices. There is an app to connect to my fitness band and get incredibly detailed graphs depicting my physical fitness, another app to set temperature on my thermostats, another one to secure my house, and yet another to monitor whether kid has taken his/her asthma medication regularly or not. But it is largely limited to 1-to-1 interactions between hardware/software, and even efforts to build some common interfaces for devices to be programmed together (such as IFTTT or SmartThings or Revolv) have been somewhat limited in their scope and use.

If we assume for a second that all devices around us will be internet connected in the near future, then it is easy to see that the interface we have been using so far for utilizing the power of the IoT simply does not scale. How many apps would I use, and how would I even know what data linked to what data would result in meaningful intelligence, analysis, diagnostic or predictive capability? The status-quo reminds me a bit of the FTP days when where we would sign into a server, retrieve files, modify them on our desktops, and put back into the server for retrieval by other people (faculty in my case). The browser was missing so we didn’t browse.

I believe we need a new common interface, a browser for the IoT, or a Google search bar equivalent to link it all: an easy way for devices to self identify and pair, share information based on user’s needs or behavior, and execute on intelligence gathered via analytics on data. Wolfram Alpha’s effort for a common API to the IoT, or The Wireless Registry’s work on a DNS for the IOT are great steps forward. Services like IFTTT also take an important step in that direction, but is that enough?

In a world with a lot of devices around me connected to the internet, complimented by geo-located publicly available data, there are at least four ways in which I could see myself interacting with that world:

  1. Concise data summary: Not elaborate charts/plots, but a clean summary of data and analytics I should care. E.g. my health & fitness, sleep patterns, eating habits and/or energy use.
  2. Goals: I would like to be able to set goals in life and be reminded when I fall short or complete them – how much I walk every day, how much water I drink, how much energy I consume, drop my kids to school twice a week, and so on and so forth.
  3. Alerts: I would like ‘context aware’ systems around me to alert me to events that I should respond to. Are my children in danger, Am I susceptible to an asthma attack, did my grand father fall in the bath-tub, etc.
  4. Automation: This triggers an automated response (digital or via an actuator) based on gathered intelligence. If my grand father has fallen, alert all family members so we can respond quickly, if I am out of the house, shut down stove, set thermostat differently and lock doors, if car needs servicing book an appointment with the dealership, am if I am showing signs of sleep apnea send message with select data to my physician, etc.

I can imagine artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to quickly figure out from my IoT-API (all data collected by my devices should be portable, and share-able based on permissions I set) what services I might be interested in and to allow me to quickly select ‘recipes’ or ‘functions’ in each of the 4 categories. Based on data gleaned from the IoT devices I own, the publicly available data feeds I subscribe to, information gleaned from my email, twitter, facebook etc, and by allowing me to ‘train’ the system, my IoT interface could become quite knowledgable about me and allow me to not only make the most of the IoT I have access to, but also recommend hardware or services I could get to add quality or a new dimension to my usage.

I don’t know what the ultimate interface to the IoT needs to look like, and the above is just a strawman…but I do believe a better interface is badly needed to enable exploration and use of the rapidly developing Internet of Things. I am all ears if you are up to something in the space.

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  • Palo Alto Data

    Great article. This was exactly the thinking that led us to found Palo Alto Data, and to develop the Blink product.
    Bill McColl