How I explained the IoT to my parents

The industry has certainly gone through a lot of buzzwords, with some chronically overused or even distorted. However, the Internet of Things (IoT) is a buzzword with real impact, something that isn’t about to change. What exactly is the IoT? Members of the industry all know, and most are planning to either create or in some way help the IoT. Explaining the IoT to an engineer is simple enough, but explaining it to my parents was quite tricky.

Caen, France, one cold evening. A brief TV news article talks about a small company developing a new IoT project. Suddenly, I hear the question.

– James, what exactly is IoT?

I’m the residential geek of the family. I’ve blogged, I’ve written a book on embedded systems, and I’ve worked on dozens of embedded projects. I therefore am known as the PC repairer and iPad application installer, as well as the official family translator of “technical” to English or French. I clear my throat. IoT is short for the Internet of Things. Imagine lots of devices connected to the Internet, all of them together.

– What, like PCs?

No, not PCs. That’s classic, we’ve been there, we’ve done that. No, I’m talking about much smaller things. Things like, like… Well, take your thermostat over there! Imagine if it was connected to Internet. A roar of laughter. I wait patiently for them to figure out that I wasn’t laughing.

– Why would anybody want to have their thermostat connected to Internet?

Well, why wouldn’t they? I mean, look, the thermostat is set to 8, that’s pretty high. It is cold outside, and right now, France is experiencing some rather significant temperature variations, or at least for us. It was minus 3 Celsius a few days ago, now it is about 12. If your thermostat was connected to Internet, it would actually know if it was going to be hot or not. If it is a sunny day, there isn’t any point heating up that much. If, on the other hand, meterologists predict a cold spell, the thermostat might be able to adjust the heating, saving you energy.

– Well, that’s great, but why not just have a central heating computer?

Well, you could, and indeed some houses do have that, but why not put that intelligence directly into the thermostat, instead of having a separate computer? Why not let it make the decisions?

– But you can’t put a computer inside a thermostat! It would be huge!

I was expecting this. I had Atmel’s SAM D20 evaluation board with me, which is based on ARM’s Cortex-M0+. I show them the card, telling them that this card has all the power necessary to control a thermostat, and much, much more.

– That’s tiny!

Actually, it isn’t. This is pretty large. It is an evaluation board, designed to offer easy access to input and output pins, meaning that the board itself is larger than what you would find in a finished product. See that tiny little black thing in the middle? That’s Atmel’s SAM D20 microcontroller itself, about the size of a fingernail. This is what gives the board its intelligence. It is more powerful than your first computer and can run for years on a single battery.

– Well, I still don’t see why my thermostat should have access to Internet…

Put it this way. It can adjust the heating depending on the outside temperature, but the MCU is capable of much more. Imagine that you are on holiday, the device detects that you aren’t there, and it only keeps the house minimally heated. When it detects that you are coming back, it starts to heat again.

– How can it detect that we are coming back?

Well, it might look at your calendar, or detect that your car is coming back home.

– Well, how can it detect that the car is coming back home?

Because your car is connected to Internet too. Look, imagine, everything is connected. Everything. Your car. Your coffee machine. Your TV. Your alarm clock. Your morning meeting is delayed by 30 minutes, your alarm clock wakes you up 30 minutes later, the coffee machine knows to make your coffee later on, your car can start automatically to heat up at the right time. Everything becomes intelligent, and everything can talk to anything. I don’t know what will happen, I only know how. Just look at this board, the SAM D20 has it all! And when your thermostat suddenly needs to get some data from another sensor somewhere? It just updates itself! We are no longer limited by the technical side, these devices will be designed to be future-proof. We are only limited by our imagination, and we are getting very, very good at imagining the future.

– That is going to cost me a fortune in electricity!

No it isn’t, quite the opposite. By adding more electronics, you use less electricity, because your devices only consume precisely what they need.

– Wait a minute, is that actually possible?

Not only is it possible, but it has actually been done. We are only at the beginning of a digital revolution… Remember how Internet revolutionized the way you lived and worked? Well, you are about to live that all over again.

I leave them with that, and looking at their expression, I realize the short discussion is more than enough to get them thinking. I’ve barely scratched the surface. They might be thinking about the billions of devices creating data for the world to use, or possibly the sort of data their thermostat would solicit. Who would have thought a thermostat would want to talk to a car? That is only one example, and I can’t list them all, I can’t even think of them all. Who knows what the future will hold? IoT opens up an almost infinite amount of possibilities, and we will no longer create devices that only have one use, and can’t be changed. Rather, we will design devices capable of adapting to new inventions and a new way of living.

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