FutureStructure

How Close is the Internet of Things?

A network of everyday objects fitted with sensors to send and retrieve information on usage patterns is already happening in many cities around the country.

by Ed Marcum, Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tenn. / November 16, 2015

(TNS) -- Almost everyone has faced the maddening thought that they are miles from home but not sure whether they turned off the space heater or some other appliance.

A person might even drive back home to make sure the thing is turned off. Well, as the Internet of Things takes hold, that is at least one aggravation that may become history, because a smartphone app will be able to display whether that heater is on, and allow the user to turn it off — remotely — if it is.

Much of the Internet of Things is already here. Erica Moore, store manager for the U.S. Cellular location at 8401 Kingston Pike, said there are already a number of products on the market that allow people to use their smartphones and tablets to get more benefits out of the ordinary appliances and devices in their homes, cars and workplaces.

And, the trend is going to grow, driven by the number of new mobile applications and products, and the sheer number of new mobile devices expected to be in people’s hands over the next few years, she said.

“Currently, there are about 5 billion products in use, and by the end of 2020, that number is actually expected to grow to about 25 billion (worldwide). So, it is really exploding,” Moore said.

The Internet of Things is a popular buzzword now. It is the idea of a network of physical objects equipped with sensors and connected through the Internet so they are able to exchange data and undergo wireless remote control from virtually anywhere.

“It refers to integrating products to create connectivity, which makes people’s lives easier and enhances their lives,” Moore said.

Some people are excited at the possibilities of the Internet of Things — appliances that can be monitored for energy use and can share data with themselves and the electric grid, resulting in increased efficiency and convenience.

In Knoxville, the Electric Power Research Institute is working on “smart” electric meters that will be able to communicate with household appliances and with the power grid. Eventually, water heaters, stoves and refrigerators will be able to communicate not just within the home, but with utilities trying to balance power loads.

Others worry about the possibility of a data security breach from someone hacking into a weak point in all this. Or, they just don’t like the idea of their refrigerators talking to their stoves.

But, the trend is already underway. Moore showed examples of several products U.S. Cellular carries now to enhance connectivity.

The Garmin Vivosmart wrist band is a device that can pair with a smartphone to monitor a person’s heart rate, sleep, number of steps taken, and other health-related information.

“You can actually even set it up to sync with other people who have these wristbands so if you wanted to have a competition to see who is going to be the most active, you could do that,” Moore said.

The Belkin WeMo Insight switch plugs in between an outlet and a device the user wants to control.

“Whether you are across town at work at your office or you are 3,000 miles away on vacation, you can manage light switches, you can manage your garage door — there are multiple things in your home you can manage with these WeMo products,” Moore said.

Anything plugged in through the WeMo can be turned off and on through the user’s smartphone, and the device can be programmed to turn on and off on schedule. It sends information about power use to the smartphone. A parent could use it to see if a child has exceeded a daily TV limit or to see if a space heater has accidentally been left on.

A camera can be operated through the WeMo to allow a smartphone to check on the security of a home while away. There’s a service called Canary that can send remote video and audio from inside the home to a smartphone, and control a home security system.

U.S. Cellular has a vehicle monitoring service it offers through a plug-in device provided by Delphi.

“This device plugs into the dash of your vehicle, and from that you can monitor the health of your car, you can see different kinds of alerts, you can set up geo-fencing and other things,” Moore said.

Geo-fencing allows the user to set up a virtual perimeter within which a vehicle is to be operated, and the user receives a smartphone notification if the vehicle goes outside that area.

“Businesses that have fleet vehicles use this a lot to monitor their drivers who are in the field with customers, or it is useful if you are a parent with a teenager,” she said.

The Delphi device also can track mileage for different trips, has a feature to unlock your car if you lock your keys inside, can track vehicle location and do other things, all through a smartphone.

“You can also track multiple vehicle monitors at once,” Moore said — handy for a company, or for parents with several teenagers.

The vehicle monitors will work on most cars and trucks dating to 1996.

©2015 the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.