Internet of Everything is Everywhere at CES 2014
By Clay Merritt
After spending three days strolling through 3.2 million square feet of displays from the over 3,200 exhibitors at CES 2014 it’s clear the Internet-of-Things (IoT) was a focal point for many at the show. It was easily seen that the framework for connecting many nodes in a home, business, town or farm is set. IPv6 with 128-bit address extends the range to 3.4 x 1038 nodes. Wireless technologies are mature and abundant. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth low energy (BTLE), Zigbee and Z-wave systems were all displayed in numerous production ready systems. Each of these technologies has strengths and weaknesses on cost, size, energy use, transmit & receive distance, data rate and interference susceptibility.
Many large corporations are betting on one wireless technology and one message protocol to be the winner. For instance, Qualcomm is heavily invested in Wi-Fi with AllJoyn™ and AllPlay™. Other large corporations, however, are hedging their bets on multiple wireless technologies through the implementation of a hub system for supports. Nexia for example has hardware, software and services available to support a hub or gateway, while Leviton had banners highlighting its support for eight open standards in their home automation systems. This has to be expensive. Sensors and low power actuators that rely on small coin cell type batteries will require a low power interface such as BTLE.
Where the whole inter-galactic IoT connection story breaks down is standardization, both on message format and content. For instance one heart rate monitor may report beats / minute in a 4 byte packet and another system reports a scaled single byte value. This makes interoperability difficult. There are many systems in production that provide personal fitness monitoring, connected homes, industrial building controls and smart cities. Almost all of these are closed systems that can only achieve cross communication at the cloud level. The cloud refers to large networks of computers monitoring the internet traffic and able to process large data bases. Sometimes this is referred to “big data”.
While the connected world will certainly grow in the number of nodes and interoperability, the growth rate will continue to be harnessed by lack of communication standards. The good news is there are efforts underway to improve the interoperability. For instance, while most Bluetooth devices today are “paired” for communication between just two devices, Bluetooth version 4.2 will support meshed networks. Zigbee currently has 10 standards for different industries such as Home Automation, Smart Energy and Light Link. There will need to be continued evolution of the communication standards before the IoT reaches its full potential.
The recent acquisition of Nest by Google points to the need for a low cost home gateway. Currently Nest is selling 100k internet connected thermostats per month. Their system already has a second wireless chipset included which is currently disabled. It’s fair to say they will be able to reprogram the thermostat / gateway to communicate with other wireless systems in the house. This could be a giant step in Google’s quest toward their mission statement: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
So where do we go from here? My prediction is the IoT will grow rapidly in industrial, commercial retail and cities where the economies of scale allow for a relatively expensive communications and monitoring infrastructure. These entities will get a quick financial payback in the form of lower utility bills, better customer services and more efficient resource management. The IoT in the home will continue to grow, but at a much lower rate due to the complexity of the interoperability and the lack of ability to measure the payback for the investment. That said, people will dabble in the IoT for convenience and novelty in their existing homes and new homes will see a quicker adoption of connected devices including HVAC, lights, water, security and entertainment systems.