Look out Iron Man! The Internet of Things is gaining real world steam, and is being explored for both consumers and enterprise applications. This blog post will briefly explain what that means and give some examples of existing and upcoming technologies. There are many issues and factors that make or break the success of the Internet of Things, and the primary focus of this post will be on two of those factors: usability and sensors.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a term first used by Kevin Ashton in 1999 (when Google was still a baby).1 It refers to a system of devices that are connected through the Internet. These "smart" devices or things are generally based around sensors. A wearable device is an IoT device designed to be worn, and according to the MaRS report make up 65% of all current IoT devices.2 SNS Research estimates that by the end of 2015, the number of wearable device shipments will surpass 90 million, and will account for almost $20 billion in revenue. The market is further expected to grow at a CAGR of nearly 40% over the next six years.3 One example of integration between wearables and the IoT could be a wearable device that would sense when user wakes up in order to inform a connected coffee pot to start brewing.
Sensors are the key
Data is the name of the game and sensors are the players. Sensor abilities are increasing while their cost is decreasing. Combined with their unique and strategic positioning, IoT devices are able to cheaply collect expensive data. Sensors can measure everything from their surroundings, including orientation, motion, light, sound, humidity and temperature to biometrics, like blood pressure and heart rates. These sensors will drive the practicality of the IoT.
In a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey, 20% of companies were investing in and researching sensors in 2014 – an increase of 3% from the previous year.4 IDTechEX's research reports that there will be over 3 billion sensors in wearable devices by 2025, with 30% of them being new and emerging sensors.5 Their research includes a breakdown of the future market size by categorized sensor types:
Inertial Measurement Units (IMU) are sensors that measure motion, orientation and gravity and were originally used in aircrafts. Now they are also commonly used in fitness wearables, such as the Fitbit. These fitness-tracking devices use IMU's to accurately measure things from the number of steps taken to sleep patterns. The current market for fitness wearables is $2 billion, and is projected to expand to $5 billion by 2019, according to the tech analyst group Parks Associates.6
Chemical sensors can measure chemical substances to the molecular level. These upcoming sensors can be used across numerous factories to better process quality, or used to test if meat has spoiled in the case of this MIT test group. Chemical sensors can also be used to measure and diagnose sweat, which could be used to better fine tune fitness workouts, conduct effective cardiac stress tests and even determine the influence of drugs on the user.7 The potential applications for chemical sensors is huge, and is why it composes the highest percentage in the projected market chart above.
Biopotential sensors are used to measure heart, brain and muscle activity and are closely related to stretch and pressure sensors, which are used for healthcare monitoring such as heart rate, brain activity and or blood pressure readings. This is In addition to being another common sensor ingredient in fitness wearables, biopotential sensors are also the cornerstone for Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) devices. While still an experimental and pioneering concept, BCI devices have a large range of possibilities. A few examples being the Impecca Alert Band that notifies drivers when they are experiencing fatigue, and Mind Solution's Emotive Headset that promises to control and interact with computers via thought process.
Optical sensors can measure motion and proximities, and are what the recently announced Cicret Bracelet prototype uses to interact with a projection of the user's smartphone.
Eight optical proximity sensors detect user interaction with the projection on their arm.
The Cicret Bracelet is still in the research phase. But it looks to be a revolutionary concept, largely due to its promise of achieving a huge goal of IoT devices, which is to provide exceptional convenience and accessibility. This brings me to my second main topic.
A wearable's usability and accessibility can be the difference between life and death for Iron Man, if his propulsion system isn't easily triggered in the heat of the moment it could mean certain doom. Likewise, usability is very important for IoT's consumer and enterprise success. Wearable devices often have very small displays, which makes user interaction and determining what information to display a tricky, but important factor. This is a tradeoff for their convenient locations and their ability to quickly receive information and accomplish tasks. For example, MIT just released info on NailO, a wireless trackpad that sits on the user's thumbnail. The NailO's mini interface enables the user to easily interact with and control a phone or computer.
Similar to "swiping" on a cell phone, wearables have their own interfaces that take into account the positioning of the device and often combine the previously mentioned sensors. As far as smart watches are concerned, one of these designs is wrist raise and twist motion, which detects whether the user is actively looking at the watch, during which glances or other interfaces are handily displayed. Another common watch interface is called a "glance", which is a quick view of some of the user application's most important content. In the case of the new Apple watch, the glanceable views are customizable by the user, and uses the current time and location to show the most relevant glances. Interacting with glances will open up more information on the glance content
A lot of wearable devices are currently first generation devices and are providing an unexplored field of usability testing that is ripe for the picking. Due to the valuable data sensors collect, systems can be made smarter and more efficient for enterprise and consumer applications. Likewise, better usability will increase the appeal and functionality for IoT devices, both of which will help advance the popularity and success of the IoT.
In the future, I envision wearables becoming more standalone. I could see the sleek smart watches projecting a keyboard like the Cicret Bracelets when text input is triggered. But for now, I hope that this post helped you better understand some of the limitations and capabilities of usability and sensors, two factors that help drive the Internet of Things.
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