Imagine that you’re driving home from work and at the same time your car informs the heating system that you will be home soon. Then the heating turns on. Or imagine a world where the refrigerator recognises a missing food product and adds it to the shopping list. These are only some examples of how objects will communicate in the future and make people’s lives more comfortable.
In order to test these possibilities, the University of Tartu and Telia Eesti opened Estonia’s first internet of things lab in March 2016. It is a unique laboratory which is furnished as a smart home and a smart office. The lab uses a network of devices which include electronics, software, sensors and network connection. The devices gather and exchange information which enables a situation where devices are able to act in certain situations on their own, or in other words, be smart. In Janury 2017, Telia Eesti gave 920 devices to the lab in order to help researchers to broaden their research horizons and develop the field.
Last year, journalist Madis Aesma from the daily Estonian newspaper Eesti Päevaleht visited the internet of things lab. These are his first impressions of the new lab.
You enter your home after a tiring day at work. First thing, the lamp turns on and since it has a speaker attached to it, it starts playing your favourite music from your phone. As you pass the TV and sit on the couch, the music ends and the TV turns on. This all happens automatically without any need for you to switch anything on. You don’t even have to search for the remote control that is usually hidden somewhere inside the couch.
Such a sequence of simple actions, which in near future might become a part of everyday life for many people, can be experienced in the internet of things lab at the University of Tartu. The meaning of the term “internet of things” is reflected in its name: devices and systems communicate with each other through a network, acting in the way the situation demands. Setting it all up, as well as programming, has to be done by the developers of the solutions, not by the users.
The sequence described above began when the door was opened: a magnetic sensor attached to the door signalled that the door was now open. When the door was closed, the magnetic elements touched each other – to put it simply. When the elements were pulled apart along with the door, the sensor transmitted a signal over the wireless internet to a small, insignificant-looking box in the local home management centre, indicating that the door was open.
Next, the centre gave another signal to the lamp, making it turn on. The lamp found the phone using Bluetooth, and the latter started playing music. When a person passed the TV, the movement was registered by a motion sensor placed in front of the TV. The centre ordered the lamp to go off, the music to stop, and the TV set to go on.
“Here in this lab we are trying to imagine what the next ten years will look like”, explained Jakob Mass, a master’s student of software technology. “It has been predicted that after 10 years, the number of devices connected to the Internet will outnumber the number of humans by many times”.
By then, the internet of things will supposedly be an ordinary part of everyday life, and this doesn’t just mean small comforts such as a lamp or a TV that would go on by itself. Sensors and detectors that are connected to the internet of things can make themselves useful at more critical moments, too. For example, at the moment, one can already buy a smoke detector that doesn’t just start wailing in case of a fire but also warns you about it when you happen to be away from home. The magnetic sensor of the door previously mentioned can play a critical role as well. If someone opens the door and steps into your home when you’re away, your smart device will receive a notice about the visit of a potentially malicious stranger.
But there’s no need to limit the internet of things to a single household. Let’s imagine a house full of flats, fully connected. If a big fire broke out in such a building, the rescue workers would be able to check the condition of all the flats on their smart devices, based on information from the detectors.
Theoretically, any kind of household appliance that is programmable and has Bluetooth or Internet connectivity could be connected to the internet of things. Let’s imagine a scenario when a smart scale and a refrigerator are connected to the internet of things and then, after you have measured the your body weight in the morning, the door of the refrigerator won’t open anymore. According to Jakob Mass, that is not the way this works. People will still have the last word in what the internet of things can do.
But surely, we cannot deny that the internet of things has its problems, one of these being security. Theoretically speaking, when a device is connected, it gives an opportunity for malicious individuals to disturb its functioning via the network.
This story was originally published in the Estonian daily newspaper Eesti Päevaleht.