At one point of time, the definition of the Internet of Things (IoT) revolved around radio frequency identification (RFID) tags and applications monitoring them. Slowly, it has evolved to encompass everyday products such as mobiles, air-conditioners, refrigerators, televisions, heart rate monitors, fitness accessories and equipment, disks and modems, and even LED lights and power sockets. Either these products are Internet-enabled, or use a smartphone, tablet or other mobile devices and their applications as a gateway to connect to the Web, thereby attaching aspects of information and connectivity to everyday objects… which is what the IoT is all about. In this episode, let us take a look at some recent consumer electronics products that fit into the IoT schema.
Get your grandma a smart cane
At the Mobile World Congress 2013, Fujitsu demonstrated a New Generation Cane that can aid elders, specially-challenged, or even hikers in several ways. For starters, it can direct them properly to a programmed location by displaying arrows on the handle. It can monitor their heart rate, and environmental conditions. What is more, the associated Web application can be used to monitor the path that they take—to make sure they are always watched by their loved ones.
Inside: The Smart Cane is equipped with Bluetooth, GPS, Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity. The contoured handle is made of glossy plastic, and kind of bulges on the top, where information is displayed using an array of LEDs. When none of the digital features are in use, all the lights disappear and the cane looks quite casual!
An accompanying app allows the caregiver to program some common locations using a PC or smartphone. Thereafter, when the user walks with the cane, it flashes a green arrow if the direction is right. If the user takes a wrong turn, it alerts using vibrations and red signs. It then guides them back to the right direction using green arrows. GPS and cellular connectivity allows the user’s walking path to be tracked using a Web application. A smart little step counter takes note of the number of times the stick is tapped! There is also a heart rate monitor built near the handle; and when the user presses a thumb on the sensor, it displays the heart rate on the handle, and also shares this information with caregivers. The cane also has built-in sensors that measure the temperature and humidity of the environment. This information is used to judge whether the user is comfortable. In case of any discomfort, the caregiver can remotely reprogram the cane to guide the user to a cooler or warmer place, or back to the home or hospital. The cane is battery-powered—and at present the prototype has a rather low battery life of 2-3 hours. This is likely to be improved in the final product.
A GPS device that projects routes on the road
Open Sight is a navigational aid for cyclists developed by designer Kim Tae-Jin. When the designer felt that traditional GPS navigation devices are distracting—people tend to look at the device rather than the road, leading to accidents, he went about developing a navigation aid, which uses powerful directional laser arrows that are visible even during the day, to project routes and other information straight ahead of the cyclist on the road, rather than on the device. The designer is confident this will be more convenient than traditional instruments, and also avoid accidents.
Inside: At the core, Open Sight works like existing GPS devices, but includes high-intensity laser projection, which is bright enough to be seen just as well in broad daylight as in low light and at night. The projection mechanism displays the route and other information straight ahead of the cyclist, on the road. So, there is no need to keep looking into a small screen. A touch-enabled control panel allows the user to easily control the features. Open Sight also includes a variety of sensors that measure cycling speed, distance covered, and so on. The device is pedal-powered, which means it charges using kinetic energy generated by the pedalling motion. It has an on/off switch to avoid power wastage when not in use. In short, the innovation here is the laser projection, which avoids distraction and improves safety for the cyclist. According to the designer’s experiments, it also improves visibility at night, since the laser beams provide additional light.
Remotely control you devices using your mobile
Belkin has launched a series of home automation products called WeMo that let you control your home electronics from anywhere using a mobile app. They are in line with the ‘connected home’ concept—a key aspect of the IoT. The WeMo Switch, a part of this series, is an intelligent power socket that works with an iOS application. It makes use of your home’s Wi-Fi network to provide wireless control of TVs, lamps, stereos, and more. Using mobile Internet, you can also control the devices from anywhere. Simply download the free WeMo app, plug the switch into an outlet in your home, and plug any device into the switch. You can turn the device on or off, or even set schedules for its operation. For example, you can program the coffee maker to switch on and brew for 10 minutes just before you arrive home, so you get fresh coffee when you get in! There is also a motion-sensor based product called WeMo Motion that lets you program devices to work based on the presence or movement of people.
Inside: WeMo Switch looks like any normal power switch (although it is definitely bigger), and can also be controlled physically like normal switches. WeMo is Wi-Fi capable—and can be remotely controlled through an app that runs on iOS 4.3 or higher. Belkin is apparently also addressing customer requests for an Android version of the app. Apart from simple remote on/off controls, WeMo can also be scheduled to switch on or off at specific times; or can be programmed to react to situations using a great service called IFTTT, which is actually the most innovative aspect of WeMo. IFTTT stands for ‘if-this-then-that’. You can setup WeMo equipment to react to changes. For example, you can set it up to switch on when somebody comes in. Better still, it is Web-enabled, so you can link the functioning of devices to say weather reports, or you can turn it on or off using Twitter or other social media messages. WeMo can also talk back—it can post information or trigger events on Facebook, Twitter, etc., send you an SMS, or update Google Calendar!
Take better care of your plants
Many of us love our garden, but are not smart enough to take good care of it. Well, caring for plants is tough—you need to understand when they need water, shade or even nutrients. Imagine having an electronic advisor that knows all this, monitors your plants personally, and advices you on what to do, through a mobile application? Well, that is precisely what the Parrot Flower Power solution does, using sensors and a mobile app. It is a small device from the makers of the Parrot AR Drone, which plugs into the soil in your garden and helps take care of plants in the vicinity. Flower Power will be launched sometime this year.
Inside: The Parrot Flower Power device includes sensors that measure sunlight, soil moisture, temperature and fertiliser content in soil. It is Bluetooth Smart capable, and keeps sending information to a dedicated iOS application, which monitors and analyses the sensor data. The app includes a comprehensive database with information about 6000+ species of plants. Once you plug your Parrot Flower Power device into the soil, you need to choose the type of plants in the garden. If you do not know this, you can search the database based on leaf type, colour, and a number of other options. Apparently, you can associate the device with any number of species. Once this simple setup is over, you are ready to go. The device keeps sending information to your app every 15 minutes. The app then puts two-and-two together and decides whether the plants have sufficient light, water and fertiliser to grow well. It then pushes notifications to your phone about the status of the plants and action to be taken. The information may also be plotted in a graph or analysed in other ways for long-term benefits.
Don’t know what to cook? Ask your fridge
Imagine a refrigerator that keeps track of the inventory inside, and warns you when something inside is too old, or suggests recipes based on ingredients you have, or reminds you to do your shopping when the veggie or milk tray goes dry! Well, Samsung’s new smart refrigerator, the T9000, is capable of this and more.
Inside: The Samsung T9000 is a 32-cubic-foot, four-door fridge that has two compressors, three evaporators and a large number of various sensors. It is Wi-Fi enabled, and includes a 10-inch LCD touchscreen tablet on the door. The fridge runs on the Android OS, and includes apps such and Epicurious and Evernote to help users choose recipes, create shopping lists, and manage the expiration dates of items like yogurt and milk. The display may also be used to keep track of news and weather, to Twitter or even display photo slideshows on the fridge door. The device also integrates with Google Calendar, and is capable of syncing with your smartphone or tablet. You can even share recipes, notes and photos with family and friends. The application also makes it easy to setup the refrigerator’s settings such as temperature and humidity. It extends the capability to change the functionality of one of the fridge’s compartments. By altering the settings you can convert it into a freezer or normal fridge, depending on requirements.
Record a game from the ball’s view
When training for football games, coaches like to watch the game from several points-of-view in order to train their players better, develop strategies and improve the moves. Cameras and image processing software have proven very helpful in this task—providing close views from multiple angles, trajectory analysis and more. However, what has been missing till date is the view from the ball! BallCam is a new technology developed by researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Electro-Communications (UEC) in Tokyo, which allows a video camera to be embedded in a ball, thereby capturing smooth video as it spins through the air. While this might be illegal in official games, such recordings will surely be useful for training purposes. What is more, it might even vividly record the expression on a player’s face when he misses a ball!
Inside: BallCam features a high-definition, wireless GoPro HERO 2 camcorder inserted into a hole on the side of a rubber-sheathed plastic foam football. (In the future, GoPro can be used with the company’s yet-to-be-launched Wi-Fi control pack that will let the camera be controlled through smartphones.) One of the biggest problems in recording video from a spinning object as fast as a football is the resulting blur. However, BallCam uses a special algorithm to process the video from balls spinning at up to 600 rpm. The algorithm is designed to monitor and discard video frames that show only the sky. When the remaining frames are stitched together, the result is a relatively smooth, wide-angle view from the side of the football. The stitching software is similar to what NASA uses to stitch together images from its Mars rovers. So, the technology is quite complex—and certainly not ‘playful’ stuff! The researchers say that the prototype can be enhanced to include multiple cameras and better camera sensors too.
By Janani Gopalakrishnan Vikram
First published in Electronics for You, April 2013