Forward Vision Analytics

What happened to the “Things”

by Steve Halliday

We are all very caught up in the “Internet of Things” phenomenon.  There isn’t a day goes by when we don’t see an article (or sixteen) on the topic.  We see statistics quoted here there and everywhere about this is going to/already is affecting our lives, yet almost none of these articles seem to see the big picture.

In “How to Fly a Horse” by Kevin Ashton (http://www.amazon.com/How-Fly-Horse-Invention-Discovery/dp/0385538596 ) we learn that Kevin coined the phrase “Internet of Things” (IoT) in 1999 when he was trying to present a solution to the problem of tracking the sales of lipsticks.  Kevin worked at Procter & Gamble and the misplacement of lipsticks in the display case was causing a sales issue when the required color was in stock, on the display, but in the wrong place and not easily found.  Kevin put an RFID tag in the lipstick and an antenna under each location, monitored the display unit, uploaded the information to the internet and used it to make decisions about the actual sales stock position.

Since then the term has been broadened to include almost anything that is in some way connected to the Internet and is providing information that can be used. The term has almost become a part of everyday use, though it seems the understanding of the term has morphed.  In 2013 the Oxford English Dictionary included a definition for the IoT – “The interconnection via the Internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data” (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/Internet-of-things ). While this definition is fine, it does not capture the real essence of the concept.

SWG05-IoT ReportIn 2013-4, Special Workgroup 5 under ISO/IEC JTC 1 (International Standards Organization/International Electrotechnical Committee Joint Working Group 1) spent a lot of time looking at the definition of the IoT and found over 30 definitions in common use including one from CISCO.  The group reviewed all of these and created a new definition that is currently being used in ISO – “The Internet of Things (IoT) is a global network infrastructure, linking physical and virtual objects through the use of interoperable data capture and networking methods.  Standards‐based object identification, sensors, controls, actuators, and connection capability provide for  the  development  of  independent  cooperative  services  and  applications  supported  by data analytics and characterized by a user‐defined degree of autonomy.” The work of this group can be found in a report and annexes to be found at http://www.iso.org/iso/jtc1_home.html.

So when did we become enamored with the thermostats and fitness bands that the public seems to think is the IoT and how is this leading us astray? The idea of wearing a band that tells us how “healthy” we are being, or monitoring the temperature of the house from our smartphones are things that we view as “cool and sexy”, so naturally we want to be involved and the manufacturers are keen to oblige. The possibility that we are able to somehow control our lives in a new way is something that is driving us forward, and with all the talk of the Internet of Things it makes us feel that we are a part of the modern world.

Obviously this is really only a very small part of the IoT and yet the market for the devices is very large, hence the interest to provide us with the technology. My fitness band talks to my phone and if I have the correct brand of fitness band it will even talk to the app that connectors me with my medical records and my doctor would be able to see how good (or bad) I am at making sure I walk my 10000 steps every day. So I am connected, and I have a chance that the information can be used to better my life.

Now we need to think about all of the other things that can be connected and we see that it is not always as simple as the fitness band.  After all, I have to be an active part of the system, making sure the band is near the phone, maybe I have to force a sync occasionally, make sure the band is charged, etc.. If this IoT thing is going to work then we need to look at ways to make it less invasive in our lives

If we go back to Kevin’s problem, we can see that he was interested in locating something that does not have electronics embedded, that does not have an IP (Internet Protocol) address, that does not have an electrical connection to anything, AND may only cost a few dollars. The problem of identifying, locating, authenticating and engaging with these “things” is very real and needs to be addressed.

The answer to many of these problems lies in a technology that has grown massively over the past few years. Passive UHF Radio Frequency Identification technology (now called RAIN RFID® ) is small, inexpensive, does not need batteries, and can communicate with a host portal over a distance of many meters. The technology is standardized by SO and there are many companies providing the various parts of the technology. The group is represented by an industry alliance (RAIN RFID Alliance) in the same way that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are represented by their industry groups.

The concept behind RAIN is that the individual items are “tagged” with a small RAIN tag that has a unique number associated with it.  This number describes the identification of the items that it is attached to, maybe a shoe, a pair of jeans, a clock, a piece part of something in manufacturing or maybe even a person.  The tag is interrogated by a portal (reader, interrogator) and the identity and location of the thing is logged into the system. This information (or possibly lack of information) is then used to make decisions about the thing.

diagram-U-shape-NewFor example, let’s suppose the thing is a pair of jeans.  When I buy jeans, I know what I want, what brand, what size etc.  I go to my favorite store and I look for “my” jeans.  I don’t find them! What do I do? The chances are that I leave and the store just lost a sale.  But what if the pair I want were actually two shelves over because someone had misplaced them after looking at them? What if my size had been sold but there were three more pairs in the back room?

By using RAIN RFID the store could have an instant notification of the jeans being removed from the shelf, being placed on the wrong shelf, or being sold.  The jeans could be replaced within minutes of the event and they might have been able to sell me the pair I was looking for.  This is exactly the premise that Macy’s has been using with shoes in some of their stores and they reported an uptick in sales of 7% based on the fact that they were able to keep the shoes on the floor in sight of the person who might want to buy them.

Now take this to the next level.  Let’s think about a manufacturing plant. Think of the value to the plant to have instant sight into all of their stock, whether it is in their warehouse, on a truck, or sitting at the suppliers waiting for delivery. Most companies operate in what I will call silos. Visibility into the status of the manufacturing process is limited specifically to those who “need to know”, but in many cases the need to know philosophy does not work.

I was recently made aware of a large manufacturing company that uses a very well-known enterprise management product but they only use it to generate pieces of paper to process the receipt, inventory, and shipping of items.  The purchasing folk have no sight into the status of the items that are ordered after they make the purchase.  This causes many headaches with frequent calls from receiving to the purchasing agents to identify badly labelled products and recently the misplacing of several very expensive parts. These parts became the critical point in the manufacturing process and had to be reordered and shipped express and many times the original cost because they were lost. RAIN is an example of how using the right technology can eliminate these kinds of issues.

ChainlinkThe key to the success of the Internet of Things will be the ability to identify, locate, authenticate and engage with “Things”, not just expensive, IP based devices. Technology like RAIN RFID exists today and is already starting to provide this “thing” based information. Research companies like Chainlink Research (http://www.chainlinkresearch.com/home/index.cfm) have published data that shows that the growth in the technology means that by 2020 we will have over 100 billion RAIN tags in use. This is about five times the numbers being quoted related to IP connected devices. See the Gartner report – “Forecast: The Internet of Things, Worldwide, 2013”; Gartner, Inc. Research Report; Dec. 12, 2013:www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/2636073

This graphic shows how RAIN technology acts as the lowest level providing the connectivity to the “things” in our lives.

Rain enablesCompletely compatible with existing technologies that provide IP connectivity to devices, RAIN allows us to of identify, locate, authenticate and engage with the everyday things. RAIN has the capability to interface with sensors on the things and so can provide the information we need.

The Internet of Things is here to stay, it is not a university research project and the data shows that we are engaged in the concept. The next time someone talks about connected devices, remind them that IP connected devices are a small part of the system and that we must not forget the “Things”.

About Steve Halliday

Steve is the President of RAIN, the UHF RFID Alliance and the president of High Tech Aid, a company based in Pittsburgh, PA providing consulting services about Automatic Identification and Data Capture technologies. He graduated from the University of Manchester, UK, with a degree in Electronic Engineering and he has been involved in automatic identification and data capture technologies since 1980. He is a member of the AIDC 100 and is the 2010 winner of the Richard R Dilling award for services to the AIDC industry. He is also a 2012 winner of the IEC 1906 Award and is a Senior Member of the IEEE.

Originally posted to the CISC IoT Blog, June 2015 http://blogs.cisco.com/perspectives/what-happened-to-the-things