What is the Internet of Things?

By John Paul Mueller


The Internet started with a simple idea—connecting computers together to share data in various ways. Since that humble beginning, people have started to connect more devices to the Internet. In fact, that’s the basis of the term, the Internet of Things (IoT)—things being any sort of device that contains the required computing power and connectivity to connect to the Internet and interact with it successfully.

When you think of IoT, think of connecting anything, everything, together. For example, it’s possible for a doctor to monitor your heart activity through an Internet connection, which means that any irregularities are detected faster and you can get help quickly—sometimes before you even know you need help. A more mundane use of IoT is being able to set your house’s thermostat or to check on security while you’re away. In both cases, devices in your home are connected to the Internet and you use that connection to monitor them.

Today a connection need not be to a physical device—it could be a virtual device (better known as an object to many programmers). Someone interacting with the device will see it as a real device, even though the device doesn’t physically exist. The point is that the basic idea—connecting things together—is still the main emphasis behind IoT. Only the number and types of devices has changed.

Ultimately, the IoT will change the way in which we interact with our world and each other. At some point, smart devices will actually begin to anticipate our needs and provide us with a significantly safer place in which to live and work. Of course, we’ll also have to deal with more monitoring, loss of privacy, and restrictions on our freedom in order to obtain the benefits that the IoT provides.

Life will also change for developers. At one time, developers wrote software that directly manipulated the hardware through ports and moved information from one memory location to another. It was important to know precisely how registers in a processor worked and how peripheral devices came into play. Most developers today no longer worry about how the software they write affects the underlying hardware. The focus is on performing a particular task and the layers of software that we have created over the years makes things work almost like magic. As connectivity becomes even greater and the devices attached to the Internet smarter, developers will engage in creating, rather than building, software. The best developers will be the ones with the highest levels of imagination—the ones who can foresee what can happen given the right connections.

Understanding How IoT Works

It isn’t possible to simply connect a device to the Internet and have it suddenly start communicating with other devices. For example, you might want to have your refrigerator tell you when you need milk, but unless your refrigerator has the necessary computing power and connectivity, you can’t access it over the Internet. The IoT requires that you have the basic pieces in place.

  • Hardware: A device must have the required hardware in order to communicate with the Internet. Unless you refitted that older model stove with the required hardware, you could never tell it to preheat itself using your smartphone so you can bake cookies when you get home.
  • Protocols: A protocol is simply a set of rules. In this case, the rules determine how communications between two devices occur. Just as human speakers must decide on a common language to communicate, devices connected to the Internet must also use a common language. Examples of protocols used for IoT include SOAP and REST, plus the underlying protocols, such as HTTP.
  • Domains: When working in the cloud, it’s still necessary to have a place to store information of various sorts and to provide device access points. The domain controls the location of things. The location can be used for any purpose needed to make communication happen.
  • Applications: The software used to actually cause the interaction between devices determines what functionality the devices ultimately provide (within their range of possible actions). Before a device can perform any tasks at all, you must have software that knows how to interact with the device.

Even though we aren’t specifically needed for IoT, humans will become a larger part of it in the future. Think about the upcoming Apple watch and other devices that are coming out on the market. These devices can monitor every aspect of your physiology so that you know when you’re pushing too hard on that assignment and can therefore avoid the migraine you’d normally get when you’re body gets tired of the abuse you’re handing it. More importantly, your information will travel with you everywhere. Look in the bathroom mirror when you get up and you see your schedule for the day.

Defining the Kinds of Devices

At one time, a device connected to the Internet was limited in the amount of interaction if could provide. However, today there aren’t any such limitations and the only requirement is that the device provides the needed functionality. In fact, you can create devices that have one, some, or all of the following capabilities:

  • Computing: The original use for the Internet was to allow computing devices to communicate over vast distances. Even though there are many uses for the Internet today, computing device communication is still the main event. Every time anyone researches a topic, makes a purchase, or reads a document, they become part of the IoT.
  • Sensory: We use our five senses to interact with the world around us. Now it’s possible to use them to interact with the Internet as well. The most common sensory device involves a camera so that we can see something happening—everything from exoplanets around other stars to the security of our homes. However, look for IoT to make it possible to check the water before you drink it and to determine where you can find a place to park.
  • Actuation: A device may not actually provide much in the way of feedback except to tell you it’s in a certain state. However, you might be able to tell the device to perform a certain task, such as turning on a light or locking a door. The act of performing a physical task based on input provided through an Internet connection is called actuation.
  • Automation: Imagine a setup where sensors monitor a process, filters refine the sensor data, computers check the data for errors, and actuators make changes based on the errors. What you’d have is an assembly line that completely monitors itself and every product it creates—reducing the potential for malfunctions significantly

Where Are We Going?

The fact of the matter is that the IoT is only going to accelerate a trend where people focus on the creative side of life and leave implementation details to something else. It may seem like science fiction now, but the day will probably arrive when your thoughts will be instantly translated into activities around you through a Brain-Computer Interface (BC). You’ll probably have robotic friends who communicate with you through the BCI and you may not ever use a phone. You’ll simply talk to friends as if they’re standing right next to you—even though they’re actually on another planet far away. The act of thinking of your friend will be enough to initiate the communication. So, our understanding of the IoT is in its infancy—we’re at the beginning of something new and interesting in human evolution.

Further Resources