It won’t be long before there will be billions of Internet of Things devices online — in your home, in your office, in stores, on the street — and your phone will be able to communicate with all of them. A variety of companies have already jumped at the chance to control how you interact with connected devices, and how they’ll communicate with each other. Google acquired Nest, the maker of the Nest Learning Thermostat and the Nest Protect smoke detector. Samsung bought SmartThings, an open hub to control the connected devices in a smart home. Apple announced HomeKit, its framework to enable users to control connected devices from an iPhone or iPad.
There are three major ways that your phone will be able to interact with everything in the Internet of Things: hubs, apps, and now URLs, with the launch of Google’s Physical Web project. Read on to find out the basics of each, and what each of them means for the way the space develops and changes as billions of devices come online.
We’ll start with the method of controlling smart devices that seems the most straightforward is a simple app. Whether for connected devices in the home — a thermostat or refrigerator — or those available in public — parking meters or rental cars — you can download an app that will enable your smartphone to communicate with or control the device in question. You could adjust your home’s temperature with your smartphone, or input your details to rent a car with a simple app.
Each device’s app enables users to configure it, set up alerts, and remotely monitor it and the information it collects from the sensors onboard. Controlling your device via its own specific app is useful when you interact with just one or two smart devices in a day. But if your home is full of smart devices, or if you use many outside of the home, the simple ratio of one app for every device quickly gets out of hand. Not only do the apps and alerts multiply, but it becomes time-consuming to control each device separately, and these devices can’t communicate with eachother. That’s where the next way to interact with Internet of Things devices — a hub — comes in.
The biggest potential in Internet of Things devices for the home lies in their ability to communicate with each other. As you drive home from work, your car can send a signal to your home network, and your thermostat can kick in and return the house to a comfortable temperature. The thermostat communicates with the network to turn an outdoor light on. When you walk up to your door, your smartphone can unlock it, and a signal to the network turns the hallway light on.
This isn’t science fiction anymore, but is in fact a very real possibility, enabled by the introduction of hubs that control the assortment of smart devices you’ve installed in your home. Hubs connect the home network to all of these smart devices, and allow them to communicate with one another.
To do that, hubs need to speak all of the “languages,” or protocols — WiFi, Bluetooth, Z-Wave, Zigbee, etc. — used by the devices that a user has chosen. Hubs, like those created by SmartThings, Revolv, Insteon, and Iris speak some of those languages, and others, like the Wink hub by Quirky, can communicate with devices on all of these standards.
As in the example on the previous page — where your signal to one device prompts it to communicate with the rest of the network and cause other devices to take action — using a hub that’s compatible with all of your smart devices, you can program them to work together, and automate how they work and respond to the information you and your environment communicate to them. Now, instead of controlling each device separately via one of an assortment of apps you’ll need to download, the hub acts as a single point of control for all of them.
One problem for hubs is that smart devices, especially those made for the home, do still run on different communication protocols. Getting manufacturers to all accept a single communication standard would be difficult, if not downright impossible. Many are skeptical that manufacturers will adopt open and universal standards, and it’s a very real possibility that proprietary protocols will define which devices and hubs are compatible with one another. Partner networks of device and hub manufacturers could limit the choices that you have when you’re deciding which devices to install in your home. One solution to that would be an open communication standard — one that every manufacturer and every device can use.
URLs and other universal standards
Google has its own vision for interaction with smart devices — one where you don’t need an app for every single one. With its newly unveiled, open-source Physical Web project, pioneered by interaction and UX designer Scott Jenson, Google wants to prepare the Internet of Things for a future where you can “walk up and use anything,” easily interacting with connected devices on their mobile devices without the need to install an app for every device. Google writes that interaction on demand is the “core superpower” of the web, and people should be able to walk up to any smart device — vending machines, posters, toys, bus stops, and rental cars are the examples that Google gives — and interact with it without needing to download an app first.
Google theorizes that, given that the number of smart devices is expected quickly reach into the billions — with Cisco projecting 50 billion by 2020 — it’s unrealistic to expect that every device can require users to download an app. Google is quick to note that the Physical Web isn’t about replacing native apps, but is instead an open standard aimed at enabling interaction in situations where native apps aren’t practical. On the project’s GitHub page, Google explains how the standard works:
“The Physical Web extends the web we know into the physical world around us. This involves creating an open ecosystem where smart devices can broadcast URLs into the area around them. Any nearby display such as a phone or tablet can then see these URLs and offer them up to the user. It mirrors the basic behavior we have today with a search engine: The user requests a list of what’s nearby. A ranked list of URLs is shown. The user picks one. The URL is opened in a full screen browser window.”
For the prototype of the Physical Web — which Google notes should be built in to the operating system of future smartphones, tablets “and anything with a screen really” — Google is building an app “that tries not to feel like an app.” It runs in the background, monitoring beacons that users can browse when they’re interested. There will be no notifications, unless the user opts in, and by default they will see nearby devices only when they intentionally ask to see them. As connected devices proliferate, the “phone agent” can sort detected devices by signal strength, by the user’s preferences and history, or many other factors. The current method sees the beacon on each device broadcasting a Bluetooth Low Energy signal, and the phone gathers the information without connecting to the beacon, so that you can’t be tracked just by walking past a beacon.
For devices that aren’t used in public spaces — where Google suggests the standard initially be implemented — URLs could be obfuscated, web pages could require a login, the URL could be constantly changed, or the URL could reference an IP address accessible only to devices connected to the local network. Google notes that the URL “is a known part of the web, very flexible, and most importantly, decentralized. URLs allow anyone to play and no central server to be the bottleneck. This is one of the core principles of the web and critical to keep alive.”
Once every smart device can have a web address, our interaction with smart devices will be more practical and less app-centric. Google notes that a bus stop could tell you the time that the next bus is arriving, parking meters and vending machines could enable quick and easy payments, or a Zipcar could broadcast a signup page, all without requiring you to download and launch an app. “The Physical Web approach unlocks tiny use cases that would never be practical…These examples are about little bits of data and very simple interactivity. Sometimes it’s the tiny ideas that can change the world.”
While Bluetooth is ubiquitous in mobile devices, which makes it a great choice for a platform that would enable users to communicate with the devices and beacons in front of them — its range isn’t long enough to enable you to control the connected devices in your smart home from work, for example.
Open source advocates hope that open, universal standards can prevent the fragmentation of the Internet of Things, in your home or in public. The Linux Foundation created the AllSeen Alliance and released open-source code called AllJoyn that any manufacturer can use to connect its devices with other devices. AllJoyn enables users to detect nearby devices, and control them via smartphone across wireless protocols and operating systems.
While an Internet of Things running primarily on open-source standards, as Google and the AllSeen Alliance envision, is likely a ways off, the idea is compelling, both for ease of use and for its inevitable democratization of the way the Internet of Things is controlled and developed.
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