Like almost everyone, Janice Cheam has left home and then wondered if the oven was still on. You know how it goes.
“You have that sketchy moment, where you’re like, ‘Okay, do we have to turn back or do we keep going? What should we do here?’” Cheam told the Georgia Straight in Energy Aware Technology’s Chinatown office.
Cheam is the founder and CEO of the Vancouver-based company. It’s developing a “smart home” platform called Neurio that will, among other things, notify you via your smartphone if you forget to turn off your oven or lights. Neurio is just one example of the work being done to build the Internet of Things (IoT).
A significant step forward in the evolution of the Internet, IoT involves the embedding of sensors in all kinds of physical objects. These are linked through networks to computers that analyze the vast amounts of data they produce.
In a June report, market-research firm IDC Canada said IoT—also known as “Machine to Machine”—is “enabling innovation and transforming Canadian business and society”. Commissioned by Telus, the report defines IoT as a “network of networks of uniquely identifiable end points (or things) that communicate without human interaction using IP [Internet Protocol] connectivity—be it locally or globally”.
“At the heart of IoT are intelligent systems that connect devices, automate processes, and transmit data,” the report states. “The data derived from machines, sensors or other connected things is inherently valuable, improving processes and decision-making in a variety of situations.”
In March and April, IDC surveyed 209 medium and large Canadian businesses and discovered that only six percent of them had deployed an IoT solution. However, the survey found that another seven percent were preparing to implement an IoT solution this year and an additional 30 percent planned to do so within the next 24 months.
With US$441.9 million in revenue in 2013, Sierra Wireless is one of B.C.’s largest tech companies. Larry Zibrik, vice president of market development for Sierra, told the Straight his firm is completely focused on IoT.
Zibrik noted that Sierra’s main business is its AirPrime wireless modules, which are embedded by manufacturers in numerous devices. For example, Sierra’s products are found in Chrysler cars, Cisco routers, and Nespresso coffee machines. He said that a challenge for industry is to prove the value of connecting all of these things.
“For businesses, it’s return on investment, preventing truck rolls, maximizing the uptime of an asset, monitoring an asset so you can do preventative maintenance or performance-gathering,” Zibrik said by phone from Sierra’s head office in Richmond. “Whether it’s a remote diesel generator or an electric meter or anything of that nature, they can get things in the system to be much more efficient by understanding the real-time data coming off of the device.”
Zibrik called IoT a “game-changer” that will reshape how business is done by many companies. He maintained that business-to-business applications will lead the way, followed by consumer applications.
“Every little widget in your life can be connected,” Zibrik said. “The question is, do you want it?”
According to Ning Nan, an assistant professor in the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, IoT is part of the shift to a “sharing economy”, which is being led by Airbnb, Uber, and other companies. She told the Straight that the installation of sensors in large numbers of objects will decentralize decision-making. For instance, with real-time information about supply and demand, two people travelling to the same place might decide to share a taxi.
“That kind of reduces consumption and increases efficiency,” Nan said by phone from UBC’s Point Grey campus. “Previously, without such information, then they just had to rely on whatever they could see.”
Nan suggested that all of this data will help governments and businesses make better decisions as well as automate more of them. But she noted IoT presents privacy and security concerns. Legal issues could arise around ownership of the data collected by sensors, Nan added.
At Energy Aware’s office, vice president of software Ali Kashani explained that Neurio doesn’t require the placement of sensors in every home appliance. Since all electronic devices have a power signature, all that’s needed is a Wi-Fi power sensor in your circuit-breaker panel.
Kashani told the Straight that Neurio—which can be pre-ordered for US$224—is the “brain of the home”, not a “fancy” remote control, like other smart-home products. It can notify you when your oven has finished preheating, if you forget to start the dryer after the washer finishes, or you leave a hair-curling iron plugged in. Neurio even learns from your behaviour, so the related smartphone app will eventually only bug you about important things.
“Now in your pocket, it’s your phone that is reminding you no matter if you are downstairs, taking the garbage out, listening to music in the living room,” Kashani said. “So it’s going to change the way that home operates.”
Cheam predicts that Neurio will make the home “become an active member of the family”. She said that in the coming years, Neurio will be integrated with other smart-home products in order to automate routine tasks such as brewing coffee in the morning.
“The home of the future, I would say, it’s more about anticipating and getting you that information when you need it, without you having to go and search for it,” Cheam said.