Narang N. Kishor, mentor and principal design architect of Narnix Technolabs has been closely watching the emerging Internet of Things and is deeply involved in its evolution. He feels that cross-domain expertise is one of the key requirements for the making of a successful IoT product. He voices his views on this, the evolution of M2M communications, components of the IoT, and other concerns such as infrastructure to be developed, mindset required by engineers and teams, and more…
Is the term M2M becoming obsolete now? And, do you think the Internet of Things is its next avatar? Could you explain the transition and the differences between the two?
No, M2M is still here to stay. M2M essentially was, and, in the industrial parlance is, still application-specific machine-to-machine communication with very definite functionality and expectations, with a controlled mode of communication. While IoT could be termed as its next avatar, it is going to see a whole set of new avatars in next few years and decades, because IoT is about “Connected Intelligence”, a sort of “universal global neural network” in the cloud. The IoT comprises of smart machines interacting and communicating with other machines, objects, environments and infrastructures. As a result, huge volumes of data are being generated, and that data is being processed into useful actions that can “command and control” things to make our lives much easier and safer—and to reduce our impact on the environment. The creativity of this new era is boundless, with amazing potential to improve our lives.
Having said that, we need to understand the underlying pervasiveness of the embedded processing, and revolutions in communication and sensors technologies. These developments in the last few decades have catapulted the homogenous M2M networks into heterogeneous global neural networks of “aware” and interconnected devices with unique IDs, interacting with other machines/objects, infrastructure, and the physical environment.
The IoT is probably too broad a term for people to focus on. Could you, specifically, name some of the exciting technologies that are beginning to surround us today (signs of coming of the IoT)?
Well, IoT is all about heterogeneous and aware devices interacting to simplify people’s life in some way or the other.
One of the most profound (exciting as well as terrifying) technologies is “Augmented Reality”. Augmented reality (AR) is altering the way the world or immediate environment is viewed, especially for the users of this technology. Imagining the way the world would appear and be experienced, while walking or driving down the street. With AR displays, informative graphics will appear in the corner of the glass, and an audio prompt, would inform about whatever one is seeing. This information will be refreshed in tandem with movements of the wearer. Similar technology is already available in smartphones. And, Google Glasses are already here.
Another up-and-coming technology is: the ability of smartphones to communicate via NFC and Wi-Fi with a range of devices, including wristwatches, healthcare sensors and home entertainment systems. The public is already captivated by the vision of being able to control everything in their homes and offices, from temperature, lighting and security to using devices to brew cups of coffee, program entertainment, check health records, and conduct a myriad other tasks.
Enterprises are also beginning to embrace IoT for tracking physical assets, managing customer relationships, and creating efficiencies in business operations and supply chains.
What do you think are the key components of the IoT – and at what stages of maturity are these? Which, of these components/ frameworks do you think needs to really develop very fast in order to give the IoT the required momentum?
The key components of the IoT are: sensing nodes, local embedded processing nodes, connectivity nodes, software to automate tasks and enable new classes of services, remote embedded processing nodes, and last but not the least full security across the signal path.
To give IoT the required momentum, device management platforms, cloud computing and big data sciences in the virtual world are already flourishing and well geared up to meet the expectations of the designers. But, the physical world needs to catch up. The wireless and networking technologies need to mature very fast; we need innovative approaches in deployment of large sensor (and actuator) networks.
Bringing the “Internet of Things” to life requires a comprehensive systems approach, inclusive of intelligent processing and sensing technology, connectivity, software and services, along with a leading ecosystem of partners.
What are the hurdles in the way of the slowly expanding IoT?
The IoT value chain is perhaps the most diverse and complicated value chain of any industry or consortium that exists in the world. In fact, the gold rush to IoT is so pervasive that if you combine much of the value chain of most industry trade associations, standards bodies, the ecosystem partners of trade associations and standards bodies, and then add in the different technology providers feeding those industries, you get close to understanding the scope of the task.
In this absolutely heterogeneous scenario, coming up with a common harmonized standards is a major hurdle.
The other hurdle is – viable and acceptable business models of services based on the IoT. Convergence of the multitude of stakeholders of the IoT ecosystem to common business models and standards is a major imperative for the wide acceptance of the IoT wave by the masses.
We need to see acceleration and a maturing of common standards, more cross-sector collaboration and creative approaches to business models.
Is cross-domain expertise key to developing an IoT product? Could you explain with an example?
YES, I strongly believe it to be the main competence and skill set to develop successful and reliable IoT products, systems and/or solutions. Internet, per se, has been considered the forte and playing field of software professionals. But, IoT brings new challenges in the way of sensor fusion, communication technologies and energy/power management of the edge nodes. Unless, a designer can design most optimized edge nodes and communication nodes, the solution shall not pass the acid test of reliable and sustained performance in the field deployment environment.
In fact, every true IoT application or solution needs cross-domain expertise. Let us consider a smart home, a smart building or a smart healthcare scenario, each use-case needs understanding of respective sensing technologies, be it the health of a person or the environmental parameters like temperature, pressure, humidity, light intensity or electrical parameters like voltage, current, power, energy, power factor etc. Unless you capture the relevant data in the correct perspective, you shall never be able to give any meaningful data to the next building block for intelligent processing. Each use-case may need a different communication technology, for e.g., for health monitoring ZigBee or Bluetooth are considered most appropriate, while for remote energy, power or weather monitoring cellular communication may be more suitable; and within the building Ethernet communication becomes the logical choice. Then, let us consider the user interface. In some cases it may most appropriate to provide the relevant info on mobile devices, while in some cases you may need it on servers for Big Data analysis and presentation in various graphical report formats. Unless the design person or the team members have a combination of all relevant domains’ expertise, they shall never be able to come up with a reliable and user-friendly IoT solution.
For people/ start-ups wishing to work in this field, what kind of competencies do they need to develop?
I would sincerely recommend them to brush up their basic electronics fundamentals including but not limited to sensors, analog, power, RF and various compliance issues in hardware design. It would really help if they have in depth understanding of the different communication technologies, protocols and standards, particularly relevant to the domains relevant to their applications. Understanding of security, privacy and socio-ethical implications of the solutions, services and applications they are trying to develop. Please note, embedded processing, data analytics and other software skills are already considered as a must, so I am not delving into those.
What will be the key takeaway for engineers and techies attending your talk at eRocks ‘13?
The key takeaway of my talk shall be a reiteration of what Albert Einstein said ages back – “We can’t solve problems by using the same thinking we used when we created them.”
In my talk, I intend to give an insight into the different skillsets and competencies needed to design various components of the “Internet of Things” devices, systems and solutions. I shall delve into the importance of “cross-domain” expertise; open and interoperable standards, protocols and interfaces, security, and privacy & socio-ethical issues. Last but not the least, I shall be emphasizing the comprehensiveness of the approach needed to bring the IoT to life, which needs to include sensing technology, intelligent embedded processing, connectivity, software and services in a homogenous manner.