Whenever we talk about the next big trends in tech, Internet of Things and Wearables always come up. The promise of a boom has, however, failed to materialize (excuse the slight pun).
That is not to say that it won’t happen though. Experts disagree on the exact size of this potential market, but predictions for the next 10 years’ growth tend to be in multi-trillion dollar range. Just like mobile and smartphone adoption, we’re essentially waiting for the tipping point where these technologies will be good enough, simple enough, and affordable enough to become pervasive.
In the meantime, many companies are hard at work innovating in that space, and many of them cluster in what might seem an unlikely corner of the world: Canada’s British Columbia province. Those lucky enough to have visited its capital Vancouver will know that there’s more to it than stunning scenery and wildlife. In terms of film and TV production, the city is the third largest centre in North America, losing out only to New York and Los Angeles. It is also home to thousands of ICT companies, earning it the nickname ‘Silicon Valley North’.
The government of the province is keen to promote this fact, which is why it brought a delegation of its rising tech stars across the pond to tech events. Looking at the DNA of some of these, a pattern of innovation in the IoT space emerges that suggests that it might be worth keeping an eye on the region. It is, after all, home to Sierra, the world’s largest machine-to-machine wireless company. The company was recently tipped as one of the top Canadian tech stocks to watch as it has squarely positioned itself in the middle of the sector. It specializes in creating embedded wireless modules that can fit into various objects, enabling network connectivity. Crucially, however, Sierra also invested in data analytics and cloud computing. These are the elements that can render those connected devices ‘smart’ and where the real game-changing possibilities lie.
Security then becomes a much bigger issue in that scenario, as it is clearly important to protect this myriad of personal devices against tampering, but it is impractical to embed each one with a separate security mechanism. Wedge Networks, based in Calgary, has developed a cloud-based cybersecurity solution that protects the entire network rather than requiring users to download and update software to individual devices. They predict that as the Internet of Things becomes more prevalent, the demand for this type of Security as a Service (SECaaS) will soar to an estimated $30 billion by 2020.
When people discuss how the Internet of Things will transform our homes and lives, they often have a hard time going beyond Nest or Smart Fridges that can tell you when you’ve run out of milk and order some for you. But the more interesting IoT applications probably won’t require you to purchase specific new devices or learn to operate them. They should gradually and seamlessly integrate into existing technologies and incrementally bring the physical and virtual world together.
One example of how this can work is the way Eventbase is using bluetooth Beacons. These low-energy flexible devices can be placed in any location and programmed to interact with smartphones and wearables. This meant that by placing one of those beacons inside a plant pot on a table, a conference attendee at last year’s Cannes Lions festival could order a complimentary glass of wine on their Apple Watch and have it delivered to their exact location in less than a minute.
On a similar vein, another coin-sized device named Linquet promises to make losing your valuables a thing of the past, allowing you to attach it to pretty much anything and then program it to alert you whenever an item moves out of a certain range. Again, the implications of building a smart network of such connected and programmable devices brings many tantalizing possibilities. The company already suggest that you could attach the device to a pet’s collar, for example, to prevent it wandering off. In future, however, could we make this technology small enough to include in microchips, so that we could locate lost pets automatically without the need for them to be handed into a vet and scanned?
Embedded sensors are definitely a trend with many interesting applications, such as the one developed by SoudOfMotion. Their inexpensive $50 sensor that can be mounted into shoes, limbs, oars, paddles and other equipment to track progress for both amateur and professional athletes. By using the Earth’s magnetic pole to measure pivotal motion, it works like a compass to provide much more accurate and reliable and granular data to help people improve their sporting technique.
It is easy to see how in the future these types of functionalities will be built into devices and automatically connected to networks. One company that demonstrates how that could work is ThinkEco Power, which developed a way to monitor household appliances without the need to install additional tracking devices. A sensor attached to a power cable can read the harmonics whenever an appliance is turned on, a processor reads the signature, and an algorithm deciphers which appliance it relates to. By learning people’s activity patterns, this sort of technology could be used to help prevent elderly and disabled people dying unnecessarily or suffering a stroke, heart attack or a preventable accident in their home. It means a person’s activity – or inactivity – can be monitored, so if regular actions such turning the TV and radio on, using equipment such as a walking assistant, turning on a hearing aid or even boiling the kettle fail to take place, a notification can be sent to a relative, neighbour, or even the emergency services. Further uses could see it detecting fire or CO hazards and turning off the mains to prevent further damage.
This all goes to show the possibilities as the technology scales up, as many of these are effectively prototypes. The Internet of Things is effectively in its infancy, but if the steepness of the mobile growth curve is anything to go by, we should brace for exponential growth, and looking at these early innovators provides a tantalising glimpse of what’s to come.