Internet of Things: Not Just a Concept for Fund-Raising

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[This article is written by our Guest Editor Wenzhe Zhou, Co-founder of Brainpage which is a big-data processing & analysis startup with focus on cloud-based engine for time series data and sensors. Brainpage provides suppliers and developers dealing with time-series data access to an easy-to-use, scalable and flexible database and analysis system for time-series data.]

Internet of Things (IoT) has been one of the hottest keywords in China since Premier Wen Jaibao visited WuXi, Jiangsu in 2009. The city had quietly established itself as a center of Internet of Things (IoT) development in China and Wen’s visit and subsequent speeches elevated the nascent industry onto the national stage. Within months, IoT had risen to the government’s official work plan and quickly became a key strategic industry.

In China’s 12th, 5 year plan, IoT is one of the seven Strategic Emerging Industries with 5Billion RMB of government funding allocated during the next five years. Many local governments have also allocated significant funds to build “Smart Cities” as a means to jumpstart the market.

With large amounts of money on the table and an industry whose scope and objectives are at best loosely understood, the money chasing game is on full display. It’s not healthy, but the cash is sexy. Thus, when talking about IoT, people promptly connect it to the keywords “government money” and “concept”.

But IoT need not just be a concept nor a catchphrase to procure government funds. Much of the original ideas for the Internet of Things came from “Sensor Networks”, which already have decades of real-world applications and use cases – largely in the military and logistic areas. For example bar codes (and increasingly RFID) have long been used to give things a digital presence.

The purest formulation of IoT, however, offers much broader potential. When one considers that almost anything that detects change can be a sensor – from a web cookie to a moisture sensor on a farm, we can see how IoT offers the opportunity to make the world healthier and more efficient. Its not just about tracking the location of a package but about digitizing and optimizing our true interdependence. If you consider the core of social networks to be creating a digital map of our people to people relationships, then the opportunity for the Internet of Things is to map the ever-evolving relationships of the entire world.

While this is a grand vision, it’s the benefits from vertical applications that will currently drive the industry forward. In China, the industry is rapidly becoming more than just producing RFID tags. Jingpeng, a Chinese company focused on innovative technology for agriculture, has been applying IoT technology to green houses & indoor planting. Their system adjusts the environment to the most suitable conditions for plants through controlling the temperature, lighting, CO2 density and humidity. The goal is to spread indoor planting as a business model throughout China to meet the demands of food safety and urbanized lands.

In the energy sector, CSPTC, a LED lighting company, is applying IoT systems for increased power saving through their Energy Management System (EMS). “The LED lighting system can help save up to 70% percent of electricity each year. With the EMS, which uses sensors to automatically turn off unnecessary lighting, we can help our clients save another extra 10%.” said Mr. Yan, an engineer from the company.

Health care is another big area for immediate and practical applications of IoT. Trends in primary and elderly care are key drivers. People can have their blood pressure, body temperature, and heart rate remotely measured and transmitted to their residential community health center saving time and cost while improving medical outcomes. EtComm, a health care device vendor, has seen their business grow by addressing this segment and is currently spread over a couple of provinces of China. However, most of the projects they are involved in are still government purchases.

IoT is also applied into consumer electronics industry. Haier, the Chinese home appliance giant, launched a brainwave TV last October with NeuroSky, a US-based brainwave chipset company. Consumers can play games and interact with a few apps on TV, through a head-phone like device monitoring the user’s brainwave. It may take a certain while for this product to be widely promoted due to its high cost and limited contents to play with, however, it’s on the track.

While we are excited to see the IoT industry developing quickly in China, there are a few issues that we see as potential impediments for market driven growth:

  1. User Experience. Most of the projects we saw have little consideration about User Experience. The systems technically function well but give little consideration to how and why people will use them.. Thus, many of them lack user engagement and are unable to realize their potential.
  2. Cost. The high cost of end devices is a big challenge for the industry to be market driven. For example, wirelessly connecting a sensor to the internet requires either a gateway or 3G/GPRS SIM card and modem. None of these are cheap and for most application the cost is much more than what consumers are willing to pay.
  3. Power. Battery life is also another key for IoT products. Imagine your security camera needs to change battery every 3 days; it’s not something you are probably willing to do. Low power consumption technology will help increase user engagement.
  4. Sensor Technology. The physical world needs to be “reflected” by sensors. The development of sensor technology can greatly widen the opportunities of IoT, from telling the location of an object in logistics, to collecting your brainwave in medication. Maybe soon have a cheap and easy-to-use sensor to tell you the safety of your food.
  5. Data Manipulation. We can visualize a ubiquitous network in the near future, with people, things and vertical players connecting to each other easily. Undoubtedly, this will generate massive amount of data, rapidly changing – generally known as Big Data. In fact currently, the Internet experiences 50 percent data growth per year. Thus, being able to handle these data and query the right information is rather important.

Although issues are to be addressed, we see a bright future for Internet of Things ahead. The broad implementation of the technology may still need three years, five years, or ten years’ time, however, it’s definitely not just a concept now. No matter which industry you are in, you may have already been through the path from handwriting to computer archiving. Information technology will ultimately help you improve efficiency. So get ready for it, from now on.