Electronic Design
Consumer IoT Charges Ahead

Consumer IoT Charges Ahead

The Internet of Things remains vaguely defined, but that hasn’t halted the flood of consumer IoT products on the market.

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The Internet of Things remains vaguely defined, but that hasn’t halted the flood of consumer IoT products on the market. They are coming in all shapes and sizes, utilizing every type of sensor, and using almost every wireless connectivity mechanism known to man—from near-field communication (NFC) with door locks to Bluetooth 4.0 for proximity sensing.

These days, talking about Wi-Fi enabled refrigerators or washing machines is downright commonplace, and our cars often have move computing elements that the home. I’ll leave cars to another time and concentrate on some of the IoT consumer solutions already available.

Sporting IoT

One of the first low-cost sensors was the 3D accelerometer, which was in the first Fitbit sports tracker I had. That utilized a USB interface with its own wireless connectivity, but it was useful and waterproof. The Fitbit Zip (Fig. 1) has replaced the original tracker, adding Bluetooth 4.0 support that allows it to link to most smartphones.

Fig. 1
1. Fitbit’s Zip (a) is a basic fitness tracker while the Charge (b) adds features like sleep tracking. The Surge (c) is a full-fitness smartwatch with a heart rate monitor and GPS tracker, and links to a smartphone.

Of course, there is an app for that. This tends to be true for most IoT devices; many have limited or no display to speak of, but they typically are full of sensors, microcontrollers, and a communication link. This allows the Fitbit Charge to add functionality like sleep tracking, as well as tracking the number of floors climbed.

The Fitbit Surge moves into the smartwatch arena with features like text notifications and control of music apps. It includes the features of the Charge, plus a heart rate monitor and GPS tracker. Not bad for a smartwatch with a seven-day battery life.

Time for IoT

It is always fun to listen to people argue about the merits of fitness trackers versus smartwatches, given the amount of crossover between the two categories. Much of the debate centers around where they differ. A fitness tracker with a display can easily show the time and the number of steps taken, but not much else. A smartwatch tends to be distinguished by its display adding a more robust user interface.

Fig. 2
2. The Apple Watch (a) with its NFC support and the Pebble Steel (b) watch with its low-power, color e-paper display, highlight the range of functionality available with smartwatches.

The Apple Watch and Pebble's Steel smartwatches (Fig. 2) are just two out of dozens of options available to consumers. While smartwatches can be found for under $100, more pricey models tend to be the norm, with many pushing style over functionality. The ability to install and use applications also tends to differentiate a smartwatch from more basic fitness trackers. This means more processing power, more memory, and hence a shorter battery life. As with smartphones, the display tends to be a major power hog, although the e-paper watches usually have multi-day battery life.

Smartwatches also tend to have more sensors. Some even have cameras built into the watch. Their connectivity can sometimes allow them to operate without close proximity to a smartphone within although they tend to be used more to augment a smartphone rather than replace it. One feature that is emerging is NFC support that can be used for electronic payment already found with some smartphones. Placing the smartwatch next to a payment kiosk is often more convenient than pulling out a smartphone.

Healthy IoT

The tracking features found in fitness bands and many smartwatches can help improve a person’s health—providing information about movement and pulse rate—but this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mobile medical devices. The challenge for developers in this space is where and how devices will be prescribed and used. Medical devices that require FDA approval will be more targeted and more expensive because of the need to meet FDA requirements. This includes medical IoT devices like a mobile electrocardiogram (EKG). This still leaves a lot of possibilities that do not target that end of the market.

Fig. 3
3. Samsung’s SleepSense fits between a box spring and mattress to track a person's sleep pattern.

One example of a sleep-related IoT device is Samsung’s SleepSense (Fig. 3). This wireless device fits between the box spring and a mattress, helping to track sleep patterns without requiring the consumer to wear a fitness band or other device. Its on-board sensors track movement and other information to analyze sleep patterns.

The SleepSense app provides visual feedback to users. It can also connect to other device—enabling it, for instance, to turn off a television when a person goes to sleep. Its alarm features a gradual alarm instead of a loud ringing that can leave a person dazed and irritable. The alarm is synched with sleep patterns to select the user’s optimal wake-up time.

The system can also adjust heat and air conditioning temperature settings to increase comfort. Samsung claims a 97% accuracy rate using its real-time contactless sensor to track heart and respiratory rates in addition to movement.

IoT Home

Home automation has been around for ages, with technologies such as the venerable X10 being challenged by other wired, wireless technologies and powerline technologies like SmartHome’s Insteon. Wireless standards groups like the ZigBee Alliance and Z-Wave Alliance have standards or profiles that target home automation and related areas such as lighting and HVAC.

Fig. 4
4. Kwikset’s Kevo Bluetooth Electronic Lock door locks use Bluetooth 4.0 to link with a smartphone app.

The twin challenges for home automation solutions are cost and complexity. In the past, costs were very high, and set up and management were typically delegated to professionals. Wiring was often an issue and wireless was the exception rather than the rule. These days, wireless is at least a component of the solution. This includes all wireless technologies from NFC to Wi-Fi. Low-power solutions even make battery operation practical for many components.

Much has changed, although home automation costs are still nowhere near the cost for non-enabled systems. It is hard to argue with a light switch that costs under a dollar, although you do have to walk near it to be able to turn it on or off. Still, there are neat implementations that offer compact solutions that are remarkably easy to install and use. Sengled Pulse Solo is an LED lightbulb with a stereo speaker. It has Bluetooth connectivity for control and audio streaming. Lifx chose Wi-Fi for its lightbulb. The Original is equivalent to a 75-W bulb, delivering 16 million colors or 1,000 shades of white. Of course, there is an app for adjusting brightness and color.

I have had an electronic door lock with a combination for many years, but with Kwikset’s Kevo door lock family (Fig. 4) I could use my Samsung Galaxy with their Kevo app to unlock my doors. There are door locks that use NFC or proprietary wireless solutions but Kwikset uses Bluetooth 4.0 found in most newer smartphones. A keyfob is included.

The Kevo Bluetooth Electronic Lock works similar to the keyless entry systems for cars. The smartphone can remain in your pocket with Bluetooth enabled. You touch the lock to lock or unlock the door. The cloud can be used to share eKeys that would enable other smartphones to unlock the door. The lock does not require an Internet connection, although it does run on batteries. It supports a physical key and Kwikset’s SmartKey Re-keying technology. This allows anyone to rekey a lock, not just a locksmith.

Fig. 5
5. The Nest Thermostat (a) has been joined by the Protect alarm (b) and Camera (c) with a common app (d) but they also work with a growing number of third party products.

One name that keeps popping up in the home automation discussion is Nest. Now part of Google, it started with the Next Thermostat. The family now includes the Nest Protect and Nest Camera (Fig. 5).

What sets Google’s Nest apart is that the API and infrastructure that are available to developers of so many other IoT devices (not just for the home) are often highlighting Nest support. This is probably the closest to a generic IoT environment that a consumer will be seeing at this point. Many of the other IoT-related products in general tend to be siloed, with the smartphone being the common element. Exchange of information between devices is less common. Nest-compatible devices include ones like the Samsung’s SleepSense.

IoT Whitegoods

People would scoff at the thought of an Internet refrigerator or washing machine when the additional cost was more on par with putting a laptop into the device and the need for large screens was driven by standalone operation.

Fig. 6
6. LG’s Twin Wash supports Wi-Fi and NFC for wireless connectivity.

Well, things have changed—starting with smartphones and tablets providing a more robust interaction with these devices. It will be more common for a consumer to be “programming” a device using a smartphone rather than interacting with a user interface on a device. That is not to say that these devices will be totally headless, but rather, the functionality of the device’s user interface will tend to be more limited. This will allow for smaller displays while providing more advanced functionality.

For example, LG’s Twin Wash (Fig. 6) includes Wi-Fi and NFC support. This allows a smartphone application to control the type of cycle, in addition to knowing when the cycle is complete. The Twin Wash is actually two washing machines in one. The conventional washer is on top while a second, smaller unit is hidden in the drawer normally used for storage. The two can operate independent of each other with the smartphone app having access to each.

The Twin Wash’s second washing unit differentiates it somewhat from more conventional washing machines, but the control panel console is similar. The added IoT functionality is accessible from the console, though the smartphone application handles the heavy lifting when it comes to a graphical user interface.

Most consumer IoT devices tend to be custom-made to reduce size and improve ease of use and presentation style. Larger devices can take advantage of modules like Samsung’s ARTIK platform. The smallest is the ARTIK 1 coming in at 12-mm by 12-mm. It has Bluetooth/BLE support in addition to a nine-axis sensor. It is designed for low-power operation with security designed into the hardware. Of course, it comes with its own ARTIK IoT stack,—joining the many others like ARM’s mbed and the Thread Group’s Thread framework—but that is another story.

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