protoTYPING: the Internet of Things

protoTYPING: the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things: a two-part series exploring the history of IoT

I can remember the first time that the internet felt powerful to me. I was a freshman at Union College in 1998 and just starting my engineering journey. My friend Tally had just had one of her best high school friends come to visit her all the way from Denver to our sleepy upstate NY campus. After a weekend of partying and merry making with the two of them, I exchanged email addresses with her friend and we started a brief email friendship. One day I wrote an email to her and made a sarcastic comment about Tally. Within the hour, Tally was in my dorm room chewing me out about how offended she was about my comment. Until that moment, I considered the internet to be more of a silly diversion to see disgusting pictures from or for playing Snood. That day made me realize that if it could cause a rift in a friendship, it was a much more powerful tool than I had given it credit for. Fast forward almost 20 years, and the internet is like the air we breathe. It is ever-present and a necessary part of our lives for communication, work and entertainment.

The Nott Memorial at Union College.

The Nott Memorial at Union College.

Until recently, the internet was mostly a network for computers to talk to each other with little influence on the physical world outside of those borders. However, the phenomena of the ?Internet of Things? (IoT) is changing all that. The IoT is the term used to describe the network and devices that communicate to and are controlled via the internet. Connected devices can help us monitor our home or fitness, help us to curb bad behaviors, help us find our lost items or any number of the ever-expanding applications. This is the first of a two part series on IoT devices. This installment will discuss?the history of the IoT and the different types of IoT devices. The second installment will reveal the architecture of an IoT network and discuss prototyping methods for IoT innovations.


The term ?Internet of Things? was coined in 1999 by a Proctor and Gamble employee named Kevin Ashton who used it to describe RFID technology for supply chain management. It may have taken a while to put a name to connected devices and their environment, but they had been in development for years before that. In the 1980s, Carnegie Mellon retrofitted a Coca Cola machine that had network connectivity to tell users if there was a drink available in the machine. This pre-internet application was limited to a few geeky users, but the first IoT device that generated mainstream buzz was the webcam. The first webcams were single frame still cameras, and they were thrust into the mainstream when the website went live in 1996. Then college student Jennifer Ringley hacked a webcam to take a photo inside her dorm room every 15 minutes and post it to her website. The uncensored behind-the-scenes shots captivated the nation and thrust Ringley into the national spotlight, even getting her an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman.

It was not until about 10 years later that products that were specifically designed for the IoT started hitting the market in earnest, and first blood was in the fitness and home automation categories. In 2007, Nike collaborated with Apple to create the Nike+ system, which used a vibration sensor installed in a sneaker that communicated with a dongle attached to an iPod. This allowed for data from the sneaker to be sent to the iPod which was then uploaded to a website. Users could track their performance and share with the community.

In 2011 the Nest smart thermostat was launched, which was the breakthrough IoT device for the home. It can sense when you are home, learn your schedule, and is wifi connected so that it can be controlled from anywhere. Its success has made Nest a household name, and they have extended their smart home line of products to include a smoke alarm and security cameras.

The Nest smart thermostat.

The Nest smart thermostat from Alex Werbickas.

These products are just a couple of the most impactful in IoT history, but certainly not the last. The incredible sales and consumer interest in these devices have opened the floodgates and there are slew of new IoT devices being launched every year in a variety of consumer categories.

Types of IoT Devices

There are a plethora of products that are in the category of connected devices, but they can be grouped into categories based on their functionality. The three main types are single ended, bidirectional and hubs.

Single ended IoT devices are products where the communication between the device and internet only goes one way. An example is a home monitoring device that reports a measured metric like temperature or humidity via a wireless connection to a web server. The data can then be viewed by a computer or smart device. However, the computer or smart device monitoring the sensor cannot send any data back to it to control the environment being monitored. These types of devices are the most common as they are the easiest to design and deploy.

The Amazon Dash buttons are another example of a single-ended IoT device. The user presses the button on the device and a signal is transmitted over the web to the Amazon store to order a prescribed amount of a product.

protoTYPING: Internet of Things

This temperature sensor in my greenhouse monitors the temperature and humidity in the growing area and sends data to the web and to my phone.

This temperature sensor in my greenhouse monitors the temperature and humidity in the growing area and sends data to the web and to my phone.

Bi-directional IoT devices are products where there is two-way communication between the device and the monitoring system. In this instance, signals from the device are transmitted to a web server and data can be sent back to the device to affect its environment. Many home automation products are bi-directional. For example, the August Smart Lock home security system features a device that controls the lock on a house door and a connection to a smart phone. The lock reports back to the smart phone if the system has been unlocked by authorized users. It also allows the homeowner to send a signal to the lock from their phone to unlock the door. The Nest thermostat is another good example of a bi-directional IoT device as it can be monitored and controlled via the web.

There are also IoT devices that serve as a hub for other IoT products and serve as another gateway to the internet. These devices can control many other connected devices by voice command or via a smart device. The Amazon Echo is an example of a IoT hub. It can take voice commands to control multiple devices like speakers, the Nest thermostat, Phillips Hue smart lighting, and more. Since it is connected to the web, it can also report back the weather, access your calendar or report back other data. These types of products are becoming increasingly popular and other companies, like Google, are coming out with their own IoT hubs.

The Internet of Things has been around for many years, but has only just started to become relevant in the last decade. There is now a flood of new connected products to help us monitor and control our environments with a variety of different functionality, and new applications of the technology are being born everyday.

Part two of this series will cover the architecture of the IoT and how to prototype an IoT product.

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Also published on Medium.