IoT opens doors for innovation | Crain's Austin

IoT opens doors for innovation

  • Dave Brixius explains the usefulness of IoT items. | Crain National photo by Kimberly Reeves.

  • Darren Swan, a software engineer in Austin, uses the IoT to make life easier for his wife. | Crain National photo by Kimberly Reeves.

Dave Brixius is one of the IT guys you hire when you have a good "internet of things" idea you think might have a chance of catching on in the tech market.

The internet of things, a recent wave in the tech industry, is both new and old. The scope and tasks of the assembly line in the industrial age first executed the idea of machines being able to “talk” to one another, the first triggering a task or action in the next.

Now in the age of the Wi-Fi and the cloud, those same machines – and many others – can relay messages, trigger actions and create a feedback loop of reactions. Think of a refrigerator that can alert your cell phone that a water filter needs to be replaced or an ingestible pill sensor that can recommend the timing of critical medication or even the combination of movement sensors in your smart phone that can offer up feedback on your workout.

Brixius, who has a computer science degree and a mechanical drafting background, had one client who suggested creating a leak detection system. The idea was to place a small sensor box under each sink in an apartment, both bathroom and kitchen. When the sensor got wet, it would trigger the circuitry inside the box to send a message back to the main server. That server, in turn, would generate the emails and text messages to maintenance staff and residents.

“That’s valuable, especially on the upper floors,” Brixius said. “Think of the tenant being out. People have water coming down on them in the units below, and the apartment manager has to figure out where the leak started.”

That’s the idea: machines that can talk to one another. And with the rise of hobby kits – which have components to create smart gadgets, link circuit boards and provide cloud connection – almost anyone with a basic background in electronics can master IoT. That’s led to an IoT Meetup group that has picked up 2,900 members in the last four years. 

For some, the Meetup group is useful for locking down jobs. For others, the purpose is more meaningful. For Darren Swan, of Austin, a software engineer, the goal is to make his wife’s life easier. She has limited mobility and Swan is creating a plug-in station for all of the home appliances.

“When I connect it to the network, she can login in from her iPad to turn the outlets on and off,” Swan said. “Most of the time, one of us will be with her, but this makes it all much easier for her, even if it’s something as simple as turning the lights on and off.”

Members of the group have a variety of backgrounds in tech. Dave Schudel’s background is in application development, but he sees an entire field of IoT security ahead, especially when people are buying a gadget off the web.

“You really don’t understand what you run into when you start buying things from other people,” Schudel said. “There have been too many cases when you buy these cheap webcams from overseas, but it comes with a back door for hackers. You can have all the security in the world on your computer, but you don’t understand the vulnerabilities.”

That’s also going to be true of business, Schudel said. The goal of IoT is the proper use of data, and the more a business relies on data to execute its operations, the more potential there is for hacking. For instance, a supermarket might be executing temperature controls for all its freezers from a desktop application. All aspects of that system must be secured.

“The more you rely on data, the more you use your app to manage something, the greater the security threshold,” Schudel said. “In theory, you’re giving someone the opportunity to try to hack into your system and turn off your freezers.”

The potential growth of the IoT industry is great from any number of areas beyond the creation of the gadget. One recent presentation to the Austin IoT Meetup group discussed augmented reality, which is something like virtual reality, except it augments what a person is seeing.

A person brought in to fix a microwave oven, for instance, could put on a headset and see instructions and part numbers overlaid on the product. One tap, and the person could be watching a video showing step-by-step instructions to fix that particular model.

“You’re looking at dynamic data. You could communicate in real time,” Brixius said. “I see that and light bulbs go off in my head. I start thinking about what I could create.”

April 17, 2018 - 12:29pm