Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Things on the Internet

April 2013

By Mike Gould

Now that we have this massively interconnected series of tubes going on, why should we restrict it just to humans? Let’s get our household appliances involved!

This being the jolly month of April and all, I was going to write a hilarious email conversation between my toaster, refrigerator and vacuum cleaner. But a quick dose of reality via some research revealed that we’re dealing with more than talking ovens here, so here is a brief rundown of machine-to-machine (M2M) / Internet of Things (IoT) issues and news.

Say Hello to our Robot Overlords
In the IoT realm, there is a trade group devoted to making this come to pass (URL below). And of course, there is a standards group developing the language your toaster can use to IM your vacuum cleaner: the Message Queuing Telemetry Transport (MQTT) Technical Committee.

On the human side of the Internet we use a language called HTTP (Hyper Text Transfer Protocol) for web behaviors. This provides your browser with the use of text, images, sounds, video, or whatever else floats the boat of the human senses.

Machines don’t need any of the above. An automated peanut packer system just needs to know how many bags it has available, how fast the line is moving, and how many peanuts are in the hopper. Using M2M technology, the peanut packer can query the bag loading machine, “talk” to the gizmo running the loader line, and using the sensor in the hopper to measure the quantity of peanuts, coordinate the entire system to output bagged peanuts in an economical fashion. The evolving language of such communication is the MQTT protocol mentioned above.

The MQTT website describes things thusly:

MQTT stands for MQ Telemetry Transport. It is a publish/subscribe, extremely simple and lightweight messaging protocol, designed for constrained devices and low-bandwidth, high-latency or unreliable networks. The design principles are to minimize network bandwidth and device resource requirements whilst also attempting to ensure reliability and some degree of assurance of delivery.

In other words, simplified yet robust language that machines can use to communicate their needs, reports, and production and other issues. This can run over the Internet, or dedicated wired connections, or whatever is needed. But since we’re talking IoT, let’s consider the implications of machine conversation over WiFi.

When What Happens at Home Ends Up on the Internet
I am actually already doing this: when I replaced our garage door opener last year, I popped for a Sears jobbie that has an Internet interface. Yeah, there’s an app for that: I can use my iPhone to get on the Web, find my opener, and open or close the door from anywhere in the world that has a connection to the WWW. This was handy back when we had three cars and two openers; since we pared back to two cars this hasn’t seen much use. The connection is encrypted so hackers can’t worm their way into my garage. I should probably disconnect this so I don’t get a garage virus or something, as I am sure that Chinese hackers are already working on breaking into it.

And DTE has recently wired up their power meters to send reports back to their mothership as to your energy use and such. This last has generated (so to speak) a bit of controversy, as it enables Big Energy to track your usage and use that data for whatever benevolent or sinister ends may be in store, depending on your take on the situation. More information about this in the article I wrote about Big Data, URL below.

Living In the Technical Vastness of the Future
But the end of all this data flow is information on someone’s computer/smartphone/pad monitor. The peanut packer computer runs the show, and sends data to human supervisors as well as its subsidiary components. At some point, there is always a human in the flow, which brings us back to how this might all work in a home situation. Most of the issues are being worked out in industrial situations; how might they apply to the House of the Future?

The first thing that has to happen is outfitting appliances, electrical systems and plumbing with sensors. These have to be super cheap, reliable, and network-connected. They all “talk” to some entity or collection of entities on the Internet, or maybe they are tied into your house computer, which could be your present computer or a dedicated HouseBot© that reports to you via email or whatever. We are getting pretty close to the above now; things just need to get cheaper, more integrated, and most of all, compliant with standards such as MQTT (which is still in development).

Calling All Houses
So here is a quickie scenario of what this might look like, a few years from now. First thing in the morning, you get an email from your HouseBot:

Dear beloved occupant: Here is your report for the last 24 hours:

Your TempuTron 500 thermostat has kept the average indoor temperature at your setting of 69 degrees yesterday. Your wife set it back down to 65 after you went to sleep, but the average stands.

The General Eclectic refrigerator reports that the buttermilk in the back of the second rack has started to go bad; you might want to replace that, what with weekend pancakes coming up and all.

Mr. BraveLittleToaster is complaining about a buildup of crumbs, and mentions this has been attracting attention from a certain mouse that the family cat has been unable to catch. You should look into one of those new RamboRumba pest vacs.

TubbyToilet reports that you might want to cut back on your drinking, as excessive enzymes are starting to make it past your kidneys.

And those guys in China are still trying to break into your garage door system. I have kept them at bay, but you might want to upgrade to that HouseGuard 3000 AV software I’ve requested in the past.

Yours truly, Your House.

Big Data

Internet of Things Consortium

Message Queuing Telemetry Transport

Mike Gould is not sure he wants email from his can opener, was a mouse wrangler for the U of M for 20 years, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Digital Photography mega-mall, builds laser display devices, performs with the Illuminatus 2.2 Lightshow, and welcomes comments addressed to

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