“Electronics has encircled our everyday life. The physical objects we see around us, phones, automobiles, bicycles or electrical appliances, are all equipped with smarter technology, which is increasing our dependency on them. In this era, we are enabling the objects around us to perform various tasks independently or by following a single command without any error. Also, they are integrated with each other smartly. This trend is evolving as we get to see results that were at some point of time beyond our imagination. All this would not only ease our daily life with minimal usage of time but will also help us in a cost-efficient manner,” says Vivek Tyagi, country sales director, Freescale Semiconductor.
This is precisely what we have chosen to call the ‘Electronics of Things’—an age wherein embedded electronics has grown beyond elite objects into everyday ones, making them smarter and enabling them to do their and our jobs more efficiently.
Who would have imagined…?
A few years ago, who would have imagined electronics in coffee mugs, saucepans, innerwear, doctors’ prescriptions or even the capsules you swallow? Interestingly, today there are applications that surprise even those who have been in the field of electronics all their life!
Capsules. “One particular application that I could have never fathomed is ‘eating’ electronics. Today, we have X-ray capsules that, when a person eats, go inside the body and create three-dimensional images of the intestinal walls and transmit those images to a watch, phone or any handheld gadget, which can then also be transmitted over the Internet to share the results with the doctor. Who would have imagined such a gadget even five years ago?” says Tyagi. You can read more about the first non-invasive, prep-free imaging test for colon cancer at www.check-cap.com.
Pregnancy belts. Priya Kuber, managing director, Arduino India, an open source project at the forefront of DIY innovation, exclaims, “Many such examples! Recently, I saw a belly belt which tweets every time a baby kicks inside a pregnant woman.” Whilst that is something like the Kickbee baby movement detector and tweeter, the Huggies Pregnancy Belt is a bit more advanced—a pair of belts worn by the mom- and dad-to-be, which emulates the baby’s kicks in the father’s belt every time the baby kicks inside the mother’s womb.
Prescription apps. “A health application on the prescription (Rx)—one that can be prescribed by a physician”—that is what excites Vipin N., senior director-Advanced Technology, Ricoh Innovations Pvt Ltd. According to a survey conducted by Digitas Health in mid-2013, 90 per cent of chronic patients in the US would accept a mobile app prescription from their physician, as opposed to only 66 per cent willing to accept a written prescription of the medication. Also, a survey conducted around the same time by eClinicalWorks shows similar confidence exhibited by doctors. Prescription-ready mobile health apps are cropping up all over the world. For example, WellDoc’s BlueStar is a mobile-integrated therapy that can be prescribed through existing Rx channels, ‘bought’ at pharmacies and even paid for through health plans. It even has use-case indications, and such information clearly spelt out as in the case of regular medications! Carb Counting with Lenny and Pampers’ Hello Baby Pregnancy Calendar are some of the free apps that doctors are beginning to prescribe to their patients.
Medicines. Apart from medical devices and apps, electronics is also getting into medicine bottles and tablet strips. Engineers have developed medicine bottles that beep to remind patients to take their pre-measured dosage.
Fitness tools. Satish Mohanram, technical marketing manager, National Instruments, India, feels that a smart pedometer that tracks one’s activity level is a boon to a lot of people in today’s world. People sharing their activity levels from these devices and competing in the social space is a more interesting way of remaining motivated to be healthy!
Pots, pans and cups. Electronics entered the culinary space a long while ago, with microwaves, temperature-aware utensils, kettles and the like, but a self-stirring coffee mug truly takes the cake! “Self-stirring mug—this is something! A very simple piece of hardware is attached at the bottom of a mug that we use for tea or coffee on a daily basis; the small motor can stir the drink at the press of a button in the handle and it works on small pencil batteries. The hardware in itself is quite trivial but the application is not only interesting but also helpful,” says T. Anand, principal consultant, Knewron, a technology service firm. “These types of small innovations would be required in larger quantities to make electronics really pervasive in our daily life.”
Ice cubes and more. Nihal Kashinath, founder, IoTBLR, a Bangalore-based Internet of Things DIY group, says, “There are several such things—from T-shirts that have electronic displays and can tweet on their own, to electronic ice cubes that can keep track of how much you have had to drink at a party, pretty much anything can have electronics built into it.” At IoTBLR, members have recently built an electronic smart glove that enables gesture-based control, home automation like automatic light switches and water-level monitors, a pet feeder that can be activated remotely, etc. Currently, some groups are working on pollution-monitoring projects for smart cities whilst some other groups are working on building cloud-based infrastructure that electronic devices can plug into to become a part of the IoT.
Smartphones. In the light of such whacky examples, Jayraj Ugarkar, head, Internet of Things Centre of Excellence at Infosys Labs, gives a down-to-earth explanation as to why he finds the smartphone itself to be an amazing object of this era: “Granted, I come from a generation that used wired phones with rotary dials, and it is natural to be amazed by a fancy smartphone, but the amount of capabilities contained in today’s smartphone far outstrips what we use it for today. Sensors embedded in smartphones like gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer, GPS, gesture recognition and camera can sense our ambience, and software like analytics, event processors and augmented reality will change the way we use a smartphone. For example, it is possible for the gyroscope in your smartphone to detect how much you are swaying whilst walking after a session at the bar, which it can use to predict how bad your driving might be, and even instruct the car not to start! Another example is a gesture-based application that detects when a baby turns on his or her side in the crib. Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), which is caused by babies turning onto their sides whilst sleeping is the third leading cause of deaths in infants. As you can see, in each of these cases, the electronics embedded in them allows you to use the smartphone for completely new reasons far beyond communication and entertainment. The way smartphones are being used today is just the tip of a large iceberg. Over the next several decades, we will see some amazing and completely new uses of smartphones.”
Gecko. Ugarkar also finds the Gecko or Tile quite mesmerising. “A Gecko or Tile can be used to track your belongings. If you are like me and constantly lose things, then a Gecko or Tile can help you track and find it using your smartphone. The interesting part about Gecko is that it can be used for a lot of other things like detecting motion, gyroscope applications like waving to open a garage door, reminders to do physical things like closing a door, taking trash out, consuming a pill, etc. The number of applications is simply countless and I cannot think of all, but I strongly believe Gecko or Gecko-like devices will make things around us intelligent so that we can connect, communicate and command them.”
Smart meters, cards and accessories. The ‘smart list’ is endless, according to Anirban Dey, managing director, SAP Labs India. “Notably, we have smart meters, smart cards and smart accessories. Smart meters not only track the consumption but also send that data over wireless networks to the data centre on a continuous basis. Imagine an entire city being monitored by smart meters and then these meters sending information to a central station for billing purposes. At the end of the month, the bill is automatically generated and sent to the consumer via email and balance due is deducted from the bank account without requiring any human intervention. That is the age we are walking into! The amount of silicon that is getting installed into the modern-day cars is also mind-boggling. It not only calculates the optimal travel route but also monitors the health of the car from engine status to wheel pressure. The intelligence built into the chips can predict the service date and sets up an appointment at a nearby service centre for the same. Again, without any human intervention! The latest in silicon technology is what we call wearable devices. These modern accessories not only look fashionable but also have some serious brains behind them. They can monitor the heart rate, blood pressure, calories burnt, etc and pass on that information to smartphones for the purpose of analysis. The day is not far when the smart accessories you wear can predict your next ailment and automatically notify your physician for a check-up!” he explains.
What caused the sudden surge in electronics usage in everyday objects?
The range of electronics-embedded devices is simply unbelievable, but what has caused this sudden surge in the use of electronics in everyday objects?
Price and innovations in hardware. Shivesh Vishwanathan, senior consultant (Mobility)—Technology Consulting Group, Persistent Systems, explains, “There are two primary reasons for the increasing amount of electronics in day-to-day products. First, the price of electronics components has come down significantly and second, the innovations that are making hardware components smaller, more malleable, etc. These advances are really capturing people’s imagination and nothing seems to be out of bounds. The resulting effect is that the line between what we call computer and what we call everyday products is blurring. The software and electronics industries increasingly resemble the fashion or consumer goods industry with a lot of brands, consumer preferences playing pivotal roles, trends changing very fast, etc.”
Availability and programmability. Anand reasons further that, “About a decade ago, electronics was not as pervasive as it is today. Most of the electronics items were analogue and not very programmable. This was one of the impediments in making electronics more interesting and experimental. However, now almost everything has at least one microcontroller inside it and programmability has increased manyfold; which means one can easily hack into certain electronic gadgets or equipment and experiment with them. Moreover, all the electronic parts are easily available nowadays at relatively affordable prices. This phenomenon (of programmability and availability) has fuelled creative thinking in terms of usage and applications of electronics in daily life. Makers now can experiment with (less expensive) electronics and realise their imagination.”
Increasing comfort levels. The proliferation of smartphone could also be the reason for people’s increasing comfort (and dependency) in using technology for their everyday tasks. “Thanks in part to the smartphone revolution with its emphasis on apps, there has been a fundamental shift in the way people see electronic interfaces. They are also able to see the value that electronics adds to their life—they can do things better, faster, with less effort, etc, since electronics can handle the bulk of the task that people had to do previously. For this improved ability, convenience and comfort, they are willing to pay a good price. On the supply side, manufacturers have been quick to realise that there is a growing market for electronics in equipment and have started mass-producing such products, improving innovation and driving down costs, further fuelling demand. This kind of virtuous cycle has helped the proliferation of electronics in everyday products and enabled an ecosystem to develop,” explains Kashinath.
Framework provided by the IoT. Whilst at present, the IoT is just a subset of the Electronics of Things, some experts, including Ugarkar feel that the IoT is fuelling the tendency to stitch electronics into everything. Ugarkar feels that “The use of sensors, actuators, meters that you see getting embedded into objects around us is not new. The boom you see in embedding electronics to sense, act or meter is because the IoT gave a high-level conceptual architecture that made it easy for embedded electronics components to integrate with each other and with the rest of the world using Internet technologies like IPV6, http, REST, Cloud, network protocols, etc.”
On the other hand, experts like Anand feel that ‘requirement fuels innovation’ and not the other way round. According to him, it is the proliferation of the electronics of things that is leading to the IoT.
Is not this simply embedded electronics?
What is so new about the Electronics of Things? Has not electronics been around for ages—embedded in military and industrial equipment; refrigerators, washing machines and ovens too? Yes, but the splurge in applications and use-cases as we can see from the afore-mentioned examples is what has brought it back into focus. It is also important to understand that this clan of embedded electronics is quite different from the traditional applications that were implemented in industrial equipment.
Dr Arun Mulpur, manager-Industry Marketing, MathWorks Inc., explains, “There are several key differences between electronics in everyday objects and industrial machinery. The first is the sheer number of different applications and the environments and purposes for which electronics are being deployed in everyday functions. These include applications such as medical devices that require very high reliability and robustness as well as recreational applications such as devices embedded in footwear which may not need safety-critical embedded software. Industrial machinery applications—in contrast—are designed to operate in fairly controlled environments and perform repetitive tasks. Because of the safety and reliability considerations, these applications must adhere to very strict quality, efficiency, responsiveness, reliability and safety requirements.”
Anand probes more into the technicalities, “From an engineering point of view, industrial machinery electronics performs a serious and critical role and has to adhere to stricter standards. It also needs to work 24×7 most of the times and has to be optimised for space, code size, power, etc. Additionally, it is built to last for many years and is not cheap. On the other hand, daily electronics is typically (trend of these days) a use and throw type, comes at a cheaper price and does not need to be run 24×7. Moreover, it may not be optimised heavily due to the fact that daily electronics is more inclined towards application rather than critical parameters. Daily electronics is also becoming easily hackable by users and manufacturers are making it so happily; however, industrial machinery electronics still remains crack-proof, robust and proprietary in nature. Besides these, there are many other (major and minor) differences. However, the ones mentioned above are more distinctive.”
“The level of qualification, certification and testing is much higher for industrial machinery as the duty cycle, environment and life cycle are very different,” adds S. Natarajan, senior program manager-India Strategy & Planning, Intel.
Ugarkar adds, “There are two primary differences between embedded electronics in everyday objects and electronics embedded or used in industrial machinery. First, electronics embedded in an everyday object must fuse or become one with the object. For example, electronics embedded in a jacket must not alter the shape or form of the jacket, so it not only needs to be small but also needs to be designed in such a way as to fuse or become one with the object. Second, design is extremely important. When I say design, I do not mean just the user interface aspects of the electronics but how well the addition of electronics continues to support the normal use of the objects as well as the additional features the electronics brings in.” (See box ‘Smart devices call for a smart design’)
From this discussion, it is obvious that the current breed of embedded electronics, targeting everyday objects, is significantly different from the mission-critical embedded systems that have been common in the past. This opens up the need to understand hardware, software, networking protocols and design from a new perspective (See box ‘What are the technical specifications of your saucepan?’).
The author is a technically-qualified freelance writer, editor and hands-on mom based in Chennai