The new IoT: Illuminating information shadows

Published on the 08/11/2023 | Written by Heather Wright

But beware of data overload and blockchain overkill…

“There is some sort of revolution happening there and I think it is going to be very transformational.”

Gartner distinguished vice president Nick Jones isn’t talking about generative AI. Instead, he’s talking about developments in ambient IoT and its ability to ‘illuminate information shadows’.

Ambient power, physically small and inexpensive devices and new manufacturing technologies like printed electronics which enable very low cost active pieces of equipment are creating a revolution around visibility into things, processes and events, he told iStart.

“It’s enabling levels of visibility and knowledge of processes in ways we never had before.”

“There is a lot of stuff which was academic research which is now starting to come into production.”

He notes vendor Wilot, which provides tags the size of postage stamps with a small amount of electronics onboard and costing around 40 cents. 

“It’s heading to what RFID should have been, and it harvests power from the RF in the environment, like Wifi, and generates just enough electricity for it to send Bluetooth messages.”

It, along with ‘cheap as chips Bluetooth gateways, are making it more viable to stick tags on items and illuminate those information shadows in organisations.

“Most organisations have places where stuff is going on and they’d like to know what is going on, but it was never cost effective to find out what was going on before. 

“There is all sorts of stuff going on in this space that has huge potential for changing the way we understand what is going on, both as consumers and as businesses.”

Jones says fundamentally, IoT is in the business or creating new business models, and the advancements in IoT have big potential for business.

“It lets you turn products into services, for example. If you know what something is doing and where it is, you can start charging based on what it is doing and where it is.”

Israel’s Nexite has a tag for the retail industry. It enables retailers to not only get real time inventory of everything in the store, but also, thanks to a built-in accelerometer, when an item is taken off the rack, looked at, and put back on the rack, or taken into a fitting room.

“Now you know what things people are looking at in store in real-time and, probably more importantly, what things people aren’t looking at in store in real-time, so you know what you should be discounting and getting out of the supply chain,” Jones notes. 

“It’s enabling levels of visibility and knowledge of processes in ways we never had before.”

Ultimately Jones sees a future where those tags remain in place after sale and can talk to the washing machine, for example, telling it what temperature to wash the item at.

He’s urging local businesses to consider where their information shadows are and whether any IoT technology will enable them to collect the data they need, but he’s open that there’s still a long path ahead for the technology, with many future developments still currently at academic demonstration stage. 

One such example is a Korean university which is looking at back scatter wireless IoT. 

Instead of having a battery or power supply in the device and transmitting, energy is remodulated, taking about one-tenth of the energy of transmitting a signal. 

“We have seen interesting things where it’s like a scanning radar system that looks around the room and every time the beam goes past a tag, the tag replies. So there you can potentially track thousands of things in a room because these are using very high frequency millimetre wave scanning and things like that, and you know from the beam where it is and how far away it is, all of that stuff.”

But while Jones admits ambient IoT is one of his favourite technologies, he’s also blunt that businesses need to be careful they use it for real business value, and that they ensure they only collect the data they need for their business goal.

“When I look at some failed IoT projects, its because people have said let’s collect all the data we can possibly collect and then worry about what to do with it later. That’s usually a recipe for failure.

“If you are thoughtful about this, you have the opportunity to say you’re going to reduce the loss or RTIs [returnable transport items] or whatever you’re trying to reduce the loss or, and if you can reduce the loss by 20 percent, you’ve won.

“That tends to stop you collecting insane amounts of data.”

Edge computing also has a role to play in filtering data down so companies aren’t sending every movement of every item into the cloud, while AI – that unavoidable topic – will also have a part to play, with AI built into sensors in the future enabling analytics of the data in the sensor itself. 

“We will probably need new architectures and it will probably drive us towards things like more edge computing, but I don’t think it is an impossible problem.”

For businesses, there will also be the infrastructure issue. 

“If you are going to have thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of active tags around your organisation in the future, you are going to have to have lots of little receivers to pick up the messages from those tags and triangulate where the message came from, send it to whatever edge analytics system you are using and so on.”

While the tags may be cheaper now, he admits the cost of the tag isn’t the big cost, instead it’s paying the company for the cloud services to find out where the tag is that costs the real money, but again, he says there are increasing numbers of companies clamouring for business in that space – and reducing costs. 

He says he’s already seeing companies ordering ‘a million units’ of some IoT devices. While they’re ‘special and early use cases’ he’s expecting the numbers to grow.

“It is something some organisations can put their foot in the water now – the technology is there. 

“Some people will need more intelligent tags with different sensors and things that are not there yet, or they will want lower priced tags. Forty cents a tag is still not comparable with RFID even though it is a lot more useful than RFID in many ways because of the real time nature. But as those tags go down in price to say 20c in the long term that will open up more things that it is cost effective to tag and you will start seeing new business models.”

Provenance tracking, particularly for the likes of pharmaceuticals and wines, is one area he sees IoT being useful for. While QR codes can be copied, having active processors in things is very hard to fake, he notes.

“You can effectively embed the whole history of the thing itself and do clever things like that.”

Products with limited lifespans, such as materials in the aircraft industry which must be replaced after a few years, could also be prime targets for the technology, enabling a tub of grease to alert when it was expired, and where exactly it was located so it could be removed. 

One area Jones is less sanguine about is the use of blockchain with IoT – an area he says ‘has been a bit of a disappointment’, though he still sees companies trying to shoehorn blockchain solutions into their business. 

Blockchain’s base case is for situations where an ecosystem of partners need to share information and either don’t know each other, or don’t trust each other. 

“A lot of the IoT stuff we have been talking about doesn’t fit that base case, so blockchain is like taking a very large hammer to crack a peanut. It’s an overcomplicated solution to the problem because often these ecosystems have a natural ecosystem owner who can just run a traditional database and if all you want is immutability you can go to to someone like Amazon and get QLDBs, [quantum ledger database] which is an immutable cloud database you can write to but you can’t change the stuff you have written.

“So in many cases, blockchain is overkill. And once you get into the IoT space many of these little IoT gadgets don’t have the primary processing power to be a blockchain node so you have to have some sort of gateway and things. And it all just gets overcomplicated,” he says.

In a final parting warning, Jones cautions companies to get good at the process of finding the technologies which will be important to their future and exploiting them. 

“There is lots of good information on how to do innovation well, but most organisations are not as good as they should be at executing on the ‘how to do innovation’ part. 

“So get better at that is what I would say to everyone.”

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