Unpacking opportunities behind tech buzzwords: IoT

How to leverage this technology

Smart Watch by Fancycrave1 is licensed under Creative Commons Zero

I was recently driving, doing my best to dodge the potholes on I-196, and listening to NPR. As they were reading off some of their sponsors between shows, I heard this:

“Additional funding is provided by C3IoT. Providing a software platform that brings artificial intelligence, big data, cloud computing, and IoT to industrial-scale digital transformations.”

I found myself shaking my head. What does that even mean? If I think it sounds silly (this is my world, after all) what does the rest of the audience think?

Let’s be honest, tech buzzwords can confuse and confound. I can help translate though. Let’s break down a few terms, look at the hype, talk about what they really are, and bring them back down to earth. More importantly, let’s look at how you can use the actual tech to innovate in your businesses.

Over the next few blog posts, I’ll unpack a few buzzy buzzwords, starting with IoT.


IoT, or the Internet of Things, is probably pretty familiar to you. Our thermostats talk to the internet, there are smart speakers in our homes, and maybe that new doorbell of yours has a camera built-in.

We’re only at the start of this trend. We hear about “smart devices”, but a lot of them seem pretty stupid.

Like this $100 smart toaster that alerts you when your toast is done to its desired level of crispiness.

Or a $65 dollar fork that vibrates when it senses you’re eating too fast.

Or this $242 dog camera, that not only keeps tab on your dog while you’re away, but allows you to shoot treats out of it via your smart phone.

A lot of IoT devices substitute real smarts for forcing me to think about them. The more things we connect, the more they can fade into the background. Right now, I don’t have to think much about my smart thermostat. It knows when I’m home, out for the day, or on vacation. It can also save me money without thinking about it. However, the house itself isn’t smart. For instance, If I’m gone for Spring Break, my water heater is still keeping a tank hot in hopes that I’m about to hop in the shower. My house also can’t tell the post office to hold my mail.

Arther C. Clarke once said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I love that quote because, to me, it sums up where were going with IoT, but aren’t there yet. IoT gets interesting when it fades into the background and feels like magic.

The real reason behind the IoT buzz is cheap. It’s just ubiquitous sensors and connectivity. Something as simple as a Nest thermostat is so much more than a simple temperature sensor. It also has humidity, ambient light, and motion sensors. Plus two different radios, a screen, processor, etc. And that’s nothing compared to a new smartphone.

A new Apple Watch has an Accelerometer, gyroscope, heart rate sensor, microphone, speaker, vibraton motor, barometric altimeter, ambient light sensor. LTE and UMTS, built in GPS/GLONASS, NFC, Wi-FI, Bluetooth!

How are businesses using IoT

It’s easy to see how you might work with IoT if you’re a product company. Just add more sensors and connectivity to whatever it is you are building. There are other opportunities too. For example, Caterpillar added sensors to heavy equipment, to help them detect wear and tear. This assists with planned maintenance which really helps keep those expensive machines running.

Local manufacturers are starting to look at what additional data they can get from their machines as well. For example, some office buildings utilize occupancy sensors. This can show space utilization, which then ties into HVAC and lighting to reduce usage. Desks and seats are getting sensors too. This helps offices learn more about who is using space, when, and how.

In Holland, where our office is located, the city uses something called Smart Brick. The brick monitors Holland’s Board of Public Works snowmelt system. (Humblebrag: Our snowmelt system is the largest one in North America) The brick, created by our friend Pete Hoffswell, measures the temperature at the bottom, and surface, so it can tell if the snowmelt system is working and how well. It then reports this data using a very low powered radio that lets the battery last a few months or more. This started as a fun side project by our friends at BPW, but now they’re considering improving the design and building more. These bricks can let them know about problems faster, and get them fixed before they cause problems. A few smart bricks could pay for themselves with new insights.

collective idea - smart brick.jpeg

On a more personal note, we recently worked with local educators to build small air quality monitors. They measure CO2, ozone, and particulate matter in the air. The EPA has air quality monitors around the country, but they are massive and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The monitors we helped build are only hundreds of dollars. While their accuracy is also a bit less, they can easily be deployed in many classrooms and get much more data than students would otherwise have access to.

Those are just a few examples of how you can quickly connect the things around you. As you look around your business, stop and ask what if they walls could literally talk? What decisions could you make faster with more data. What problems could you avoid or time could you save? That’s the promise of the internet of things.

In the next buzzword blog post, we’re going to talk about Machine Learning.

Photo of Daniel Morrison

Daniel founded Collective Idea in 2005 to put a name to his growing and already full-time freelance work. He works hard writing code, teaching, and mentoring.


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  2. May 14, 2019 at 7:43 AM

    Local manufacturers are starting to look at what additional data they can get from their machines…

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