Buildings

People are the point of IoT

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New cognitive environments—not just buildings—will serve our needs in unprecedented ways. What’s in it for me? As waves of new technologies—and in particular, those emerging from the Internet of Things—wash over us and enter our lives, it’s a fair question.

The IoT will serve all of us

The advent of cognitive computing suggests that there will be an abundance of benefits to go around—perhaps at a pace and depth we’ve never seen before. When the IoT becomes a part of the fabric of our environment, it will serve all of us. The IoT, applied at scale, can potentially decrease traffic and energy use across a city, and increase safety and efficiency across that same geography. It can also zoom in at a personal level to serve up the things that people want, when they want them.

Imagine a house that knows your schedule better than you ever did, an office space that works like you do, factory floor safety equipment that pulls its own emergency stop before you get injured, or a next-generation concession operation at the stadium that has someone placing a cold beer in your hand just as you sit down before kickoff. That’s just part of what’s in it for us.

An office space that knows how you get the job done may not send your heart racing, but a cold beer served to you at the perfect moment? Or a home that unlocks itself as you approach and welcomes you with ideal lighting, temperature, even a dinner suggestion? That conjures the kind of mini-thrill you may have felt the first time you tapped the Uber app and a car materialized a few minutes later at the curb.

Buildings as assistants, advocates and lifeguards

Here’s the bigger surprise: That kind of magic is on the verge of massive scale. As the flood of IoT objects comingle with cognitive systems and the built environment around us, our buildings are becoming assistants, advocates and lifeguards. And we the people working, playing, shopping inside—you name it—are huge beneficiaries of this emerging trend.

Those victories take different forms depending on the context, but they combine similar elements, such as sensors that are aware—collecting and distributing data—and a learning system that takes that data, makes sense of it and makes choices on our behalf.

Like any great assistant – it’s about anticipating needs

Your home is the nexus of much of this emerging innovation. Your smartphone knows what time it is, where you are and that you are 20 minutes out. Like any great assistant, that’s when the home can kick into gear. You approach the front door, and a camera recognizes your face combined with the digital signature of the phone in your pocket. The door unlocks. You walk in, kick back and options for meal delivery from that Korean place you like scroll on a tablet—or the reminder that you have dinner plans out. Would you like a car in an hour? All of that happens now with human intervention, but with software smarts thrown in, it will happen automatically in the background.

The technological pieces are coming together to make all of these scenarios real. Smart thermostats and smoke detectors are already hit products on big-box shelves. Connected, wireless cameras are ubiquitous, as are a wave of security sensors that take the form of doorbells and other small sensors that can be scattered through a home. Everyone has a smartphone. Chef Watson has his toque on.

The most obvious outcomes are more efficient energy use and safer homes. The secondary effects will be greater comfort, and never missing a night out with your kids or friends again (or at least, never having the excuse that you forgot again).

Digital assistants help navigate campus paths

Take that sort of auto-awareness to the workplace and there is a huge multiplier effect. Buildings that know the day’s events can prepare efficiently and accurately every time. At IBM’s Hursley campus in the United Kingdom, an 18th century Queen Anne–style mansion (you Downton Abbey fans have the right picture) has been retrofitted with sensors that take in weather reports and the day’s calendar of events to estimate the precise time needed to heat up the ancient building to the right temperature for an 8 a.m. meeting (no small feat for a structure designed to leverage people shovelling coal at all hours). Guests get a map on their phones guiding them to the room, and a digital assistant navigates them along the campus paths. Conference rooms “know” who the guests are as they arrive—even their preferred room temperatures—and are ready with digital documents and schedules to smooth the way for the work ahead.

Now deploy those learning systems in an industrial setting. If someone is lying down during the middle of their shift in the maintenance shed, have they collapsed, or does their position combined with their vital signs indicate they are working underneath a piece of heavy machinery as they often do?

A demo project is under way this year in Munich, where factory workers don an earpiece built by German startup Bragi that sends back a stream of data about vital signs and location. Drive through the gate, or walk onto the factory floor, and the building is aware of where they are, that they are onsite to do a repair on a robotic spot welder, the time of day and their overall status if an emergency has occurred. When something isn’t right—and that might be the sound of a machine undergoing repair before it overheats and spews hot metal—an alarm is sounded.

Making life better, safer and more enjoyable

In all these scenarios, people are both sources of data—how many, precisely who they are and in what context they are showing up—and the whole point. What’s the point? To make life and work better, safer and more enjoyable.

Which gets us back to beer.

Attend a San Francisco 49ers game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., and you will be guided to parking, seats and your favorite beer stand via your smartphone, sensors and miles of networking cable snaked through the building. If you ordered nachos in the second quarter of every game you attended, you will find a handy map guiding you to the nacho purveyor with the shortest line. If you think about a sports stadium as a retail setting, Levi’s stadium is using the IoT to get to know its customers as best it can, presenting food, clothing and other services they are most likely to buy. It isn’t quite drone-delivered beer, but it’s getting there.

Cognitive buildings can delight us. They can sound the alarm, and send help when something is out of whack. They can also anticipate the things we need before we know it. In a sense, they become our active partners in all things, whether that is at work or when we walk through the front door. It’s a partnership that is just beginning, but as with so many technological assists, we will look back—very soon—and wonder how we ever managed without it.

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