What is the Internet of Things (IoT)?

It’s a typical Monday morning and you are running late to work. You decide to skip your routine coffee fix and commute down your usual route to work in hopes of getting there at a reasonable time. You turn into your regular parking lot and to your surprise it’s full. You find yourself circling around downtown looking for parking, finding all inexpensive lots are also full. Eventually you give up and park in a very expensive lot right next to your office. Once in the office you learn that a conference in a nearby convention center was to blame for your ordeal.

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Your GPS navigates you to your destination, but it fails once you get there: where do you park?! The problem is not that there are too many cars for the amount of parking. The problem is the lack of information: if you knew that most inexpensive lots are full, you would have taken the expensive lot from the start, saving yourself half an hour of driving – which by the way also created more congestion for other drivers. Also, if there was an open spot in a cheaper parking structure, you wouldn’t know about it except by luck.

If somehow the information about downtown parking was gathered and delivered to you, parking would take no time at all, and you would always get the best location given how much you’re willing to pay.

How would you solve the parking problem with technology? Once you approach your office, the car could automatically contact the nearby parking spots to check availability, rates, and location. It could then direct you to the best available parking.

This sounds quite advanced, but really the technology involved is already available! To make this possible, we need three things: the software to make the car and the parking lots sufficiently intelligent; the hardware on which the software will run; and the network connection so that the devices can communicate with each other.

First, the car needs to find all the nearby parking locations. This can be done by maintaining a listing of participating parking lots with their geographical locations.

Then the car talks to each parking lot, to find the current rates and availability. This is where the network connection is required.

The car shouldn’t distract you from the road, so it should choose the best compromise between price and distance on its own. It shouldn’t be too hard, especially if it asked you earlier to describe your preferences – are you willing to pay a few dollars more to park closer to the office?

Once the parking spot is chosen, the car should communicate back to it, to reserve it – otherwise, in the few minutes it takes you to get there, someone else might take the spot.

Finally, the car should update your GPS navigation system to direct you to the parking.

The easiest way to connect the car to any parking spot is to connect all of them to the internet. The idea of connecting all sorts of devices (cars, parking locations, etc.) to the internet is called the Internet of Things.

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IoT is an idea that can be applied to more than just parking. Anything with a power button can be connected to the Internet, and then either provide data or be controlled remotely. A fridge can report its energy usage, a traffic light can be controlled depending on the local traffic, and a street light can be adjusted depending on the weather conditions.

We are already familiar with the power of the internet, which connects all the traditional computing devices. On the internet, the more common communication is either between people and servers (e.g., when web browsing), or between people and people (e.g., when using a chat messenger).

The Internet of Things is essentially the same concept, but expanded to included connectivity between all sorts of other “things”: cars, roads, buildings, household appliances, etc. The communication is a lot more universal, so that things often talk directly to things, without involving a human being.

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