The Internet of Things

Connectivity is a word synonymous with the internet. This is hardly surprising as the very  heart of the web, essentially its primary function, is connecting people. Whether it be access to the vast store of human knowledge that nestles in the millions of servers around the world, videos of teenagers hurling themselves off perfectly good buildings with the intent, and not always accomplishment, of tucking and rolling onto a nearby roof, or proud parents simply sharing the precious first images of their newborns on Facebook. The internet brings these things to us with incredible efficiency and ease.

Current estimates put the amount of people who use the web to be around 2.5 billion, with that figure set to rise in the next few years as the populations in developing nations come online. In the course of human history we’ve never been more connected to the rest of the world, but on the horizon is something that looks set to eclipse this colossus of communication. As more and more devices are arriving embedded with sensors and the ability to communicate we are experiencing the birth of a new type of network. One that promises to usher in an automated future that will see the internet of people surpassed by the internet of things.

The idea of this new system is a reasonably simple one, but the applications can become incredibly complex depending on how many devices are involved. In its basic form the internet of things incorporates devices that can communicate with other devices remotely. So if you’ve ever been out and about, remembered that you didn’t set the PVR to record Game of Thrones, used the Sky+ app on your mobile phone to instruct your Sky+ box to do so, then returned home to find it ready and waiting, you have interacted with the internet of things. The same is true if you have a Nest thermostat, and send a command from your phone to make sure the house is warm when you return. These functions are very useful and give us a greater control over elements of our environment, but they still require human interaction to complete the task. The real internet of things that technologists envision is one where the devices analyse the information available and make decisions for themselves.


‘Today computers—and, therefore, the Internet—are almost wholly dependent on human beings for information’ writes Kevin Ashton, the British technology pioneer who coined the term Internet of Things. ‘Nearly all of the roughly 50 petabytes (a petabyte is 1,024 terabytes) of data available on the Internet were first captured and created by human beings—by typing, pressing a record button, taking a digital picture or scanning a barcode. Conventional diagrams of the Internet include servers and routers and so on, but they leave out the most numerous and important routers of all: people. The problem is, people have limited time, attention and accuracy—all of which means they are not very good at capturing data about things in the real world.

‘If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things—using data they gathered without any help from us—we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best.

‘We need to empower computers with their own means of gathering information, so they can see, hear and smell the world for themselves, in all its random glory’

Now before you yell ‘Skynet!’ and start hoarding arms in the deserts of Mexico, it should be made clear that these decisions are more mundane than the total automation of a large superpower’s military force. A well used example is one of a washing machine and dishwasher. The owner loads both but then goes out and relies on the smart machines to talk to a national grid device which will tell them when the demand across the grid is at a low rate and therefore the most environmentally friendly time to commence their duties. A recent trial on a housing estate in the Isle of Wight that combined various energy saving devices and used the data they generated to identify hotspots, ended up saving one house £170 that year on their electricity bill. The trial has been so successful that the island is now being used as a testbed for a smart electricity grid.

Public transport services are also prime locations for smart connected devices. In London the iBus system works with information from over 8,000 buses that are fitted with GPS capabilities alongside various other sensors which relay data about the vehicle’s location and current progress. This data informs the electronic signposts at bus stops, which displays details of when the bus will arrive. It’s also sent to the Control Centre where it can trigger priority requests for traffic signals if the bus is behind schedule, thus keeping the route on time. As cars now become more connected, through things like built in mapping services, it could be that a few years from now traffic control in major cities is dynamic, responsive, even predictive, as it actively monitors the locations and speeds of every vehicle on the roads. Take it one step further and incorporate the driverless cars that Google are experimenting with and traffic jams could become a thing of myth and legend.


This location based technology is also proposed for the healthcare sector. If various medical equipment, such as defibrillators, are tagged with RFID tags then nurses can identify exactly where the necessary equipment is in a hospital at any time and retrieve it quickly. This sounds simple, but could have significant impact on the ability to spend more time with patients and the administering of treatments in often time critical situations. Patients themselves could also benefit from smarter technologies when they return home. One example offered by the EU’s Information Society and Directorate- General is that of a pill box that can tell if someone has forgotten to take their medicine. This would then trigger an email or automated phone call to a relative informing them of the potential danger.

The real vision for the future of the internet of things is that these various smaller applications will converge to form a whole. A constantly updating database of information that can, thanks to Big Data analytical techniques, be interpreted in real time and produce valuable and relevant information for the user. Imagine if you are the relative of the aforementioned patient who forgot their medicine. You receive the alert, are able to know their location, check their vital signs remotely to see if they are falling ill, then be informed by your car’s navigation system which hospital has the most free beds, the clearest traffic route to get there, and even where you can park.

While many of these ideas are still in their infancy the rapid advances in technology we’re seeing now is making them a real possibility. There are still large hurdles to overcome, such as the protocol that these devices will use and the threat to privacy that this much identifiable data presents, but the potential gains make this an area that is seeing incredible levels in investment from major corporations.  It’s estimated that by 2020 there will be over 50 billion connected devices on the planet, that’s around six per person. If we can harness this power and build a communication framework to support it, then what seems like the realms of science fiction now could be a reality that we see in just a handful of years.

This article originally appeared on the PC Advisor website and in the print magazine as part of a monthly section I write entitled News Viewpoint. To see that version please click here, or purchase a copy of the fine magazine from your local newsagent. 

Living with the…Kobo Glo

After recently spending some time with the Amazon Paperwhite (see the review here) I was interested in trying out some of its direct competitors.

In the UK Kobo have been building a name for themselves due to a deal with large retailer WHSmith. You can’t go near a book section in any of their shops without coming across a large display of the current models from the Kobo range, albeit usually unpowered or in some state of disrepair – presumably due to the WHSMith staff rather than the quality of the devices.

The Kobo Glo that we have here is a backlit, 6″, touch enabled e-reader that supports the Kobo store ebooks alongside a healthy selection of other formats such as EPUB, PDF, TXT and RTF.  It’s small, about the same size as a paperback book, but slimmer and, as George R.R. Martin fans will attest, in many cases lighter. Pretty standard form for this type of device. Of course the main selling point for the Kobo Glo is, as the latter part of the name suggests, its illumination. Much as the Kindle Paperwhite did, the Glo brightly and evenly lights up the screen, making reading in low light no trouble at all. In fact both units did a remarkably similar job, with little to choose between them in terms of quality.


One area that does need some attention though is the touch menu on the Glo. Whereas using the Kindle Paperwhite was a simple, no frills, no problems experience, the Glo can be frustrating. The placement of the touch points are a little close, meaning you hit the wrong option a bit too often, and there’s also lag in some areas, especially when changing the font size on larger ebooks which could render the Glo inert for several seconds. It’s a small thing, as you don’t spend much time fiddling with these elements in normal use, but Kobo would be wise to address them in any upcoming firmware patches.

The Kobo store itself is a decent size and nicely designed. There are plenty of top titles available and should fulfil the needs of most bookworms. Kobo also has apps for iOS, Android and even Blackberry , although Windows Phone 8 users will have to wait – but then they’re getting pretty used to that scenario. The ebooks you download are well formatted and behave nicely with the font and margin controls in the Glo, sadly the same can’t be said for anything else. You can read other formats, but the layout had a nasty habit of pushing itself to the very edges of the screen, and adjusting the formatting options had no discernable effect. As I’m sure you can imagine this didn’t lend itself to a particularly immerse reading experience. Of course if you stick within the Kobo universe then everything is fine and dandy.

Screen Shot 2013-05-28 at 23.01.27

I suppose this is the case for many of these devices nowadays. You’re not buying an e-reader, you’re buying an (insert favourite brand here) e-reader and must be prepared to adopt the whole eco-system as your own. If you do so then life is easy and your reading will be unencumbered – except for the slow touch interface on the Glo – but you need to choose wisely, as once you’re in it can be expensive to buy your way out.

The Kobo Glo currently retails at around £100, making it cheaper than the Amazon option by about £10. If you’re not already invested then certainly give it a go, the device is good and will meet your literary needs with little fuss. For myself, I think I’m still hooked on the Paperwhite, but then with about 100 titles already purchased in the Amazon world I was hardly likely to say anything else.

The Girl with the Digital Face

It was the strangest thing. For weeks something had been whispering at the back of my mind. An idea that would tiptoe around the edges of my understanding, then disappear the moment I tried to gather it closer. Like a glitch in the Matrix, or that dawning horror of a forgotten anniversary. Then it revealed itself…how could I have missed this for so long?

The moment of revelation came in a recent episode of Dexter. I’ve long admired the show which features everybody’s favourite serial killer, but it was during the last season that this gnawing feeling had begun to manifest. More specifically whenever a certain actress was in a scene. Yvonne Strahovski plays the beautiful, but very deadly, Hannah McKay who charms her way into our hero Dexter’s rather black heart. There are many reasons why you’d be drawn to her whenever she’s on-screen, her copious gorgeousness not withstanding, but I knew it was something else. She seemed…familiar. I don’t know what finally made the connection, maybe her head tilted at a certain angle, the light dancing across her cheekbones, or a dreamlike wandering that placed a laser rifle and supernatural telekinetic powers in her elegant frame, but in an instant I saw it.

‘She’s the girl in Mass Effect!’ I cried to general disinterest and probable confusion.

Miranda for real

And there it was. For the first time in my life I had recognised an actress who had appeared in a video game, but not from her voice – as you would more reasonably expect – but from her actual face. Now, any gamer out there who has ever gone to a sci-fi convention or Googled the word Cosplay has probably seen ladies and gentlemen of the more flamboyant persuasion dressed rather convincingly in the costumes of their favourite avatars. We’ve all wondered at the copious Lara Crofts, Master Chiefs, and Little Sisters that decorate those environs, but to have it happen in reverse…well, it was odd.

It created a strange mental relationship with her. After all I had fought the greatest threat to the galaxy mankind has ever known with her, or Miranda Lawson as she was going by then, at my side. We had clashed over her elitist views on alien integration, then shared moments of intimate confession as she told me how her father had scientifically experimented on her. We had rescued her sister, saved the universe, and engaged in awkwardly animated conjugal relations on the mid decks of the Normandy spacecraft. We had history.

Now she was this….woman. Flesh and blood arranged in a spectacularly pleasing fashion. But she wasn’t the same. Hannah McKay had no military training. Not once in the series did I see her pilot a spacecraft, shoulder a pulse rifle, or don an incredibly tight uniform and stand with her bottom directly in the line of the camera. What was happening?

Now the mirror has been cracked, who knows where it will end? Will Cortana turn up as a Dornish maiden in Game of Thrones? Shall I brace myself for the sight of Mario playing a mob-leader suspected of murder in an upcoming episode of Castle? Or Marcus Fenix singing his favourite show-tunes on Glee?

Be afraid people, be very afraid…

Living With the… Roku 2 XS

Once upon a time our TVs were humble devices that offered a meek selection of programmes that started in the afternoon and closed before midnight. Instead of spending their time watching a barrage of poorly made reality shows families would gather around the fire and listen to stories read from the big book of idyllic, bygone lifestyles. The children would then reitre to bed after a healthy cigarette and dream of adventures that contained little real violence and no advertisements every fourteen minutes. Surely this was a glorious age…

Today things have changed…rather a lot. With satellite and cable services now broadcasting hundreds of stations into our homes twenty four hours a day it can be hard to even find something to watch under the weight of choice. Children dribble in zombie-like fashion while Disney remove their desire to achieve academic greatness and replace it with the essential thing in life – to believe. Although what to believe in is never actually stated. Possibly friends, or castles, or friendly castles? Meanwhile the adults slowly lose their wills to think thanks to a never ending supply of X-Factor, morbid soaps, and various semi-famous people eating worms in forests in the desperate hope to once again be even more semi-famous. It’s all a bit much.

One of the most pressing problems though is that television is getting expensive. Whereas many of the shows mentioned above are essentially free on the public networks here in the UK,  to get the premium shows that are actually worth watching like Game of Thrones, Dexter, Castle, The Walking Dead and suchlike you need one of the packages offered by Sky or Virgin. Initially these seem like good  deals but slowly they creep up the price. Want HD? That’s £10 more. How about films? £16. The newest films? That’s £4 per rental on top of your existing package. Sports? Ha ha ha, let’s just see if you can remortgage your house first.

After being a customer with Sky for several years I’ve recently decided that enough is enough and I want out. The thing is I don’t need to see all the latest shows when they first air. If I can save some money, and time to do other things like writing, then all the better. But once you’ve had the banquet can you go back to the microwave meals? Well, yes…with a little help.


The little thing I have in mind is called a Roku, and it’s pretty damn cool. This tiny device is about the same size as a set of coasters and through various forms of electrical sorcery turns your dumb TV into a smart one. By simply connecting an ethernet cable to your wireless router and then plugging the other end into the Roku you can have access to many of the internet based services available. There’s no fee and as the Roku 2 XS here has now been superseded by the Roku 3, you can probably pick one of these great little devices up for around £80.

Once the unit is plugged in to the router, and attached to your TV via an HDMI cable, you can stream older movies from the various channels on offer. These are not premium services to be sure, but you can find a fair few 80s films that are still a good watch and some older classics that are well worth your time. If you’re into video podcasts (and there are now a surprising amount of good, free ones online) then you’ll be able to find many of them with their own free apps that can be downloaded from the Channel store. There’s also the BBC’s excellent iPlayer service built in, which is never a bad thing.

Roku Interface

Admittedly the free selection is somewhat basic, and the clunky interface that the box employs can get on your nerves quite quickly in spite of the very cool and comfortable controller that comes in the box. But…there are a couple of jewels in this diminutive crown. Netflix is a very good streaming service that allows you to watch an impressive amount of TV series and a fair few films for only £6 per month. The Roku streams the content perfectly and in HD where possible. This combination means that you can watch some excellent shows such as the aforementioned Dexter, and big hits such as Breaking Bad, The Killing (a personal favourite – the Danish one not the terrible US remake), The Office (US), Arrested Development, Jonathan Creek, Firefly, and a whole host of other comedies and crime dramas for less than a couple of pints every month. What’s more you can watch them in order and in any amount you chose – so no waiting for next week’s episode. Compulsive, obsessive personalities of the world rejoice! Netflix also has it’s own exclusive series called House of Cards which stars Kevin Spacey as is a truly masterful look at the darker side of American politics.

Alongside that is the ability for the Roku to play digital copies of films via a USB stick. So if you want to save space in your house just rip your DVDs onto a hard drive (there are plenty of tutorials online to show how easy this is) and then store the physical copies in the bike-shed, loft, or wherever. If the urge to watch Pretty in Pink or Inception arises, all you need do is simply pop a thumbdrive into the Roku and press play. Easy.

It might be a bit rough around the edges in the interface department, but the Roku 2XS has it where it counts. It’s a great little unit that, when paired with Freeview or Freesat, could give you all the entertainment you need for a lot less money than you currently pay.