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…Humax HDR 1010s Freesat PVR

As times get tougher and money is harder to come by many of us are thinking that it might be a good idea to cut a few costs. One of the most likely candidates in our particular home is Sky TV. Yes it has all the best shows, and I know that the last season of Dexter is due to start in just over a month, but since we started a Netflix account recently we’ve spent a lot of time watching that instead. This means that with a decent PVR we could cut our increasingly expensive monthly TV bill by quite a margin. There’s one big problem though, we can’t use Freeview because our reception area is poor, and we’ve grown very used to being able to pause and rewind TV. Thankfully there is a solution – Freesat+.

A Freesat device plugs into your existing satellite dish and means you can receive the free-to-air channels such as BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5 without the need for any other equipment. It seems a perfect fit for those moving away from Sky, but it does mean an initial investment that causes you to pause and consider whether you’re making the right decision. For a fully functioning Freesat+ unit you’re looking at paying somewhere in the region of £300, which is no small amount. Therefore you want to make sure you’re buying something reliable and hard wearing. This led me to the company that has built a strong reputation in both these areas, Humax.


The Humax HDR 1010s is a tidy unit that offers a good deal of options for the money. Alongside the normal Freesat features mentioned above it also has online capabilities when connected to your router. BBC iPlayer and ITV player are currently active, with 4OD and 5 on Demand due to appear soon. There’s also a Youtube app, and compatibility with Flickr. For the more hackery types it can also handle content from DNLA servers on your network. So, a useful set of functions there then.

Of course all of this would be useless if the interface was badly designed – after all you spend a lot of time using one of those. Well there’s good news here too. The HDR 1010s comes complete with the new Freetime interface, which is very easy to use, looks classy, and even allows you to move backwards through the EPG to find the shows you missed earlier. If the program in question if available on the catchup services then all you have to do is click on the show and you are given the option to watch it via streaming. Everything is laid out sensibly and where you would expect to find it. Programs feature a nice information pane, and recorded shows are stored with titles, running times, and the number of episodes you currently have on the 1TB hard disk.

Freesat-freetime Before this descends into some kind of sycophantic babble there is one unfortunate problem with the device. The remote control, while looking nice and coming complete with a considered placement of buttons that do their jobs without issue, has a central circular area for navigation and selection. The Sky controller bears something similar, but whereas its choice of material is rubber, Humax unfortunately have opted for hard plastic. This results in a nasty clicking sound every time you use it, which cheapens the overall feel of the machine. It’s a real shame that such a basic design choice be so badly implemented, after all the only part of the device that you physically interact with is the control itself, and that’s the weakest part of the whole package. It works fine, but feels and sounds compromised.

That being said, the HDR 1010s is still a very good choice for anyone wanting to cut their ties with Sky, while still retaining a well made and easy to use system. The Freetime menus are excellent, as are the many features that the device offers, all of which are executed with little fuss or drama.  At £300 it isn’t cheap, but then it doesn’t behave like a cut-price option either.

Baby, how you’ve grown… (Part 1)

Regular readers of this site will know that I have a somewhat idealistic take on technology. The possibilities of the internet paired with powerful mobile devices and reliable, easy to use, interfaces still excite me on a daily basis. Maybe it’s a sickness. Quite possibly. But in the spirit of those immortal words sung so convincingly by Luther Ingram in 1972 – ‘If loving you is wrong, I don’t ever want to be right’.

Of course that song was actually written from the point of view of a lover involved in an affair with a cheating husband, and you can imagine that after the music faded someone ended up hurt and alone. Maybe it’s not the best analogy to use. Ah, you’re an intelligent bunch, you can work through the moral disarray.

In short – technology is great. So to celebrate this I decided to illustrate some very simple but wonderfully convenient ways it has changed over the years to make our lives better.

The Home Wrecker’s Anthem.

Remote Controls

When I was merely a snippet of a lad the only mobile technology I came into contact with was a remote control for our brand new, top-loading, VHS recorder. I loosely use the word remote because rather than the infrared devices that clutter up the gaps in our sofa cushions these days, the one we had actually attached to the front of the machine via a cord. So remote became a very subjective word. If six feet was remote to you then you were in luck, otherwise it seemed that you’d been given a quite close control, one that really offered little advantage over just getting up off your backside and turning the video on or off yourself.

How times have changed.

The other day I was in the pub with friends and realised that I’d forgotten to set my PVR to record Match of the Day (if this is all becoming far too lad-like for you, I refer you back to the first paragraph which included references to a 1970s love song, albeit of rather questionable values). In the past this would have been resolved by going home, calling home, or just bemoaning the fact that I wasn’t at home and why couldn’t someone invent something that stopped this kind of tragedy from ruining innocent lives. But not this day. Instead I quickly whipped out my iPhone, launched the Sky+ app, found the program guide and sent a signal for my PVR to begin recording. It was right, just, and I swear I heard the faint echo of angels singing as I slid the magical device back into my jeans and lifted my glass in victory. This is how life was meant to be.

Now this is a remote control.

Personal Organisers

As a child of the 70s who reached those troublesome young adult years amidst the avarice, violent protests, and terrible synthesizer music of the 80s, there is one item that came to symbolise those difficult years. The Filofax. It was the age of share dealing, business meetings,  go-get-’em young executives making huge fortunes on far east investments then losing it all before the end of the day. Buy low, sell high, act like an over privileged idiot and end up thirty years later working in a petrol station, with a haunted look permanently darkening your gaze.

So how could you achieve such heights? The trusty Filofax. A paper world that needed to look battered, and so filled with contacts, notes, and calendar entries that technically the item counted as a potential explosive. Everyone who was someone had one. That’s a lot of ones.

The other thing I remember about the Filofax was how remarkably expensive they were. So for what was essentially a smaller than usual, leather, ring binder you could pay quite ludicrous prices. Then there was the additional expense of the inserts you needed to stuff into the thing to make it actually useful. It really became the case that in order to own a filofax you needed to be a high earner just to afford the new ruler, business card holders, or latest coloured note pages. Of course as the collection grew so did the weight and size, until those desperate to look important were dragging around what amounted to a filing cabinet in their pockets. Hernia treatment clinics have recently been linked with coming up with the concept, but they strongly deny the allegations.

Where are these paper palaces now?

The smartphone appeared pretty much out of nowhere and wiped out the industry. There had been the initial PDAs that started the transition, but really the iPhone, Blackberry and recently Tablets have taken the place of these impractical, additional devices. Now instead of the type of leather you clad your information in it’s the type of manufacturer. Brand names are back in fashion – Blackberry for the business professional…who doesn’t keep up with the times. iPhones for the well heeled, and Android for the rebels. What’s that? Windows Phone 8? Your guess is as good as mine.

Oddly one thing hasn’t changed. We still stuff additional pages into the phones to make them do more and increase our productivity. We just call them apps now, and thankfully they have little impact on our spines. Until the evil Hernia people find their angle…

In the days before Google Calendar…


Video Chat

It wasn’t that long ago that relatives in distant lands would film themselves on camcorders while giving seasonal messages, proudly holding aloft new born babies, or expressing they love for those far from them. These video cassettes would then run the gauntlet of x-ray scanners, crazed postal workers, and differing manufacturing encoding standards in the hope of delivering their precious cargo. To be honest it was such a pain that most people didn’t even attempt this high-tech form of correspondance, instead electing to write letters and throw a few choice pictures into the envelope. Long distance calls were expensive and at times actually of low enough quality to make it not worth the effort either. But still we tried to keep in contact with family and friends on foreign soil. I know of relatives that recorded audio diaries, repete with bedtime stories, which they would regularly send to their grandchildren so they could stay present in their lives even if not in a physical form.

There is a certain romance to this. The effort involved makes the intent more admirable. The striving to stay in contact even though the world would do its best to keep you apart is a true measure of love. It’s something almost noble.

These days our options are wide, free, and – technical hiccups aside – pretty much instant.

Where does the cassette go?


Skype, and its digital ilk, has made a huge difference in the lives of families who move to distant parts of the world, or in some cases just to the other end of a country. Now bedtime stories can be read in real-time, and the reactions witnessed as Bilbo nears his final confrontation with Smaug. I’ve been at parties where someone who couldn’t make the couple of thousand mile journey actually spent the entire night in the corner of the room via her laptop. She raised drinks, took part in the jokes, and was able to feel part of her wider community all from her home a hemisphere away. Journalists like myself conduct globe spanning interviews with celebrities that would once have had to brave the press tours to promote their newest creation. Children talk with their school friends in the evening, not seeming to see it an issue that they’ve spent the entire day with them already. The world indeed has been made smaller. It might not be the labour of love that went before it, but I think anyone would take it in a heartbeat.


There will be a few of these musings on the way tech is changing how we do the things we’ve always done. Why not leave a comment telling me what your favourite, simple changes are? Maybe they might even make it into a future post.