Gadgets

What Iron Man can teach us about future-proofing the Internet of Things

iron man 2 jarvis
Image Credit: Marvel/Paramount

Who in the tech industry doesn’t want to be Tony Stark?

My friends tell me that I have at least some of the wisecracking nature down, though as of yet, I sadly lack the fortune necessary to purchase (really, build) the house, which is too bad because there is so much to love about it: tons of space, ocean views, a massive garage with a stable of high-performance cars, and of course, its artificially intelligent OS JARVIS.

JARVIS makes the house more than just a building. With it, the house has an interface so sophisticated that it is a movie character in its own right. JARVIS is a mix of the voice interface of Siri, the automation made possible by cloud computing and big data, a sophisticated building control system, a manufacturing assistant that puts any 3D printer on the market to shame, and of course, a dash of artistic license.


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Over the past few years, I have started automating my (significantly smaller) home, and have taken control over the lights, climate control, telephone, and entertainment systems. It’s a start, but it’s not anywhere near what we see in the movies.

What would it take to build JARVIS?

One approach is to, well, be Tony Stark, a brilliant inventor who can move between engineering disciplines with ease, knitting together a complex system out of component parts. The rest of us? Not so much.  We need to be able to assemble a system out of its component parts and customize it without being world-class programmers.

Consider the huge variety of expertise and technology to build a complete automation system.  We need voice recognition and natural language processing to move control of the system away from the smartphone screen, hopefully with some form of security that doesn’t let just anybody change the environment; we need a plethora of sensors to monitor temperature, humidity, energy consumption, sunlight, human presence, and more; and we need to allow the system to control the environment by changing the climate control system, responding to changes in activity, triggering locks, and, maybe even feeding pets.

With such a diversity of needs, it is unlikely that a single vendor can supply all of the parts that we need.

In the networking industry, we solved that problem by focusing on interoperability.  Buy two Ethernet devices, and you can expect that they work together well. The most successful networking standards have been based on interoperability. To make JARVIS a reality, that interoperability has to become an organizing principle of the industry. Want to extend your home’s robotic behaviors? Buy a product, and plug into the rest of the newly-extended system — just as you can add Wi-Fi to your home network and give it new capabilities easily.

Automation does not yet have interoperability as its organizing principle, though there have been positive signs in the last year. The software equivalent of a networking standard is an API, and more vendors are making programming interfaces available to extend their equipment. With those APIs, it’s now possible to use equipment from several vendors in a coherent system.

My home uses products from several vendors, and products are tied together across vendor boundaries. When I walk up to my house, a few lights turn on (though the service I use for automating some of these links always turns the lights on, even mid-day, showing the room we have to grow).

Standards are a way of life in the networking business, and I count them as one of the biggest enablers of the success of the companies I’ve worked for. Home automation right now has a bit of the Wild West, but is beginning to be tamed.  Whether as a consumer or a vendor, accept nothing less than the interoperability we have come to expect from networking technologies. Growing the market beyond those of us who want to be Tony Stark with a JARVIS-enabled home (and have the skills to create it from scratch!) means being able to easily build what we need out of component parts. For that, we need the home automation equivalent of the Internet Protocol.

Matthew Gast is Director of Advanced Technology at Aerohive, where he regularly seeks out Wi-Fi enabled products to make his home even more responsive to his needs (and impressive to visitors).


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