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The “Internet of Things”

As this is now abuzz-phrase you’ll see littering the press, I thought I’d put in my two-pence worth on this “new” subject.

The “Internet of Things” is a phrase used to describe things that can be controlled or monitored (or both) over the Internet.

In 1962  I was too young to be aware of what was happening outside of my own house! but at this time, a fellow called Licklider from MIT was describing what he called a “galactic network” concept in which computers all over the world would talk to each other. By 1969 4 machines were talking to each other in what was called “Arpanet” and the rest is well known… today, billions of machines are connected worldwide… but most folk think of everything from large computers down to mobile phones – what is slightly less well known is the massive spread late last century of “microcontrollers” which are now found in most everyday electronic gadgets (washing machines, industrial controllers etc. and which are often connected together by what is currently called “The Internet of Things”. Checkout Cloudwash if you’re interested in what might be done with domestic appliances. Here is another link to a Samsung phone controlled washing machine, the WW9000.

In 1963 my interest in electronics started with a “Philips E10” kit which started me on the path of building radio receivers, controlling lights and motors.. and I’ve been involved with electronics since then, writing articles, building machines and eventually turning my interest into a business in the 80’s and beyond.

In 1974, the X10 protocol was developed in Scotland (but strangely found much favour in America where, amongst others,  Steve Ciarcia made it popular with hobbyists -Steve Ciarcias Circuit Cellar magazine). This was a means of connecting gadgets around the home/office/factory for the purpose of remote control. In this case the signals were/are in fact sent over the mains electricity supply. Other solutions involve WIFI, Bluetooth, general radio, Infra-red and other mechanisms.

That takes care of the local connectivity while the Internet allows that remote control to extend worldwide.

In 1982, students at Carnegie Mellon University created the first ever “Internet connected soda vending machine”. I remember being fascinated at the possibilities this would bring, thousands, perhaps millions of machines of all shapes and sizes being controlled and monitored via the Internet from anywhere in the world. Of course at that time there was not even the concept of an Internet-connected mobile phone so that limited possibilities at the time – but this was enough to start me off and by May 1994 our company had developed a home control system called Appcon which basically let anyone control lights, alarms, heating and more from a PC – and by implication, by remotely controlling the PC, from anywhere. 

We used wire control and the mobile infrastructure was simply not ready for this. Today it is and we’re already starting to see simple light and heating control via mobile phones appearing on the market. We’re also seeing what I believe is only the tip of the iceberg in dire warnings in the press about security.  While Windows and the Internet in general have had a long time to get used to nasty people trying to break in and destroy – to the extent that virtually all of the public are aware of viruses, trojans and other means of destroying PCs, certainly the home control market has to date not been sufficiently important to attract large scale attempts at disruption – but it will happen – it’s just a matter of time.

Part of the problem is that the sophisticated anti-virus and other techniques used to protect PCs are simply not available to the simplest of controllers you might see in for example a remote light switch. Even HTTPS: which is a simple mechanism to encrypt data over the Intranet is mostly not available to the simplest of controllers.

Gartner reckon that by 2020, 30 BILLION devices will be connected to the Internet and bear in mind that the current IP4 system of Internet addressing allows for only 4.3 billion individual device addresses and that includes PCs and phones etc.!! Newer technologies such as IP6 which allow for a FAR greater number of devices are again not really available to the simplest of devices at this time so there are lots of changes and improvements to be made in the coming years.

In the meanwhile, much fun and entertainment is still to be had in this emerging field – enthusiasts using the likes of the Raspberry Pi, Arduino and other technologies are having a great time coming up with new ideas and new applications. The combination of local networking and remote control via the Internet has chance to dramatically change how we interact with the world in the coming years, offering massive possibilities for saving energy and doing things in completely new ways. Expect to hear a LOT more of this in the coming months.

For my own efforts I’m now controlling my own gadgets in 3 properties including modern lighting technologies and heating and already making savings on heating bills.

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