Updating my “SmartAging” device design criteria

Could seniors be the ideal test group for user-friendly consumer IoT devices?

Two years ago I created a series of criteria by which to evaluate IoT devices that seniors might use (N.B., I didn’t really focus on ones specifically designed for seniors, because I have an admitted bias against devices with huge buttons or that look like mid-century period tube radios — it’s been my experience that seniors aren’t crying out to be labeled as “different.”) to improve their quality of life.

The particular emphasis was on what I called “SmartAging,” which synthesizes two aspects of the IoT:

  • Quantified Self health devices to keep seniors healthier longer and to become partners with their doctors rather than passive recipients of care, and
  • smart home devices to make it easier to run their homes, so that seniors could remain on their own as long as possible rather than entering some drab, sterile assisted-living facility (again, my bias showing…).

A lot has happened since I compiled the list. The changes have solidified my conviction that seniors, especially the less technologically minded, might be the acid test of consumer IoT user friendliness because they can’t be expected to work as hard at mastering devices, they don’t have the automatic openness of digital natives, and encounter differing degrees of reduced agility, etc. 

Also, given the current political climate, it makes sense to try to improve seniors’ lives as much as possible without requiring costly public services that are in jeopardy (I am trying to be civil here, OK?).

The most dramatic of these developments is the amazing success of Amazon’s voice-activated Echo.  I’ve praised it before as an ideal device for seniors, partially because voice is such a natural input for anyone, and particularly because it means that the tech-averse don’t have to learn about interfaces or programs, just speak! Even better, as the variety of “skills” increases, the Echo really is becoming a unified SmartAging hub: I can now control my Sensi smart thermostats and the “Ask My Buddy” skill can even call for assistance, so it works for both halves of SmartAging.  Although I haven’t tested it, I assume much of this also holds true for the Google Home.

There’s an increasing variety of other new Quantified Self devices, some of which are specifically focused on seniors, such as the GreatCall Jitterbug Smart phone, which comes with a simplified, over-size home page featuring “brain games” a la Lumosity, and an Urgent Response system (all of these features are available on an iPhone and, I assume, on Android, but must be set in Settings rather than being the default settings).

In addition, on the personal level, I convinced my Apple Store (disclaimer: I’m at the bottom of the food chain with Apple, not privy to any policies or devices under consideration, so this is just my opinion) to let me start bi-weekly classes at the local senior center on how to use Apple devices, especially the iPad. I continue to work with a lot of seniors who come into the store who are often leery of tech products.

Silver Medal!

Most directly, last month’s companywide Apple Wellness Challenge was life-changing for me.  This year the friendly competition focused on the Apple Watch (important, since a watch is a familiar form-factor to geezers). After wasting three days trying to find the app, I really got into the event because we could share results with friends to encourage (or shame, LOL) them — that really motivated me.  Bottom line: I managed to win a Silver Medal, Apple featured my experience on the event website, and, most important, I made lasting changes to my fitness regimen that I’ve sustained since then, now exercising almost an entire hour a day. I couldn’t help think afterward that the program really did show that user-friendly technology can improve seniors’ lives.

Sooo, with a few more years to think about them and more progress in devices themselves, (as well as increased sensitivity to issues such as privacy and security) here are my amended criteria for evaluating products and services for seniors. As I mentioned the first time, Erich Jacobs of OnKöl assisted with the specs):

Ease of Use

  1. Does it give you a choice of ways to interact, such as voice, text or email? Voice in particular is good for seniors who don’t want to learn about technology, just use it.
  2. Is it easy for you to program, or — if you them give your permission — does it allow someone else to do it remotely?
  3. Does it have either a large display and controls or the option to configure them through settings?
  4. Is it intuitive?
  5. Does it require hard-wired, professional installation?
  6. Is it flexible: can it be adjusted? Is it single purpose, or does it allow other devices to plug in and create synergies? Can it be a true hub for all your IoT devices?
  7. Does it complicate your life, or simplify it?
  8. Do any components require regular charging, or battery replacement?

Privacy, Security, and Control

  1. Is storage local vs. cloud or company’s servers? Is data encrypted? Anonymized?
  2. Do you feel creepy using it?
  3. Is it password-protected?
  4. Is security “baked in” or an afterthought?
  5. Can you control how, when, and where information is shared?
  6. If it is designed to allow remote monitoring by family or caregivers, can you control access by them?
  7. Will it work when the power goes out?

Affordability

  1. Are there monthly fees? If so, low or high? Long term contract required?
  2. Is there major upfront cost? If so, is that offset by its versatility and/or the contrast to getting the same services from a company?
  3. Does full functioning require accessories?

Design/UX

  1. Is it stylish, or does the design” shout” that it’s for seniors? Is it “Medical” looking?
  2. Is the operation or design babyish?
  3. Would younger people use it?
  4. Is it sturdy?
  5. Does it have “loveability” (i.e., connect with the user emotionally)? (This term was coined by David Rose in Enchanted Objects, and refers to products that are adorable or otherwise bond with the user.)

Architecture

  1. Inbound
    1. Does it support multiple protocols (eg. Bluetooth, BluetoothLE, WiFi, etc)
    2. Is the architecture open or closed?
  2. Outbound
    1. Does it support multiple protocols (eg. WiFi, Ethernet, CDMA, GSM, etc)
    2. Data path (cloud, direct, etc)
  3. Remote configuration capability (i.e., by adult child)? If so, can the user control amount of outside access?

Features and Functions

  1. Reminders
    1. Passive, acknowledge only
    2. Active dispensing (of meds)
  2. Home Monitoring
    1. Motion/Passive Activity Monitoring
    2. Environmental Alarms (Smoke, CO, Water, Temp)
    3. Intrusion Alarms (Window etc)
    4. Facilities/Infrastructure (Thermostat)
  3. Health Monitoring
    1. Vitals Collection
    2. Wearables Activity Monitoring
    3. Behavioral/Status Polling (How are you feeling today?)
    4. Behavioral Self-improvement
  4. Communications Monitoring
    1. Landline/Caller ID
      1. Identify scammers
    2. eMail and computer use
      1. Identify scammers
    3. Mobile phone use
  5. Fixed Personal Emergency Response System (PERS)
  6. Mobile Personal Emergency Response System (PERS)
  7. Fixed Fall Detection/Prediction
  8. Mobile Fall Detection/Prediction
  9. Telehealth (Video)
  10. New and Innovative Features

If you’re thinking about developing an IoT product and/or service for seniors I hope you’ll consider the SmartAging concept, and that these criteria will be helpful. If you’re looking for consulting services on design and/or implementation, get in touch!

Sound’s emerging IoT role

Could sound be a critical IoT tool?

I’d fixated in the past on a metaphor I called “Collective Blindness,” as a way to explain how difficult it used to be to get accurate, real-time data about how a whole range of things, from tractors to your body, were actually working (or not) because we had no way to penetrate the surface of these objects as they were used. As a result, we created some not-so-great work-arounds to cope with this lack of information.

Then along came the IoT, and no more collective blindness!

Now I’m belatedly learning about some exciting efforts to use another sense, sound, for the IoT.  Most prominent, of course, is Amazon’s Alexa and her buddies (BTW, when I ask Siri if she knows Alexa, her response was an elusive “this is about you, not me,” LOL), but I’ve found a variety of start-ups pursuing quite different aspects of sound. They nicely illustrate the variety of ways sound might be used.

technician using Auguscope to detect   sound irregularities in machinery

First is Augury.

What I particularly love about their device and accompanying smartphone app it is that they are just about the lowest-cost, easiest-to-use, rapid payback industrial IoT devices I can think of.

That makes them a great choice to begin an incremental approach to the IoT, testing the waters by some measures that can be implemented quickly, pay rapid bottom-line benefits and therefore may lure skeptical senior management who might then be willing to then try bolder measures   (this incremental approach was what I outlined in my Managing the Internet of Things Revolution e-guide for SAP, and I’ll be doing a webinar on the approach in April with Mendix, which makes a nifty no-code, low-code tool).

Instead of requiring built-in sensors, an Auguscope is a hand-held device that plant personnel can carry anywhere in the building it’s needed to analyze how the HVAC system is working. A magnetic sensor temporarily attaches to the machine and the data flows from the Auguscope to the cloud where it is analyzed to see if the sound is deviating from pre-recorded normal sounds, indicating maintenance is needed. Consistent with other IoT products that are marketed as services instead of sold, it uses a “Diagnostics as a Service” model, so there are no up-front costs and customers pay as they go. The company hopes that the technology will eventually be built into household appliances such as washers and dryers.

Presenso is the second company using sound to enable predictive maintenance.  It is sophisticated cloud-based software that takes data from a wide range of already-installed sensors and interprets any kind of data: sound, temperature, voltage, etc.  It builds a model of the machine’s normal operating data and then creates visualizations when the data varies from the norm. Presenso’s power comes from combining artificial intelligence and big data.

Finally, and most creative is Chirp (hmm: Chrome wouldn’t let me enter their site, which it said was insecure. Here’s the URL:www.chirp.io/ — try at your own risk…) , a UK company that transmits data using audio clips that really sound like chirps. It’s amazing!  Check out this video of an app in India that uses sound to pay fares on the country’s version of Uber:


Another Chirp app is a godsend to all who forget Wi-Fi passwords: your phone “chirps” a secure access code, allowing you to join the network automatically.   The company has released iOS and Android versions.  As VentureBeat reported:

“Each chirp lasts a couple of seconds, and the receiving device “listens” for a handful of notes played quickly in a certain order, in a certain range, and at a certain speed. While there are other easy ways of sharing files and data in real-time, such as Bluetooth, Chirp doesn’t require devices to pair in advance, there is no need to set up an account, and it’s ultimately a much quicker way of sharing files.

“That said, with Chirp, the file itself isn’t sent peer-to-peer, and the data doesn’t actually travel directly via audio. Chirp merely decodes and encodes the file, with the associated sound serving as the delivery mechanism. A link is generated for the recipient(s) to access it on Chirp’s servers, but the process from sending to receiving is seamless and near-instant.”

In terms of IoT applications, it could also connect with physical objects (hmm: retailing uses??). The Chirp platform is so cool that I suspect it will be a global hit (the company says it’s already used in 90 countries).

So, I’ve had my senses opened: from now on, I’ll add voice and sound in general to the list of cool IoT attributes.  Because voice and sound are so ubiquitous, they really meet the late Mark Weiser’s test:  “the most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” What could be more woven into the fabric of everyday life than sound — and, potentially, more valuable?


BTW: let me put in a plug for another IoT voice product. During the past two months, I recorded 7 hours of my voice speaking a very strange mishmash of sentences drawn from, among others, Little Women, Jack London’s Call of the Wild, The Wizard of Oz, and The Velveteen Rabbit (I worried about the she-wolf sneaking up on Meg, LOL….). Using the algorithms developed for Alexa, the Vocal ID team will slice and dice my voice and create a natural sounding one for someone who cannot speak due to a birth defect or disease.  I hope you’ll join me in volunteering for this wonderful program.

Surprising Benefits of Combining IoT and Blockchain (they go beyond economic ones!)

One final effort to work this blockchain obsession out of my system so I can get on to some exciting other IoT news!

I couldn’t resist summarizing for you the key points in”Blockchain: the solution for transparency in product supply chains,” a white paper from Project Provenance Ltd., a London-based collective  (“Our common goal is to deliver meaningful change to commerce through open and accessible information about products and supply chains.”).

If you’ve followed any of the controversies over products such as “blood diamonds” or fish caught by Asian slaves & sold by US supermarkets, you know supply chains are not only an economic issue but also sometimes a vital social (and sometimes environmental) one. As the white paper warns:

“The choices we make in the marketplace determine which business practices thrive. From a diamond in a mine to a tree in a forest, it is the deepest darkest ends of supply chains that damage so much of the planet and its livelihood.”

Yikes!

Now blockchain can make doing the right thing easier and more profitable:

“Provenance enables every physical product to come with a digital ‘passport’ that proves authenticity (Is this product what it claims to be?) and origin (Where does this product come from?), creating an auditable record of the journey behind all physical products. The potential benefits for businesses, as well as for society and the environment, are hard to overstate: preventing the selling of fake goods, as well as the problem of ‘double spending’ of certifications present in current systems. The Decentralized Application (Dapp) proposed in this paper is still in development and we welcome businesses and standards organizations to join our consortium and collaborate on this new approach to understanding our material world.”

I also love Provenance’s work with blockchain because it demonstrates one of my IoT “Essential Truths,” namely, that we must share data rather than hoard it.  The exact same real-time data that can help streamline the supply chain to get fish to our stores quicker and with less waste can also mean that the people catching it are treated fairly. How cool is that?  Or, as Benjamin Herzberg, Program Lead, Private Sector Engagement for Good Governance at the World Bank Institute puts it in the quote that begins the paper, Now, in the hyper-connected and ever-evolving world, transparency is the new power.

While I won’t summarize the entire paper, I do recommend that you so, especially if blockchain is still new to you, because it gives a very detailed explanation of each blockchain component.

Instead, let’s jump in with the economic benefits of a blockchain and IoT-enabled supply chain, since most companies won’t consider it, no matter what the social benefits, if it doesn’t help the bottom line. The list is long, and impressive:

  • “Interoperable: A modular, interoperable platform that eliminates the possibility of double spending
  • Auditable: An auditable record that can be inspected and used by companies, standards organizations, regulators, and customers alike
  • Cost-efficient:  A solution to drastically reduce costs by eliminating the need for ‘handling companies’ to be audited
  • Real-time and agile:  A fast and highly accessible sign-up means quick deployment
  • Public: The openness of the platform enables innovation and could achieve bottom-up transparency in supply chains instead of burdensome top-down audits
  • Guaranteed continuity:  The elimination of any central operator ensures inclusiveness and longevity” (my emphasis)

Applying it to a specific need, such as documenting that a food that claims to be organic really is, blockchain is much more efficient and economical than cumbersome current systems, which usually rely on some third party monitoring and observing the process.  As I’ve mentioned before, the exquisite paradox of blockchain-based systems is that they are secure and trustworthy specifically because no one individual or program controls them: it’s done through a distributed system where all the players may, in fact, distrust each other:

“The blockchain removes the need for a trusted central organization that operates and maintains this system. Using blockchains as a shared and secure platform, we are able to see not only the final state (which mimics the real world in assigning the materials for a given product under the ownership of the final customer), but crucially, we are able to overcome the weaknesses of current systems by allowing one to securely audit all transactions that brought this state of being into effect; i.e., to inspect the uninterrupted chain of custody from the raw materials to the end sale.

“The blockchain also gives us an unprecedented level of certainty over the fidelity of the information. We can be sure that all transfers of ownership were explicitly authorized by their relevant controllers without having to trust the behavior or competence of an incumbent processor. Interested parties may also audit the production and manufacturing avatars and verify that their “on-chain” persona accurately reflects reality.”

The white paper concludes by also citing an additional benefit that I’ve mentioned before: facilitating the switch to an environmentally-sound “circular economy,” which requires not only tracking the creation of things, but also their usage, trying to keep them out of landfills. “The system proposed in this paper would not only allow the creation (including all materials, grades, processes etc) and lifecycle (use, maintenance etc) to be logged on the blockchain, but this would also make it easy to access this information when products are returned to be assessed and remanufactured into a new item.”

Please do read the whole report, and think how the economic benefits of applying blockchain-enabled IoT practices to your supply chain can also warm your heart.

 

More Blockchain Synergies With IoT: Supply Chain Optimization

The more I learn about blockchain’s possible uses — this time for supply chains — the more convinced I am that it is absolutely essential to full development of the IoT’s potential.

I recently raved about blockchain’s potential to perhaps solve the IoT’s growing security and privacy challenges. Since then, I’ve discovered that it can also further streamline and optimize the supply chain, another step toward the precision that I think is such a hallmark of the IoT.

As I’ve written before, the ability to instantly share (something we could never do before) real-time data about your assembly line’s status, inventories, etc. with your supply chain can lead to unprecdented integration of the supply chain and factory, much of it on a M2M basis without any human intervention. It seems to me that the blockchain can be the perfect mechanism to bring about this synchronization.

A brief reminder that, paradoxically, it’s because blockchain entries (blocks) are shared, and distributed (vs. centralized) that it’s secure without using a trusted intermediary such as a bank, because no one participant can change an entry after it’s posted.

Complementing the IBM video I included in my last post on the subject, here’s one that I think succinctly summarizes blockchain’s benefits:

A recent LoadDelivered article detailed a number of the benefits from building your supply chain around blockchain. They paralleling the ones I mentioned in my prior post regarding its security benefits, of using blockchain to organize your supply chain (with some great links for more details):

  • “Recording the quantity and transfer of assets – like pallets, trailers, containers, etc. – as they move between supply chain nodes (Talking Logistics)
  • Tracking purchase orders, change orders, receipts, shipment notifications, or other trade-related documents
  • Assigning or verifying certifications or certain properties of physical products; for example determining if a food product is organic or fair trade (Provenance)
  • Linking physical goods to serial numbers, bar codes, digital tags like RFID, etc.
  • Sharing information about manufacturing process, assembly, delivery, and maintenance of products with suppliers and vendors.”

That kind of information, derived from real-time IoT sensor data, should be irresistible to companies compared to the relative inefficiency of today’s supply chain.

The article goes on to list a variety of benefits:

  • “Enhanced Transparency. Documenting a product’s journey across the supply chain reveals its true origin and touchpoints, which increases trust and helps eliminate the bias found in today’s opaque supply chains. Manufacturers can also reduce recalls by sharing logs with OEMs and regulators (Talking Logistics).
  • Greater Scalability. Virtually any number of participants, accessing from any number of touchpoints, is possible (Forbes).
  • Better Security. A shared, indelible ledger with codified rules could potentially eliminate the audits required by internal systems and processes (Spend Matters).
  • Increased Innovation. Opportunities abound to create new, specialized uses for the technology as a result of the decentralized architecture.”

Note that it the advantages aren’t all hard numbers, but also allowing marketing innovations, similar to the way the IoT allows companies to begin marketing their products as services because of real-time data from the products in the field. In the case of applying it to the supply chain (food products, for example), manufacturers could get a marketing advantage because they could offer objective, tamper-proof documentation of the product’s organic or non-GMO origins. Who would have thought that technology whose primary goal is increasing operating efficiency could have these other, creative benefits as well?

Applying  blockchain to the supply chain is getting serious attention, including a pilot program in the Port of Rotterdam, Europe’s largest.  IBM, Intel, Cisco and Accenture are among the blue-chip members of Hyperledger, a new open source Linux Foundation collaboration to further develop blockchain. Again, it’s the open source, decentralized aspect of blockchain that makes it so effective.

Logistics expert Adrian Gonzalez is perhaps the most bullish on blockchain’s potential to revolutionize supply chains:

“the peer-to-peer, decentralized architecture of blockchain has the potential to trigger a new wave of innovation in how supply chain applications are developed, deployed, and used….(becoming) the new operating system for Supply Chain Operating Networks

It’s also another reminder of the paradoxical wisdom of one of my IoT “Essential Truths,” that we must learn to ask “who else could share this information” rather than hoarding it as in the past. It is the very fact that blockchain data is shared that means it can’t be tampered with by a single actor.

What particularly intrigues me about widespread use of blockchain at the heart of companies’ operations and fueled by real-time data from IoT sensors and other devices is that it would ensure that privacy and security, which I otherwise fear would always be an afterthought, would instead be inextricably linked with achieving efficiency gains. That would make companies eager to embrace the blockchain, assuring their attention to privacy and security as part of the deal. That would be a definite win-win.

Blockchain must definitely be on your radar in 2017.

 

Lo and behold, right after I posted this, news that WalMart, the logistics savants, are testing blockchain for supply chain management!

 

IoT Intangibles: Increased Customer Loyalty

There are so many direct, quantifiable benefits of the IoT, such as increased quality (that 99.9988% quality rate at Siemens’s Amberg plant!) and precision, that we may forget there are also potential intangible benefits.

Most important of those is customer loyalty, brought about by dramatic shifts both in product designs and how they are marketed.

Much of this results from the IoT lifting the veil of Collective Blindness to which I’ve referred before: in particular, our prior inability to document how products were actually used once they left the loading dock. As I’ve speculated, that probably meant that manufacturers got deceptive information about how customers actually used products and their degree of satisfaction. The difficulty of getting feedback logically meant that those who most liked and most hated a product were over-represented: those who kinda liked it weren’t sufficiently motivated to take the extra steps to be heard.

Now, by contrast, product designers, marketers, and maintenance staffs can share (that critical verb from my Circular Company vision!) real-time data about how a product is actually operating in the field, often from a “digital twin” they can access right at their desks.

Why’s that important?

It can give them easy insights (especially if those different departments do access and discuss the data at the same time, each offering its own unique perspectives, on issues that will build customer loyalty:

  • what new features can we add that will keep them happy?
  • can we offer upgrades such as new operating software (such as the Tesla software that was automatically installed in every single car and avoided a recall) that will provide better customer experiences and keep the product fresh?
  • what possible maintenance problems can we spot in their earliest stages, so we can put “predictive maintenance” services into play at minimal cost and bother to the customer?

I got interested in this issue of product design and customer loyalty while consulting for IBM in the 9o’s, when it introduced the IBM PS 2E (for Energy & Environmental), a CES best-of-show winner in part because of its snap-together modular design. While today’s thin-profile-at-all-costs PC and laptop designs have made user-friendly upgrades a distant memory, one of the things that appealed to me about this design was the realization that if you could keep users satisfied that they were on top of  new developments by incremental substitution of new modules, they’d be more loyal and less likely to explore other providers.

In the same vein, as GE has found, the rapid feedback can dramatically speed upgrades and new features. That’s important for loyalty: if you maintain a continuing interaction with the customer and anticipate their demands for new features, they’ll have less reason to go on the open market and evaluate all of your competitors’ products when they do want to move up.

 

Equally important for customer loyalty is the new marketing options that the continuous flow of real-time operating data offer you. For a growing number of companies, that means they’re no longer selling products, but leasing them, with the price based on actual customer usage: if it ain’t bein’ used, it ain’t costing them anything and it ain’t bringing you any revenue!

Examples include:

  • jet turbines which, because of the real-time data flow, can be marketed on the basis of thrust generated: if it’s sitting on the ground, the leasee doesn’t pay.  The same real-time data flow allows the manufacturer to schedule predictive maintenance at the earliest sign of a problem, reducing both its cost and the impact on the customer.
  • Siemens’s Mobility Services, which add in features such as 3-D manufactured spare parts that speed maintenance and reduced costs, keeping the trains running.
  • Philips’s lighting services, which are billed on the basis of use, not sold.
  • SAP’s prototype smart vending machine, which (if you opt in) may offer you a special discount based on your past purchasing habits.

At its most extreme is Caterpillar’s Reman process, where the company takes back and remanufactures old products, giving them a new life — and creating new revenues — when competitors’ products are in the landfill.

Loyalty can also be a benefit of IoT strategies for manufacturers’ own operations as well. Remember that the technological obstacles to instant sharing of real-time data have been eliminted for the supply chain as well. If you choose to share it, your resupply programs can also be automatically triggered on a M2M basis, giving an inherent advantage to the domestic supplier who can get the needed part there in a few hours, versua the low-cost supplier abroad who may take weeks to reach your loading dock.

It may be harder to quantify than quality improvements or streamlined production through the IoT, but that doesn’t mean that dependable revenue streams from loyal customers aren’t an important potential benefit as well.

Amazon Echo: great tech present for your tech-averse parents!

Never let it be said that I get serious about my Christmas shopping until about this date!

This year, my major suggestion is about a product that it took me a full year to buy after my mother-in-law of a certain age sent last Christmas’s check: never let it be said that I rush into purchases of any kind (I should explain that I’m like the Beacon Hill Brahmin lady who explained to a New York counterpart asking where she bought her hat: “We don’t buy hats. We have hats.” Similarly, I try to avoid buying absolutely anything: I just have what I absolutely need. A strange and complex bird, I am …).

The item in question? An Amazon Echo, which, characteristically, I bought refurbished for $50 off!

Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo

That leads me to a last-minute suggestion for an unlikely use of said Echo: introducing your tech-averse parent to the benefits of smart home and Quantified Self technology (AKA my “SmartAging” paradigm to keep seniors healthy and in their own homes instead of an institution).

 As I wrote a year ago, I think the neatest thing about the Echo in that regard (and, to a lesser extent, other voice-controlled IoT devices, although they’re handicapped because they just don’t have Alexa’s quick response time and already huge and constantly growing list of “skills) is that you don’t need to know any technology to use it: you just say “Alexa:….” and she does it!

While I knew the Echo had gone far beyond its original use to stream music, I had no idea until I bought it how robust and rapidly-growing it’s “skills” have become, and that it’s really a full-fledged smart home hub (why buy a dedicated hub that just sits there and doesn’t provide any of the Echo’s other benefits? Got me..).  It’s hard to keep up, but a recent Turbo Future article, “Amazon Echo: 15 Best New Features,” gives a pretty good overview, and it seems to me that most of them involve various services that can make it a lot easier, and definitely more enjoyable, for aging parents to continue to live in and manage their homes (although some judicious Christmas morning set-up by adult children may be in order for those seniors who avoid technology like the plague), because all you have to do is talk and listen! They’ll appreciate Alexa even more if their hands are full, which is often the case in the kitchen.

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • shopping lists: my wife doesn’t share my love of gadgetry, but we both love this simple service.  Say “Alexa, add flour to my shopping list,” and it’s instantly on the Alexa app on your phone, to pull out at the supermarket. As someone who dutifully makes shopping lists and then always forgets them, that’s worth the service alone.  I won’t buy my household staples from Amazon because, despite the savings, I don’t like the ecological impact that specialized service causes, but if that’s not an issue for you, you can order products directly from Amazon using Alexa.
  • ordering services: you can hail an Uber or order a Domino’s Pizza. For a senior who doesn’t have a car, that can be great!
  • music: obviously the prime market for Amazon’s and other streaming music services such as Pandora is millennials, but, guess what, you can even get Guy Lombardo (the soundtrack of my earliest years because of my parents’ 78’s) simply by asking Alexa.  The ultimate time machine!
  • books: if you parent has vision problems, audible books may be a boon, and since Amazon now owns Audible, this is also possible.
  • news: I’ve been trying to wean myself from the news since Something Bad Happened Last Month, but I’m still drawn like a moth to the flame, so I can get NPR instantly. A growing variety of other sources are also available.
  • smart home: I just installed two Sensi thermostats as I get deeper into smart home technology on the home front. Even though they have a great app that lets me adjust the temp when I’m away from home, it’s neat to just say “Alexa, turn down the heat two degrees” and have her do the work, not me! Next up? Adding my WeMo lights.
  • cooking: even though you can now get Echo’s little brothers (Dot and Tap) for use elsewhere in the home — or even outdoors — most Echos are found in the kitchen, and nothing is worse than flour-covered hands on a cookbook.  Now you can even ask Alexa for a great recipe for a certain dish, use it to make your shopping list, and follow the steps for making the dish, all just by asking her. Neato.
  • calendar: they may not be working anymore, but seniors have got a lot of appointments — the doctor, or my wife’s 95-year old aunt’s tango lessons (I kid you not!), so if you link your Google Calendar, Alexa will make sure you’re not late.

Equally important (and I suspect this will become more of a feature in the near future) the Echo can even help you stay on top of the other part of my SmartAging vision: improving your health, because you can access your Fitbit data.  There’s already a skill to help parents with kiddies’ ailments, from our Children’s Hospital, so why not one for geriatrics as well??

That’s just for now, and independent developers are adding new “skills” for Alexa at a dizzying pace.  So, if you still don’t have a present for Grannie? Get her an Echo, and since it’s from Amazon, she’ll still get it by the 25th!

 

Blockchain might be answer to IoT security woes

Could blockchain be the answer to IoT security woes?

I hope so, because I’d like to get away from my recent fixation on IoT security breaches and their consequences,  especially the Mirai botnet attack that brought a large of the Internet to its knees this Fall and the even scarier (because it involved Philips, a company that takes security seriously) white-hat hackers attack on Hue bulbs.  As I’ve written, unless IoT security is improved, the public and corporations will lose faith in it and the IoT will never develop to its full potential.

Now, there’s growing discussion that blockchain (which makes bitcoin possible), might offer a good IoT security platform.

Ironically — for something dealing with security — blockchain’s value in IoT may be because the data is shared and no one person owns it or can alter it unilaterally (BTW, this is one more example of my IoT “Essential Truth” that with the IoT data should be shared, rather than hoarded as in the past.

If you’re not familiar with blockchain, here’s an IBM video, using an example from the highly security-conscious diamond industry, that gives a nice summary of how it works and why:

The key aspects of blockchain is that it:

  • is transparent
  • can trace all aspects of actions or transactions (critical for complex sequences of actions in an IoT process)
  • is distributed: there’s a shared form of record keeping, that everyone in the process can access.
  • requires permission — everyone has permission for every step
  • is secure: no one person — even a system administrator — can alter it without group approval.

Of these, perhaps the most important aspect for IoT security is that no one person can change the blockchain unilaterally, adding something (think malware) without the action being permanently recorded and without every participant’s permission.  To add a new transaction to the blockchain, all the members must validate it by applying an algorithm to confirm its validity.

The blockchain can also increase efficiency by reducing the need for intermediaries, and it’s a much better way to handle the massive flood of data that will be generated by the IoT.

The Chain of Things think tank and consortium is taking the lead on exploring blockchain’s application to the IoT. The group describes itself as “technologists at the nexus of IoT hardware manufacturing and alternative blockchain applications.” They’ve run several blockchain hackathons, and are working on open standards for IoT blockchains.

Contrast blockchain with the current prevailing IoT security paradigm.  As Datafloq points out, it’s based on the old client-server approach, which really doesn’t work with the IoT’s complexity and variety of connections: “Connection between devices will have to exclusively go through the internet, even if they happen to be a few feet apart.”  It doesn’t make sense to try to funnel the massive amounts of data that will result from widespread deployment of billions of IoT devices and sensor through a centralized model when a decentralized, peer-to-peer alternative would be more economical and efficient.

Datafloq concludes:

“Blockchain technology is the missing link to settle scalability, privacy, and reliability concerns in the Internet of Things. Blockchain technologies could perhaps be the silver bullet needed by the IoT industry. Blockchain technology can be used in tracking billions of connected devices, enable the processing of transactions and coordination between devices; allow for significant savings to IoT industry manufacturers. This decentralized approach would eliminate single points of failure, creating a more resilient ecosystem for devices to run on. The cryptographic algorithms used by blockchains, would make consumer data more private.”

I love it: paradoxically, sharing data makes it more secure!  Until something better comes along and/or the nature of IoT strategy challenges changes, it seems to me this should be the basis for secure IoT data transmission!

 

 

 

Libelium: flexibility a key strategy for IoT startups

I’ve been fixated recently on venerable manufacturing firms such as 169-yr. old Siemens making the IoT switch.  Time to switch focus, and look at one of my fav pure-play IoT firms, Libelium.  I think Libelium proves that smart IoT firms must, above all, remain nimble and flexible,  by three interdependent strategies:

  • avoiding picking winners among communications protocols and other standards.
  • avoiding over-specialization.
  • partnering instead of going it alone.
Libelium CEO Alicia Asin

Libelium CEO Alicia Asin

If you aren’t familiar with Libelium, it’s a Spanish company that recently turned 10 (my, how time flies!) in a category littered with failures that had interesting concepts but didn’t survive. Bright, young, CEO Alicia Asin, one of my favorite IoT thought leaders (and do-ers!) was recently named best manager of the year in the Aragón region in Spain.  I sat down with her for a wide-ranging discussion when she recently visited the Hub of the Universe.

I’ve loved the company since its inception, particularly because it is active in so many sectors of the IoT, including logistics, industrial control, smart meters, home automation and a couple of my most favorite, agriculture (I have a weak spot for anything that combines “IoT” AND “precision”!) and smart cities.  I asked Asin why the company hadn’t picked one of those verticals as its sole focus: “it was too risky to choose one market. That’s still the same: the IoT is still so fragmented in various verticals.”

The best illustration of the company’s strategy in action is its Waspmote sensor platform, which it calls the “most complete Internet of Things platform in the market with worldwide certifications.” It can monitor up to 120 sensors to cover hundreds of IoT applications in the wide range of markets Libelium serves with this diversified strategy, ranging from the environment to “smart” parking.  The new versions of their sensors include actuators, to not simply report data, but also allow M2M control of devices such as irrigation valves, thermostats, illumination systems, motors and PLC’s. Equally important, because of the potentially high cost of having to replace the sensors, the new ones use extremely little power, so they can last        .

Equally important as the company’s refusal to limit itself to a single vertical market is its commitment to open systems and multiple communications protocols, including LoRaWAN, SIGFOX, ZigBee and 4G — a total of 16 radio technologies. It also provides both open source SDK and APIs.

Why?  As Asin told me:

 

“There is not going to be a standard. This (competiting standards and technology) is the new normal.

“I talk to some cities that want to become involved in smart cities, and they say we want to start working on this but we want to use the protocol that will be the winner.

“No one knows what will be the winner.

“We use things that are resilient. We install all the agents — if you aren’t happy with one, you just open the interface and change it. You don’t have to uninstall anything. What if one of these companies increases their prices to heaven, or you are not happy with the coverage, or the company disappears? We allow you to have all your options open.

“The problem is that this (not picking a standard) is a new message, and people don’t like to listen.  This is how we interpret the future.”

Libelium makes 110 different plug and play sensors (or as they call them, “Plug and Sense,” to detect a wide range of data from sources including gases, events, parking, energy use, agriculture, and water.  They claim the lowest power consumption in the industry, leading to longer life and lower maintenance and operating costs.

Finally, the company doesn’t try to do everything itself: Libelium has a large and growing partner network (or ecosystem, as it calls it — music to the ears of someone who believes in looking to nature for profitable business inspiration). Carrying the collaboration theme even farther, they’ve created an “IoT Marketplace,” where pre-assembled device combinations from Libelium and partners can be purchased to meet the specific needs of niches such as e-health,  vineyards, water quality, smart factories, and smart parking.  As the company says, “the lack of integrated solutions from hardware to application level is a barrier for fast adoption,” and the kits take away that barrier.

I can’t stress it enough: for IoT startups that aren’t totally focused on a single niche (a high-stakes strategy), Libelium offers a great model because of its flexibility, agnostic view of standards, diversification among a variety of niches, and eagerness to collaborate with other vendors.


BTW: Asin is particularly proud of the company’s newest offering, My Signals,which debuted in October and has already won several awards.  She told me that they hope the device will allow delivering Tier 1 medical care to billions of underserved people worldwide who live in rural areas with little access to hospitals.  It combines 15 different sensors measuring the most important body parameters that would ordinarily be measured in a hospital, including ECG, glucose, airflow, pulse, oxygen in

It combines 15 different sensors measuring the most important body parameters that would ordinarily be measured in a hospital, including ECG, glucose, airflow, pulse, blood oxygen, and blood pressure. The data is encrypted and sent to the Libelium Cloud in real-time to be visualized on the user’s private account.

It fits in a small suitcase and costs less than 1/100th the amount of a traditional Emergency Observation Unit.

The kit was created to make it possible for m-health developers to create prototypes cheaply and quickly.

Siemens’s MindSphere: from automation to digitalization

Perhaps the most important component of a successful IoT transformation is building it on a robust platform, because that alone can let your company go beyond random IoT experiments to achieve an integrated IoT strategy that can add new components systematically and create synergistic benefits by combining the various aspects of the program.

A good starting point for discussion of such platforms is a description of the eight key platform components as detailed by IoT Analytics:

  1. “Connectivity & normalization: brings different protocols and different data formats into one ‘software’  interface ensuring accurate data streaming and interaction with all devices.
  2. Device management: ensures the connected ‘things’ are working properly, seamlessly running patches and updates for software and applications running on the device or edge gateways.
  3. Database: scalable storage of device data brings the requirements for hybrid cloud-based databases to a new level in terms of data volume, variety, velocity and veracity.
  4. Processing & action management: brings data to life with rule-based event-action-triggers enabling execution of ‘smart’ actions based on specific sensor data.
  5. Analytics: performs a range of complex analysis from basic data clustering and deep machine learning to predictive analytics extracting the most value out of the IoT data-stream.
  6. Visualization: enables humans to see patterns and observe trends from visualization dashboards where data is vividly portrayed through line-, stacked-, or pie charts, 2D- or even 3D-models.
  7. Additional tools: allow IoT developers prototype, test and market the IoT use case creating platform ecosystem apps for visualizing, managing and controlling connected devices.
  8. External interfaces: integrate with 3rd-party systems and the rest of the wider IT-ecosystem via built-in application programming interfaces (API), software development kits (SDK), and gateways.”

Despite (or because of, the complexity,) I think this is a decent description, because a robust IoT platf0rm really must encompass so many functions. The eight points give a basis for deciding whether what a company hawks as an IoT platform really deserves that title or really constitutes only part of the necessary whole (Aside: it’s also a great illustration of my Essential Truth that, instead of hoarding data as in the past, we must begin to ask “who else can use this data?” either inside the company or, potentially, outside, then use technology such as an IoT platform to integrate all those data uses productively.).

During my recent Barcelona trip (disclaimer: Siemens paid my way and arranged special access to some of its key decision makers, but made no attempt to limit my editorial judgment) I interviewed the company’s Chief Strategy Officer, Dr. Horst J. Kayser, who made it clear (as I mentioned in my earlier post about Siemens) that one of the advantages the company has over pure-play software firms is that it can apply its software offerings internally first and tweak them there, because of its 169-year heritage as a manufacturer, and “sits on a vast program of automation.”

Siemens’s IoT platform, MindSphere  is a collaboration with SAP, using the latter’s vast HANA cloud.  It ties together all components of Siemens’s IoT offerings, including data analytics, connectivity capabilities, developers’ tools, applications and services. MindSphere focuses on monitoring manufacturing assets’ real-time status, to evaluate and use customers’ data, producing insights that can cut production costs, improve performance, and even switch to predictive maintenance. Its Mind Connect Nano collects data from the assets and transferring it to MindSphere.

The “digital twin” is integrated throughout the MindSphere platform. Kayser says that “there’s a digital twin of the entire process, from conception through the manufacturing and maintenance, and it feeds the data back into the model.” In fact,  one dramatic example of the concept in action is the new Maserati Ghibli, created in 16 months instead of 30 — almost 50% less time than for prior models.  Using the Teamcenter PLM software, the team was able to virtually develop and extensively test the car before anything was created physically.

IMHO, Mindsphere and components such as Teamware might really be the key to actualizing my dream of the circular company, in this case with the IoT-based real-time digital twin at the heart of the enterprise — as Kayser said, “everything is done through one consistent data set.)” I hope to explore my concept, and the benefits I think it can produce, more with the Siemens strategists in the future!  I tried the idea out on several of them in Barcelona, and no one laughed, so we’ll see…

As with the company’s rail digitization services that I mentioned in my earlier post, there’s an in-house guinea pig for MindSphere as well: the company’s “Factory of the Future” in Amberg. The plant manufactures Simatic controllers, the key to the company’s automation products and services, to which digitalization is now being added as part of the company’s Industrie 4.0 IoT plan for manufacturing (paralleling GE’s “Industrial Internet.”). As you may be aware, Siemens’s efforts in this area are a subset of a formal German government/industry initiative — I  doubt seriously we’ll see this in the U.S. under Trump.

The results of digitalization at Amberg are astonishing by any measure, especially the ultimate accomplishment: a  99.9988 percent rate (no typo!!), which is even more incredible when you realize this is not mass production with long, uniform production runs: the plant manufactures more than 1,000 varieties of the controllers, with a total volume of 12 million Simatic products each year, or about one per second.  Here are some of the other benefits of what they call an emphasis on optimizing the entire value chain:

  • shorter delivery time: 24 hours from order.
  • time to market reduced by up to 50%.
  • cost savings of up to 25%

Of course there are several other robust IoT platforms, including GE’s Predix and PTC’s Thingworx, but my analysis shows that Mindsphere meets IoT Analytics’ criteria, and, combined with the company’s long background in manufacturing and automation, should make it a real player in the industrial internet. Bravo!

When Philips’s Hue Bulbs Are Attacked, IoT Security Becomes Even Bigger Issue

OK, what will it take to make security (and privacy) job #1 for the IoT industry?

The recent Mirai DDoS attack should have been enough to get IoT device companies to increase their security and privacy efforts.

Now we hear that the Hue bulbs from Philips, a global electronics and IoT leader that DOES emphasize security and doesn’t cut corners, have been the focus of a potentially devastating attack (um, just wonderin’: how does triggering mass epileptic seizures through your light bulbs grab you?).

Since it’s abundantly clear that the US president-elect would rather cut regulations than add needed ones (just announcing that, for every new regulation, two must be cut), the burden of improving IoT security will lie squarely on the shoulders of the industry itself. BTW:kudos in parting to outgoing FTC Chair Edith Ramirez, who has made intelligent, workable IoT regulations in collaboration with self-help efforts by the industry a priority. Will we be up to the security challenge, or, as I’ve warned before, will security and privacy lapses totally undermine the IoT in its adolescence by losing the public and corporate confidence and trust that is so crucial in this particular industry?

Count me among the dubious.

Here’s what happened in this truly scary episode, which, for the first time, presages making the focus of an IoT hack an entire city, by exploiting what might otherwise be a smart city/smart grid virtue: a large installed base of smart bulbs, all within communication distance of each other. The weapons? An off-the-shelf drone and an USB stick (the same team found that a car will also do nicely as an attack vector). Fortunately, the perpetrators in this case were a group of white-hat hackers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and Dalhousie University in Canada, who reported it to Philips so they could implement additional protections, which the company did.

Here’s what they wrote about their plan of attack:

“In this paper we describe a new type of threat in which adjacent IoT devices will infect each other with a worm that will spread explosively over large areas in a kind of nuclear chain reaction (my emphasis), provided that the density of compatible IoT devices exceeds a certain critical mass. In particular, we developed and verified such an infection using the popular Philips Hue smart lamps as a platform.

“The worm spreads by jumping directly from one lamp to its neighbors, using only their built-in ZigBee wireless connectivity and their physical proximity. The attack can start by plugging in a single infected bulb anywhere in the city, and then catastrophically spread everywhere within minutes, enabling the attacker to turn all the city lights on or off, permanently brick them, or exploit them in a massive DDOS attack (my emphasis). To demonstrate the risks involved, we use results from percolation theory to estimate the critical mass of installed devices for a typical city such as Paris whose area is about 105 square kilometers: The chain reaction will fizzle if there are fewer than about 15,000 randomly located smart lights in the whole city, but will spread everywhere when the number exceeds this critical mass (which had almost certainly been surpassed already (my emphasis).

“To make such an attack possible, we had to find a way to remotely yank already installed lamps from their current networks, and to perform over-the-air firmware updates. We overcame the first problem by discovering and exploiting a major bug in the implementation of the Touchlink part of the ZigBee Light Link protocol, which is supposed to stop such attempts with a proximity test. To solve the second problem, we developed a new version of a side channel attack to extract the global AES-CCM key that Philips uses to encrypt and authenticate new firmware. We used only readily available equipment costing a few hundred dollars, and managed to find this key without seeing any actual updates. This demonstrates once again how difficult it is to get security right even for a large company that uses standard cryptographic techniques to protect a major product.”

Again, this wasn’t one of those fly-by-night Chinese manufacturers of low-end IoT devices, but Philips, a major, respected, and vigilant corporation.

As for the possible results? It could:

  •  jam WiFi connections
  • disturb the electric grid
  • brick devices making entire critical systems inoperable
  • and, as I mentioned before, cause mass epileptic seizures.

As for the specifics, according to TechHive, the researchers installed Hue bulbs in several offices in an office building in the Israeli city of Beer Sheva. In a nice flair for the ironic, the building housed several computer security firms and the Israeli Computer Emergency Response Team.  They attached the attack kit on the USB stick to a drone, and flew it toward the building from 350 meters away. When they got to the building they took over the bulbs and made them flash the SOS signal in Morse Code.

The researchers”were able to bypass any prohibitions against remote access of the networked light bulbs, and then install malicious firmware. At that point the researchers were able to block further wireless updates, which apparently made the infection irreversible. ‘There is no other method of reprogramming these [infected] devices without full disassemble (which is not feasible). Any old stock would also need to be recalled, as any devices with vulnerable firmware can be infected as soon as power is applied.’”

Worst of all, the attack was against Zigbee, one of the most robust and widely-used IoT protocols, an IoT favorite because Zigbee networks tend to be cheaper and simpler than WiFi or BlueTooth.

The attack points up one of the critical ambiguities about the IoT. On one hand, the fact that it allows networking of devices leads to “network effects,” where each device becomes more valuable because of the synergies with other IoT devices. On the other hand, that same networking and use of open standards means that penetrating one device can mean ultimately penetrating millions and compounding the damage.


I’m hoping against hope that when Trump’s team tries to implement cyber-warfare protections they’ll extend the scope to include the IoT because of this specific threat. If they do, they’ll realize that you can’t just say yes cyber-security and no, regulations. In the messy world of actually governing, rather than issuing categorical dictums, you sometimes have to embrace the messy world of ambiguity.  

What do you think?