A vast, seamless network of digital devices, inanimate objects, and even living creatures. It sounds almost too futuristic to be true, but since 2008, the number of physical items connected to the internet has exceeded the number of people on Earth. IPv6 provides virtually limitless digital real estate, and even the most mundane items can now be connected to the World Wide Web. The internet of things has already arrived on the commercial scene, and it may soon be popular in classrooms around the world.
Manufacturers and retailers have been using smart objects for years. RFID chips and other tiny trackers streamline inventory management and prevent theft. Near-field communication technology allows consumers to quickly pay for gas, groceries, and other essentials with the swipe of a smart phone. Some companies have even used sensor networks to monitor warehoused products for temperature changes, moisture content, and other damage indicators.
As you can in see in this IBM video, tech companies, contractors, and governments are planning to digitize physical objects on a far larger scale. City-wide “smart grids” would allow for instant updates on traffic, transportation, and weather conditions. In fact, similar systems are already being used to respond to water main breaks and power outages. If this kind of tech becomes commonplace, it could help both city officials and homeowners to drastically improve their energy efficiencies.
Helping Higher Ed
Learning analytics, resource management, research, and more – the educational applications of smart objects are almost endless. The internet of things is still most popular among governments and commercial giants, but universities are rapidly catching up.
Take Northern Arizona University, for instance. In 2010, NAU admins implemented a new student ID system wherein each card contains an RFID chip. Even in large lectures, teachers can track attendance and alter grades accordingly.
NAU’s ID system has received obvious criticisms, but RFID-equipped cards allow for far more than simple attendance tracking. They could make it easier for professors and administrators to collect data on study habits, bookstore purchases, and CMS use. Ultimately, this data could be incorporated into a full-fledged analytics system to customize students’ educations.
Historians and archaeologists can also use smart objects in the same ways as shippers and retailers. Tiny, affordable trackers can be used to catalog massive collections of documents, artifacts, and fossils. Just such a system was recently implemented at New Zealand’s Otago Museum, where over two million items were fitted with RFID tags. Future systems may also incorporate environmental sensors for particularly sensitive pieces.
As for research, there’s never been a better way to study hard-to-reach animals. Spanish biologists recently used a new RFID system to observe marine life in salt water – a medium that tends to disrupt other forms of radio communication. Tags can also help lab researchers to reliably track multitudes of mice and other test subjects.
Now that the internet of things has gained a foothold in higher education, a few universities are spearheading further innovation. Penn State Behrend established its RFID Center in 2005, and smart object tech is now an integral part of its business and engineering curricula. At NYU, students in the Sensitive Buildings Class are creating prototypes for large-scale sensor networks. Their inventions allow apartment managers to monitor temperature, humidity, air quality, and even foot traffic.
Aside from these university-based projects, there are a few tools in the works for designers and hobbyists. Most notable is Arduino, an open-source platform for creating interactive objects. The small circuit board – which users can purchase or build by hand – can be programmed to control almost any lab hardware or home appliance.
Supermechnical has also released Twine, a similar product they describe as “the simplest way to connect stuff to the internet.” A small, inconspicuous box, it allows users to link almost any physical object to a local area network. Even people with zero coding knowledge can receive text and email updates on whatever items or environments the box is sensing. The NMC predicted that smart objects would become ubiquitous in higher education by 2017, and with such user-friendly tech already on the market, even that may turn out to be a conservative estimate.