Google backing — a boost for ‘smart object’ communication venture

Google Inc.’s participation in the IPSO Alliance, announced recently, is a huge shot in the arm for the organization and its quest to enable communications among so-called “smart objects.”

The IPSO (IP for Smart Objects) Alliance — is a year-old consortium of tech vendors promoting use of Internet Protocol (IP)-based communications among “smart objects.”

The idea is that some day devices — from appliances to cars — will be plugged into a IP network (either a private one or the Internet) enabling them to communicate.

The IPSO Alliance currently has 53 members including leading tech firms such as Fujitsu, Cisco, Ericsson, Intel, SAP, Sun Microsystems, Texas Instruments and Johnson Controls.

Smart objects essentially include a small computer, typically a sensor, actuator, or some communication device. They are often found embedded in today’s cars, switches, machinery and appliances, and enable automation as well remote monitoring and systems management.

Google’s joining the IPSO Alliance signifies the growing importance of smart object communcation, IPSO says.

Google would want to explore how devices could be to hooked up with its various Web-based services, such as Google’s PowerMeter application, which tracks power usage, suggests IPSO chair Geoff Mulligan.

As devices are often based on proprietary protocols developed by their manufacturers, it’s often difficult and expensive to get them to communicate with other devices, Mulligan said.

Google itself says its participation in IPSO is driven by the expectation that many devices will become part of the Internet environment.

Some practical benefits of this were outlined by Vint Cerf, vice-president and chief Internet evangelist at Google.

“Google’s PowerMeter application makes use of the well-established IPv4 and IPv6 protocols to help smart grid users capture and analyze their energy and usage information,” Cerf said.

Google’s PowerMeter captures data from “smart meters,” or advanced electricity meters installed and displays it as a graph.

So a home’s current day’s electricity consumption can be depicted and compared to the day before, and the graph expanded to get a historical view of peaks and troughs in electricity usage.

The PowerMeter is designed to provide a “granular, real-time view or electricity-consuming devices,” according to Ed Lu of the Google Engineering Team.

He said, typically most people are not aware of how much electricity they use until they receive their monthly power bill. People are also not aware of where in the house they are wasting electricity or which appliance consumes most power.

Lu said studies show access to home energy information causes people to be more careful about power usage, and this can reduce their monthly electricity bill by five to 15 per cent.

It may be a small amount when considered individually, but quite a dent on the nation’s energy consumption when you consider that it’s possible to cut Canada’s household power demand by 10 per cent.

There are about 40 million smart meters in use worldwide, with that number expected to rise to 100 million in the next few years, Lu said.

Smart metering is getting a lot of support from various governments, but IP and smart object adoption does not stop there according to Mulligan.

He said farms are now using remote sensors to determine if outside temperatures are rising or dropping. The readings are sent over the Internet to control centres that use IP to command heaters in the field to adjust their settings.

Similar systems can be employed for building lighting, heating and air conditioning.

“Without a standard protocol, users often have to spend extra to purchase and set up a device gateway that will enable appliances from different manufacturers to communicate to each other.”

A secondary problem may also arise where devices tend to mis-communicate and commands are misinterpreted by the system, Mulligan noted.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to adopting either proprietary or open protocols, according to one technology analyst.

“It all depends on the application of the technology,” says Jonathan Gaw, research manager for connected homes, at technology research firm IDC Corp.

For instance, a closed proprietary system might be easier for some companies to handle because it allows the firm greater control over their product. “A manufacturer would not have to consult a hundred or more other vendors to make changes to its own products,” said the Minneapolis-based analyst.

Similarly, Gaw said, a user instantly knows that a product bought from one manufacturer is certain to work with other devices from that same maker.

But throwing your lot with a single proprietary standard often means users or “locked-in” with that standard.

Gaw cites the example of consumers who “buy into” the Apple world. “They purchase Apple products because they are beautifully designed and have excellent hardware and software integration.”

But, once you’re in the Apple scheme of things it’s difficult to introduce non-Apple devices. For example, unless you jailbreak your iPod you’ll have to purchase songs from iTunes, he noted.


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