Who remembers thinking, “That will never happen” while watching Back to the Future II ? The wearable videophone glasses, appliances with artificial intelligence, and the hover cam all seemed like fantastical inventions we’d only see in the movies. What about Minority Report ? In that movie, billboards advertise specifically to you and you control computers by using gestures. Magical, right? Only on the silver screen, right? Even with my background in technology, I never could have imagined that all of these things—and more—would be possible in my lifetime, but they are!
Thanks to the prevalence of wireless and mobile internet connections, the Internet of Things (IoT) brings “intelligence” to the everyday devices around us, just as in so many of our favorite science fiction stories. According to the Pew Research Center, as of October 2014, 64% of American adults had a smartphone (pewinternet.org/2015/04/01/us-smartphone-use-in-2015). President Barack Obama announced in March 2015 that “98 percent of Ameri cans nationwide are now connected to high-speed wire less Internet” (whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/03/23/98-americans-are-connected-high-speed-wireless-internet). We live in a connected world, and, using that connectivity, we are able to bring the internet to devices that we once thought were purely analog. This has implications for both our personal and professional lives.
Internet of Things at Home
If you’ve watched any live television lately, you’ve seen commercials for security systems that you can control from your phone, thermostats that learn from your behaviors, and cars that tell you where they are parked. The internet and mobile devices have made these technologies possible.
Automatic (automatic.com) is a device that you can plug into your car to track your driving habits, your car’s health, and even its parking location. The device works by accessing the computer in your car and translating what it’s saying to your phone. Have you ever wondered what a specific light on your dashboard meant or how the mechanic could magically make that light go out? The onboard computer in your car is generating a code for each issue it might have. Your mechanic’s computers can translate that code, but why pay a mechanic just to find out that you need a bulb for your brake light? With Automatic, you can translate the error message on your phone, go to an auto store, buy a new bulb, and replace it, thus deactivating the warning light. We’ve seen similar devices from car insurance providers that monitor your driving to give you better rates. If you’re a chronic speeder like me, you probably don’t want one of those, but Automatic can give you the same information so that you can gauge how your driving is affecting your car’s health. All these tools that were once only available to professionals are now accessible to the average driver.
Ever find yourself doing laundry and thinking, “I must not forget to buy more detergent,” only to forget 5 minutes later? For busy or forgetful families, Amazon has released a series of Dash Buttons (amazon.com/oc/dash-button). These small buttons attach to your devices at home so you can order necessities with a simple click. For example, you can put the laundry detergent button on your washing machine and the razor button on your bathroom mirror. These buttons are linked to your Amazon account, so you can reorder everyday items while you’re in a spot to remember to do so. Of course, the concern here is that your kids or pets might get overzealous, but Amazon has safeguards in place to prevent over- or accidental ordering.
Nest (nest.com) is a thermostat that learns from your habits to help you save energy. You can “teach” Nest what you like by adjusting the temperature throughout the day either via the device itself or by using your smartphone. You can even monitor the temperature in your home when you’re away. As I live in Texas, this is very handy for me. I can turn the heat way down in the winter, but make adjustments if it looks like we’re going to have freezing temperatures overnight.
Do you have a green thumb? I don’t! Parrot Flower Power (parrot.com/usa/products/flower-power) is a product that might give me enough confidence to try one more time to keep a plant alive. This little gadget sits in your soil and monitors the plant’s health for you. It tells you when you need to water it, how much sunlight it’s getting, if it’s time for more fertilizer, and the temperature around the plant to help you keep it alive and healthy. When your plant needs you to know something, you get alerts on your phone and can monitor the overall health of the plant just by checking in on the app. No more guessing about how often to water it and figuring out where in the house is the best place for it to get the right amount of sunlight.
These are just a few devices for your home that can make your life much easier, but there are so many more. There are light bulbs, toothbrushes, umbrellas, cameras, security systems, and door locks. The beauty of the Internet of Things is that the only thing holding us back is our imagination.
Internet of Things on your Person
Wearables—internet connected devices worn by people—are a form of IoT device that we’re seeing more and more of these days. Fitbits (fitbit.com) and other fitness trackers are probably the most popular type of wearable devices, but they are far from being the only option out there.
Dorothy (goo.gl/rz2HI5) is an IoT wearable that turns your everyday shoes into the famous ruby slippers. With the magic of two clicks of your heels, you can trigger an “emergency” phone call while on a bad date. Let your family know you have arrived safely at home with three clicks. Using an app on your phone, you can program the number of heel clicks needed to perform each action.
LilyPad (lilypadarduino.org) is “a set of sewable electronic pieces designed to help you build soft interactive textiles.” You can sew these tiny electronic pieces into fabric to create smart clothes, a smart fabric bookmark, or flashing cloth jewelry. Not only is this a fun tool to play with, but it’s also a great way to teach the next generation of programmers on a medium that makes it fun.
What about a series of wearable for your smaller family members? Sproutling (sproutling.com) is a smart baby moni tor. This little ankle monitor senses and tracks your baby’s heart rate, skin temperature, motion, and position. It can predict patterns so that you know the best time for naps and bedtime. Add to your baby’s attire the Nappy Notifier (our-work.org/huggies/notifier), and you’re all set as a well-connected, well-informed parent.
Don’t forget the dog! Whistle (whistle.com) lets you track your dog’s exercise and location. If you have one of those pets that likes to wander off, it can be a huge relief to know that you can easily find your best friend just by checking an app on your phone. The activity monitor is like a Fitbit for your dog. It lets you know if your furry friend is getting enough exercise and is healthy.
It’s not just smart devices you can wear; there are also devices you can hold in your hand. Magic wands aren’t just for wizards and witches anymore! The Wand Company (thewandcompany.com) produces wands and handheld devices for managing the world around you. Using gesture controls, you can use the magic wand to perform up to 13 different infrared (IR) functions. This means that you can replace your universal remote with a magic wand, or, if you’re not a Harry Potter fan, you might prefer to use the Sonic Screwdriver (thewandcompany.com/sonic) instead.
Internet of Things in our Libraries
All of this is fun and fantastical, but how does the IoT affect how we do our business? How can we use these tools in our libraries to improve our day-to-day workflow and services to our patrons? As I stated earlier, our imagination is the only thing holding us back.
Libraries have started to use some of this smart technol ogy simply by adding RFID tags to their materials. Most of these are used for security, checking out, and re-shelving purposes, but just the act of having that RFID tag in library materials makes them IoT-ready. With that tag, we can access data about the material in hand from our smart devices. Finally, our MARC records can start to work for us!
Why not offer a smart bookmark? LilyPad can be sewn in to a fabric bookmark, but what about a bookmark that not only remembers your place in your book, but remembers when the book is due back at the library and can recommend other similar books by telling you where to find them in the library building? This idea has already been shared by TOOUT (toout.com/en/project_co_show.asp?id=139). It just needs someone to bring it into reality.
Let’s get a bit simpler. What if we started to install small sensors under the floors in the library? Using the data collected, we could tell what areas of the library are the most popular and which places might need more signage. We can make use of this data to rearrange our libraries similarly to how grocery stores always make you go to the back of the store for your milk. That way, you see other products and are tempted to buy more than you intended. The sensors already exist in many different forms; we just need to make them work for our spaces.
We could install smart mirrors or smart screens that will help patrons with suggestions based on materials they’re holding. The mirror could access the data on the RFID tag to query the catalog and find similar materials based on call numbers and on other patrons’ reading histories. You could go a step further and see that the patron is holding a knitting book and not only recommend other resources in the library, but knitting-related events you or others in town are hosting. You could even give a sneak peek into the book by querying Amazon or Google Books. The possibilities are endless.
We don’t have to bring the devices into our libraries if we don’t have the resources to do so, but we could create groups around them. Why not have a fit club at the library and let people share their data from their fitness trackers, or collect patron data to show that collectively patrons in the library have walked so many steps and lost a large amount of weight. We can bring attention to these devices in fun and collaborative ways just by expanding our library event programming. Using something like LilyPad, you can have a coding camp for the kids in your community and have a contest to see who creates the most creative wearable.
What about an easy button for your library (or your life), based on the Staples commercials with the big red Easy button? Now there is a button you can brand and program on your own to make things “easier.” Bt.tn is a programmable button that you can set up to call the library, renew materials, or remind the patron of library hours. It also connects to the famous IFTTT (ifttt.com; If This, Then That) service so you can make more than one action happen when the button is pressed.
Why not get really magical and use motion sensors on library catalog computers to let people “grab” information about a title and put it on their phone. The best way to understand this is to watch Aral Balkan’s video (youtu.be/eYveEdhTgBs) with his hack using Microsoft Kinect (microsoft.com/en-us/kinectforwindows). The idea for the library is that patrons can find records in the catalog they want to go pick up. They can “grab” the item from the computer screen and “put” it on their phone so that they have the call number and title right at their fingertips. No need to use scrap paper and tiny pencils to find items on the shelves.
Thinking Like a Magician
The Internet of Things has brought magic and science fiction to fruition. We are now surrounded by objects that can think, communicate, and store information. The key to making use of this brave new world is thinking like a magician.
We are no longer limited by the analog world. Anything analog can now be made digital with a simple sensor. Start with the RFID tags in your library and think of the information they can transmit and how we can grab that information, link it to our other systems and show patterns, provide suggestions, and give more timely support to our patrons.
Nicole C. Engard is VP of community outreach at ByWater Solutions.