The Internet of Things will connect everyday products, from toothbrushes to couches to doors, to the Internet — and Penn faculty are at the forefront.
“The Internet of Things today is a lot about Fitbits and Apple watches,” future Engineering Dean Vijay Kumar said. “But tomorrow it will be the things that run homes [and] schools, reason about the world, take actions, and we will interact with them at a very high level.”
The building of these technologies, which includes everything from smart watches to a bottle that senses what pills you take daily, is different from creating just any electronic device for the masses.
“Now wearables are so personal and intimate and they try and work with your life,” said Rahul Mangharam, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering. “You have to have a very good understanding of human behavior — what a human wants and needs — and be able to design that.”
Carla Diana, a faculty member at the Integrated Product Design Program at Penn and a designer focused on new visions for the Internet of Things, explained that there are several levels to these types of technologies, including products for individuals, groups of people and the environment as a whole, all of which are currently being developed by different companies.
On a personal level, society has seen the introduction of items like Fitbits and scales that hook up to the Internet. Yet Mangharam explained that these devices must take another step before really changing human behavior — which may not be reached until people can wrap their minds around the potential personal invasion the Internet of Things could involve.
“Fitbits today can tell you how many steps you’ve taken, but you can’t correlate it to anything of practical value about how it’s improving health,” Mangharam said. “It is a good way to quantify but it hasn’t closed the loop — you have to actually give a way to change behavior.”
“This inference problem is insanely hard because each person is different, particularly in terms of health. But that is the Holy Grail,” he added.
Mangharam and Diana, along with their colleagues, Associate Director of the Integrated Product Design Program Sarah Rottenberg and Fine Arts professor Orkan Telhan, have been involved with the Penn xLAB, which officially opened this past summer. The xLAB team has been working on several products, including interactive Legos that hook up to a TV to allow a child to interact with his or her toy as well as an immersive yoga mat.
“We want people’s interaction with the object to be as natural as possible,” Diana said. “For example, with the yoga mat we are not using a camera — we want someone to be able to use it anywhere.”
The yoga mat will direct users with light to the correct areas to position their hands and feet for a given position. It will also provide several skill level options, ranging from novice to advanced based on the preference of the user.
Because many companies are eager to jump on board into the future of technology, the resulting products could be disjointed and incompatible.
“Each company is interpreting the Internet of Things in their own way,” Mangharam said. “This is how computing was in the '70s and now it’s coming back to that — like Apple products only work with Apple.”
The government is also developing an interest in the Internet of Things, in hopes to act as a facilitator between the different interpretations of each company, Mangharam said. According to technology-focused news supplier NextGov, senators are hoping to “plunge headlong into what some have hailed as the next frontier in computing — the so-called Internet of Things.”
Cisco predicts that at least 50 million devices will be connected to the Internet by 2020, so this area of technological advancement is one that will quickly emerge in future society and may spark more policy questions related to the safety and privacy of the Internet.
Mangharam’s goal is to inform Penn students of what the Internet of Things is, and what it may bring to society, but he also hopes to get people “designing the projects that they want to use.”
He invites any student, Engineering or not, to participate in the xLAB’s research and to increase excitement about the prospective technological future that is currently in its “awkward teenage years,” Mangharam said. xLAB is located in 279 Levine Hall.'
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