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Making Dumb Things Smart

Added to IoTplaybook or last updated on: 01/20/2020

It’s tempting to think about the Internet of Things as a high-tech collection of sensors, devices, and machines that fuel the digital revolution. While there’s an indisputable truth to this belief, it’s also clear that connected things within the IoT can veer in a decidedly low-tech direction.

This could include anything and everything imaginable: coffee mugs, frying pans, pill bottles, chairs, office supplies, and yoga mats. Although the concept of tagging everything may seem frivolous at the moment—and it’s clear that the concept can go way too far—there’s also a remarkable array of possibilities that can unfold in a more connected world. The concept is rapidly moving from fantasy to reality, and it’s something that system integrators and others should keep an eye on.

Tag Everything

To take one example, the University of Michigan introduced a technology in April 2019 called IDAct, which relies on RFID to make dumb things into smart devices. The goal is to create a more immersive and interactive world.

The possibilities range from office chairs that could send alerts to your smartphone or smartwatch if you’ve been sitting too long or your posture is poor, to water glasses that can sense when a person is hydrated properly. Connecting all these things can be done with a passive RFID tag, which now costs only a few cents, and the right software.

According to a 2019 academic paper presented at an IEEE conference, the IDAct software creates intelligence in a connected environment. Researchers verified the software could accurately surmise what was going on at a rate of 96%, thanks to the accuracy of systems within an IDAct network

Researchers noted that this represents a significant opportunity to create interactive applications around ordinary objects and connect them to digital systems. The result could be detailed views into ordinary things and, with the right algorithms, a greater understanding of everything from equipment status to user behavior.

Algorithmic Opportunity

All of this may sound like abstract futuristic hype, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it out of hand. While we’re probably not going to see connected pill bottles and frying pans next week or next month, they will arrive. It's safe to say that speed of change and technical disruption have caught more than a few businesses off guard and left them struggling to stay afloat.

The research group that developed IDAct is already looking for industry partners to develop its platform commercially. It hopes to bring solutions to the healthcare arena within the next few years. For now, system integrators and MSPs should evaluate opportunities to make dumb devices smart, if for no other reason than to avoid feeling dumb later on.


Samuel Greengard is a business and technology writer based in West Linn, Ore. He is the author of The Internet of Things (MIT Press, 2015).