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Refrigerators that tell you when you’re low on milk. Coffee makers that sync with your alarm. Umbrellas that beep when it’s about to rain. It might sound like something straight from a 1980s sci-fi movie, but in the not-so-distant future, it could be our reality.
During the Internet’s first coming in the 1990s, we could only access the network on our desktop computers. Now, laptops, smartphones and tablets are so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine being more connected to the Internet. But that’s where we’re headed. Technology firm Cisco estimates that by 2020 there will be 50 billion devices connected to the Internet, up from about 10 billion today.
The Internet itself is also expanding. Researchers are experimenting with machine-to-machine connections, using tiny microprocessors to integrate internet connectivity into everything from microwaves to cars and even clothing.
Soon, users will be able to create smart environments where devices and appliances can interact with each other independently of human control. This latest wave in the Internet revolution has been dubbed “the Internet of Things” — and Ryerson University researchers are working hard to advance it.
The school’s Digital Media Zone (DMZ) is directly involved in both the research and commercialization of the Internet of Things. Ranked the best university incubator in Canada by the University Business Incubator Index in 2014, the four-year-old centre for innovation has grown to support more than 80 companies.
One such company is SensorSuite, founded by Ryerson computer engineering graduate Robert Platek. Platek, who graduated in 1999, worked at IBM for more than five years before founding SensorSuite through the DMZ.
His Internet of Things startup uses Internet-connected sensors to monitor buildings for problems such as water leaks, heating issues or unusually high electricity use. The sensors transmit data to the cloud, where it is processed and visualized on a mobile app, allowing property managers to check on their buildings.
The inspiration for the company came from Platek’s father, who owns a green energy company. He showed Platek boiler rooms and the insides of buildings not usually visited by anyone other than electricians, plumbers and engineers. There, he realized that there was no modern technology in these parts of the buildings.
In the market for connected buildings, Platek is certainly not without competitors. International companies like Honeywell provide similar services on a larger and higher-end scale. But Platek has found his niche in the market.
“Look at the thousands and thousands of buildings in the city — apartment buildings, commercial buildings — they have nothing at all,” Platek says. “So there’s a real opportunity to start selling to that customer base.”
The smart buildings market is predicted to be worth US$50 billion by 2018.
“It’s a huge market. We’re starting to really feel that as we get different types of partners approaching us, needing this kind of connectivity help,” he says. “There are so many traditional companies out there that are soon going to need to have some sort of Internet of Things initiative to stay relevant.”
While Platek’s venture offers one example of how Internet connectivity can be used to solve problems, he says the possibilities are limitless.
“Everything from beer pint glasses, to dog collars, to tables, doors…basically everything is going to have a little computer in it in the future, and you’ll be able to track what that thing is doing, where it is.”
According to Platek, the Internet of Things is being driven by rapid advances in mobile technology, along with big data, cloud platforms and low-cost wireless sensors. On top of that, devices are becoming more powerful while shrinking in size, and smartphones now hold more computing power than desktop computers of the past. All of these advances combine to push forward the notion of the Internet of Things.
Both the technology and the business worlds could capitalize on huge potential with the rise of Internet-connected devices. International Data Corp., an IT research agency, estimates the Internet of Things market will grow to US$7.1 trillion by 2020.
Companies are already taking advantage of Internet of Things technology with wireless-enabled, wearable fitness devices. These devices, like Fitbit, monitor health metrics including steps taken, calories burned and sleep quality. In 2013, Fitbit had a valuation of US$300 million.
Hossein Rahnama, a Ryerson expert on the Internet of Things, imagines that health monitoring devices can be further developed for preventive medicine.
As an example, he says, technology could allow someone’s wearable device to tell them — at a specific time — that they are at risk of health complications based on that person’s heart rate, dietary plans and the weather. The device might then suggest that the patient see a doctor.
At only 34 years old, Rahnama wears many hats in the Ryerson community. He’s the DMZ director of research and innovation, the managing director of the Ryerson Centre for Cloud and Context-Aware Computing (RC4) and an assistant professor at the RTA school of media. On top of that, he’s the CEO and founder of an Internet of Things startup called Flybits.
Rahnama, who completed all of his post-secondary education at Ryerson, created Flybits from a research project he started during his PhD. He and his partners started their company in part to showcase Ryerson’s strength in commercializing research, but also because it was the best way to create an actual product.
Flybits builds software to create smart environments, or what computer scientists call “context-aware computing.” This type of environment provides users with information at the time or place that they need it, such as providing information about Impressionist art when you visit an art gallery.
While this technology isn’t new, Flybits aims to provide a development platform that anyone can use, even with no knowledge of coding.
People who aren’t software developers often have amazing ideas for a mobile app or a “smart” experience, Rahnama says.
“(People say) ‘Oh, it would be so cool if my alarm clock knew my schedule, and would wake me up at the right time and let me know if my bus is arriving late.’”
But to bring those ideas to fruition, those people would have to find an engineer or app developer to build it. That’s where Flybits comes in. Clients can purchase the company’s user-friendly software to create immersive mobile experiences.
The company’s approach is drawing confidence from investors. In June, it raised $3.75 million in its first round of venture capital investment. The company attracted funding from foreign and Canadian investors, including Bosch Ventures.
Past and current clients include GO Transit, Vodafone and the City of Ottawa. Flybits is currently working with a major Canadian bank to provide better customer service at branches.
The company plans to use the most recent round of funding to add to its engineering, marketing and sales and development teams, which is good news for Ryerson students.
“Almost 80 per cent of our hires are Ryerson grads,” Rahnama says. “A bunch of Ryerson students started this and are now hiring other Ryerson students.”
In 2013, the MIT Technology Review named Rahnama one of its top 35 innovators under 35, a rising star of the international tech scene.
While he acknowledges that the recognition has rewarded the efforts of Ryerson startups, he says Canadian research institutions still have a lot to improve on. While many of them do well at publishing research, Rahnama says they do “terribly” at commercializing it.
“Everybody’s like, ‘OK, I’m done. I published my paper.’ But how can you take that paper and turn it into a product, and help your community by allowing new services to be developed out of it?”
In the U.S., he points to institutions such as Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and Georgia Institute of Technology’s GVU Center, that are commercializing research by turning lab findings into real-world products.
“In Canada, we can do better, and I think Ryerson is trying to showcase that it can be the institution that is leading the way.”
Watch a video about one more Internet of Things startup at Ryerson: A drone for aerial photography, made in the Ryerson DMZ