Don't Overthink the Internet of Things

Sometimes, even innovative IoT approaches to valid problems suffer from overengineering.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Apr 06, 2015

Saturday Night Live skewered the smart home last week, in a skit in which host Michael Keaton posed as a doofus in the process of "adding science" to everyday objects, such as his toaster and sofa. The gag's concepts, in which a toaster floated up off the counter and hovered in front of the user and a "smart couch" identified its occupant, made me laugh out loud a few times. (Here's a link, but note that some of the jokes are off-color and it's definitely not safe for work.)

But seriously, criticisms of the utility of many Internet- or sensor-enabled gadgets and appliances for the home are well-placed. Have all these decades of eating toast made in toasters consisting of simple heating elements and timers really been that bad?

Sometimes, even innovative IoT approaches to valid problems suffer from overengineering or overthinking. I recently wrote about Bike Shield, a smartphone application that triggers alerts to drivers if a bicycle or motorcycle is nearby, which I think serves as a case in point.

Bike Shield targets a very wide swath of drivers and cyclists who worry about either hitting a cyclist or being hit by a vehicle, and that's a great problem to attempt to solve. But the app only works if a rider is carrying his or her phone, with the GPS receiver operable and the cellular service working. Those are a lot of variables—not to mention the fact that cyclists must remember to switch the app settings when they drive their cars, in order to be alerted when a cyclist (who also has the app running on his or her app) is approaching.

Contrast that to Cycle Alert, an RFID-based bike-safety system that my colleague, Claire Swedberg, wrote about last week. In this case, fleets of trucks or buses are outfitted with RFID readers that can detect an RFID tag mounted on a bicycle's handlebar from a distance of just over 8 feet away. When it detects a tag, the reader triggers a light and speaker mounted near the driver's seat. What's more, it illuminates lights that indicate the bike's position relative to the vehicle, thereby providing more precise information than the Bike Shield currently offers.

Both Bike Shield and Cycle Alert require that drivers and cyclists take an action to set up the solution—and granted, Cycle Alert takes more time and resources to set up than Bike Shield. But while Bike Shield benefits from the potential to scale up vastly faster than Cycle Alert, it also requires users to remain proactive about their app settings and to carry their phones.

Cycle Alert might not leverage cellular networks and GPS, but it gets the job done using relatively simple technology, and without overthinking the solution to the problem.

Mary Catherine O'Connor is the editor of Internet of Things Journal and a former staff reporter for RFID Journal. She also writes about technology, as it relates to business and the environment, for a range of consumer magazines and newspapers.

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