Building out for the Internet of Things (IoT): A Use Case
By Tom Chalker, CTO and Howard Oliver, Founder and CCO, What If What Next
The Internet of Things promises ubiquity of services. Once physical devices are given an Internet identity then great things happen. People-friendly services can be attached to clumsy mechanical devices. Here’s an example of the transformative effect of IoT.
Coin-Operated Laundry for the 21st century.
We’ve all had to deal with a laundromat in a hotel, apartment building or even on a cruise ship. Once you found it, you can expect to visit that room half a dozen times after securing coins, waiting for a machine to become free, and eventually returning to find that the cycle has not quite completed.
Laundromat technology has not progressed much since the 1960s. They are electro-mechanical machines connected to plumbing. However, the addition of a match-book sized Raspberry PI (a small computer that has WiFi connectivity and costs less than $20) transforms a washer or dryer into an information appliance. The intelligence does not reside in the PI, it is in the Cloud services that control it.
There are at least four steps involved:
1. Electrical interfacing of the PI. This is a one-off design performed by an electronics technologist who understands how to connect the wires of the PI with other components such as relays and solenoids so that the PI can initiate and monitor the washing or drying process. This supplements (and ultimately replaces) the coin collection process. Clearly the technician must be on site to install this hardware.
2. Software is written for PI. This is written initially by a software developer who codes to a series of ‘Use Cases’ that define how a Cloud service would interact with the washer or dryer. This software will be replaced regularly over time using the Internet as the end user makes recommendations on how the service could be improved. This software will be installed on the PI when the technician installs the device.
3. An App is written for smartphones. This is written by iPhone and Android user interface specialists. This is the face of the service as seen by the user. It will have functions such as:
- Use my phone to pay for a wash or dry cycle.
- Let me know when the washer or dryer has finished.
- Place me in a queue to use a machine so that I know that the machine is available.
- Give me stats on how often I use the machines, and when they are least busy.
- Warn me if and when the machines are down for servicing.
This will be updated frequently and likely replaced outright by competitors.
4. Software is written for the Cloud. This is the biggest piece. This is software written by a team that looks at the ‘Use Cases’ of the entire solution. It must be a centralized service that services the needs of all the smart phone apps that want to use a specific machine. It must be aware of the presence and working state of all the machines. It would need to track detergent use, service history and peak usage times to form a predictive model of when an app user can expect to use a machine. This is software that evolves with time. However, because it abstracts away the type of washing machine it is not tied directly to one Raspberry PI software design or one manufacturers washing machine. In fact, it will likely wind up being one of a handful of competing ‘Virtual Laundromat’ services on the web that compete for the attention of the end users and receive a commission on the washer/dryer usages. Such a service would ultimately learn profiles for the user in much the same way as a music or shopping service.
Who builds want? Who is the investor?
There are many structures that work.
If you have hardware knowledge, you could interface the PI and solicit the writing of an iPhone or Android app for a couple of hundred dollars. It would be possible to solve the simple Use Cases of billing and whether a machine is busy. You would have to sell the service directly to apartment buildings or hotels, but that would position you for early revenue and a chance to expand the offering into Cloud later on.
If you have deeper pockets, you could commission the design of the Cloud piece and outsource the hardware piece and the apps. Don’t be intimidated by the cost of the Cloud. Amazon’s AWS Closure service allows you to place business logic in the Cloud that can communicate with smartphones and IoT devices such as the washer/dryer using a micro-billing model. You don’t have to reserve the use of a full computer or VM image, you just pay as you go based on traffic. With this in place, you could solicit the washer/dryer manufacturers or distributors for a co-branding relationship.
Owning the Cloud piece, however, gives you greatest lift because of the potential to scale. If you are the preferred vendor of the smartest piece, then you get a small piece of a lot of traffic.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 416-568-5254 for help on IoT technology marketing strategy, content marketing and PR. If you are interested in taking part in the exploration/deployment of this IoT Use Case or others please contact us. We are putting together teams of complementary skill sets and technologies for the IoT space in different application areas.