Fairfax Tech Column

Fairfax Tech Column

25.8.2017 Fairfax Tech Column 57

Chester Gould was a true visionary. On 4 October 1931, the comic strip, Dick Tracy, made its debut. Tracy’s most recognisable icon, his wrist radio (and later his wrist TV) was introduced on 13 January 1946. Keep in mind that the transistor, so important for modern electronics, was not even invented in 1946. Radios of the day relied on large and power-hungry vacuum tubes so the idea of even a portable radio was completely foreign. Gould could see what the future might bring.

Fast forward to today and we have smart watches that mimic much of what Dick Tracy’s watch could do – with one minor impediment. The smartwatches we use today allow phone calls and messages and even apps to run on them – but they rely on your phone being nearby to deliver full connectivity. Having a GPS enabled watch that can play songs and track movements is all well and good – but the functionality is dramatically reduced as soon as you remove the Bluetooth link to your mobile phone.

That was yesterday.

As more advances are made in miniaturisation and battery development, watches are about to become independent. Huawei’s latest timepiece was released this week with a SIM card tray and the ability to place calls, send messages and sync apps with not a phone in sight. The Huawei Watch 2 includes a GPS chip to track runs and allow location tracking for apps such as Uber; it has a heart-rate sensor to read your pulse from your wrist; it allows Near Field Communication (NFC) to allow its use as a credit card; Bluetooth to allow a headphone connection and dual microphones to enable you to talk to your watch – just like Dick Tracy! With Huawei breaking new ground, Apple and a range of other manufacturers are rumoured to be releasing independent smart watches of their own. With some people questioning the next big thing in smartphones, it may well be that the next big thing will not be a smartphone but a smart watch.

The smart watches are only the tip of the Internet of Things (IoT) iceberg. As devices become smaller and battery life improves, innovators are coming up with more devices that are connected to the Internet. It is predicted that there will be almost 21 billion IoT devices by the year 2020.

For many, the IoT sounds like something that gets geeks excited but doesn’t really apply for normal people. I see that the uses for IoT will become part of everyday life for many people. Already we are seeing some fascinating uses for IoT. Government agencies are using devices for environmental monitoring – such as water quality; air quality and soil conditions. Civil engineers are using IoT in major infrastructure projects such as bridges and railway tracks to monitor conditions of critical components. Manufacturers are using IoT to automate processes and monitor component levels. Farmers are using devices to control water flow in line with information on the soil and the environment. The health industry is awash with ideas and items that take advantage of connected devices. These can be installed in the body (think of pacemakers) or on the body (blood pressure sensors) and even in physical devices such as smart beds which automatically assist patients in rising from their horizontal position.

With energy prices going through the roof, a number of devices are appearing that not only tell you your total data usage, but monitor individual devices to allow you to pinpoint high energy usage and address those specific areas. For example, the average TV uses close to $100 of energy each year just by being in standby mode. You might choose to use an IoT device to completely remove the power from your TV rather than have it in standby mode.

As more devices become connected and as carriers introduce plans designed to accommodate data devices, the world that Chester Gould first imagined has well and truly arrived.

Mathew Dickerson