It’s Friday night. Typically, I’d be gearing up to play a show, throwing back a few craft beers at a dive bar, or cozying up to a glass of Chilean wine paired with whatever self-help book is the flavor of the month. Not this weekend! I’m rolling up to 1446 Market Street – a warehouse-like event space in San Francisco – ready to make some tech!
Last month, I attended my first hackathon – an IoT hackathon to be specific – because I needed a reset. I’ve been watching the “Internet of Things” evolve through the lens of the manufacturing industry for the past few years now. It was time I took a look at it through a different lens: the lens of the Bay Area tech community.
If you’ve never been to a hackathon before, the concept is pretty simple: programmers, developers, and designers show up on Friday night, pitch their ideas, and form teams that will create some relatively simple application of technology – usually a small, single-function piece of hardware or software – over the course of 1 or 2 days of the weekend. Once the clock runs out late in the afternoon on the last day of the event, it’s “laptops down” and time for product demonstrations. A battle royale of tech ensues via 3 to 5 minute product pitches and demos, and after the cyber-dust settles, a champion is crowned.
As I arrived, I sat down at a table with a couple other attendees, and immediately the ideas started flying. One person started telling me how they wanted to design Wi-Fi-enabled clothing hangers that would help you select what outfit you were going to wear that day. A group of 3 sisters were talking about creating an intelligent “mood bracelet” that would signal when you should stop talking to help increase self-awareness and reduce anxiety in social situations. No idea was out-of-bounds at this stage.
But as the night shifted to the pitches and teams were formed, the next 24 hours turned into a marathon of hardware testing, app development, and UX/UI design. While every team was busy creating its minimum viable product, I was picking up some very important lessons about the current state of the Internet of Things:
Productivity, Health, Connected Homes, and Smart Cities are front-of-mind applications
Let’s be honest: the Internet of Things is overwhelming because “Things” is a pretty vast category. It doesn’t get much broader than that. I was curious to see where the crowd went with this wide-open-book of a concept. Truth be told, I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of applications and legitimate problems teams were tackling with IoT technologies, including:
Productivity – More than ever, people are trying to be as efficient as possible with their time, whether at home or in the workplace. Using the power of Wi-Fi-equipped LEDs and sensors, solutions for turning everyday devices like coffeemakers and refrigerators into smart devices were plentiful, and used in applications for maximizing morning routines and schedules.
Health & Safety – I didn’t expect to see such a heavy focus on this category, but I did in a big way. Teams honed in on the upcoming healthcare challenges resulting from an aging baby boomer population. Apps for sensing falls in the house and tracking vital signs in hospitals were developed with a common goal of reducing response times to potential issues.
Connected Homes – Wi-Fi-enablement of home devices was apparent from the start, and something I could get some benefit from right away. One example: I can’t keep the plants around my apartment alive for the life of me, so an SMS-enabled app for tracking plant health through variables like temperature, humidity, etc. sounded pretty good!
Smart Cities – A geographically larger step up from the Connected Home, people got creative in solving little problems around their cities using sensors, Wi-Fi, and the cloud, which brings me to my next lesson…
Keep it simple
With so many applications and problems to solve, where do you even begin? As evidenced by the little pieces of technology that were created throughout the weekend, you take it one problem at a time. Let’s stick with the Smart City category for a moment. One of my favorite team creations was called Sense Car, an application for identifying potholes around a city. With the idea of connecting accelerometers to services vehicles and aggregating that data in the cloud, this team came up with a clever but straightforward way of identifying potholes and prioritizing road repairs around a city; a simple solution to an infrastructure issue that every urban area faces.
It’s all about SMS, because it’s all about making decisions
So, what does happen when the temperature in your apartment is causing your plants some distress? Or, what happens when a loved one takes a spill in their home? At this hackathon, the most intuitive response was “send a text message.” Many of the solutions throughout the weekend involved SMS communication or an application for relaying the data that was received from smart devices. This is really the most important part of the Internet of Things. It’s not so much the information that’s available, but it’s the decisions that you make with that information, and how quickly you can make them. While the technology is cool, every team and judge was more focused on the result.
College students know more about the IoT than you do
Up to this point, the majority of people I’ve talked to about the Internet of Things are my age or older. From a show of hands, it’s safe to say that about half of the people in the 200+ person crowd were still students. It’s barely been 6 years since I graduated from college with an engineering degree, but the Internet of Things was definitely not a topic that ever came up in the classroom. From the looks of it, that’s changed, and the latest round of tech talent coming out of universities is going to have the IoT built in to their vernacular. More importantly, they’ll have experience with actual IoT applications. The Internet of Things will not just be a concept to them. It will be how they use technology to tackle the problems their employers are trying to solve.
Have your own thoughts on the IoT? What are your latest observations about the Internet of Things? What are some of the best applications of the IoT that you’ve seen recently, at work, on the street, or otherwise? Please share in the comments below! Thanks for reading.