The Internet of Things (IoT) is all about devices: how we interact with them and the data they produce. 

One key piece of the IoT that is often overlooked is our mobile device. On the day Apple releases its iOS 8, there's no better time to point out that mobile devices are really our gateway to the IoT.  

As we move around from location to location our mobile device, which is packed with sensors and numerous wireless radios, helps us seamlessly communicate with various other devices. Some of these devices might be in our homes, some our offices, some in our cars or the stores we shop in.  Still others, we wear on our bodies. 

Unlocking a World of Connectivity

Our mobile device stays with us as we go from home to car to office and beyond. Why does this matter? Well, iBeacons, for example, can add a greater context to the customer experience for a shopper in a retail location by using her mobile devices to alert her about her proximity to an item on her shopping list or a special offer for another item.

In much the same way, that same mobile device can bridge the gap between disconnected parts of our life or locations and help build a greater context for our environments. 

Embedded sensors are becoming far more pervasive in the world as the tech scales down in size and becomes easier to fit inside everyday objects, many small sensors and radios that no longer require any power source are being developed.

As these sensors find their way into greater numbers of devices around us and begin to communicate with each other — as well as our mobile devices — we begin to create the situation where we can derive greater context from our surroundings to help with daily life.

Adding Context to Our Lives

The mobile device is really the clear choice for our interactions with sensors and devices. Smart phones in general have become a large part of our daily life. We communicate with them, do work on them, use them to navigate and pass free time by playing games on them. 

By using them as our gateway to the Internet of Things we can add more context into all of those activities.

Communication can become a richer experience, as recently highlighted by Apple's unveiling of its Apple Watch. The watch can even communicate to another person by sending him your pulse.

With the Apple Watch, the iPhone is the gateway. It allows the watch to communicate and create a deeply intimate and context rich communication between two parties through a simple sensor on your wrist and a series of pulses.

Using our mobile device at work is nothing new. Many of us check out emails and keep our schedule up to date on our smartphones. But by allowing our phones to directly interact with sensors in the workplace that can be embedded into everything from the coffee cups to employee and visitor badges, it can allow us to use our phone to generate a more context rich work environment. 

Our coffee cup could send a push notification to our phone to let it know when the coffee inside of it has reached our preferred drinking temperature. Walk into a meeting and our mobile device generates a list of each person in the room and where they are sitting in relation to you, as well as a reminder of the last time you interacted with them based on information provided from the sensor in their badge and cross checked with that in your mobile device.

Learning Opportunities

And there are countless other ways that a mobile device could be used to generate context at the workplace that would provide advantages.

Where are You?

Smart phones are commonly used for navigation. The vast majority have GPS functionality and many come with points of interest built into the GPS navigation apps.  It’s great to know when there is a point of interest nearby, but if the location also had sensors enabled it could send push notifications to your device as your drive or walk by. Then you could know if your preferred bagel is hot from the oven at your favorite bakery or if there is a shirt on sale in your size at a local boutique.

Mobile devices can add a much richer and deeper context to simple games by interacting with the environment around them and getting information from the sensors built into devices to improve and personalize the player experience. This could lead to longer engagement with the game and an ever-changing experience as the device being played on moved from one location to the next.

While embedded devices in sensors are becoming more pervasive and are one main factor in seeing this type of device interaction become a reality, one key piece is missing. Standards.

Right now there is no real standard in the world of the Internet of Things. There are several groups working to standardize communication or hardware like the IEEE Standards Association or the ITU (International Telecommunication Union).

But there are also groups working to build their own protocols and standards because they want to lock down the technology. While this is still a setback it highlights why the mobile device is the ideal technology to overcome this hurdle. It already has multiple radios and in the app driven world of smartphones, it’s not as hard to incorporate a new protocol.

So while sensors and devices are moving along nicely, a lack of protocols and standards may very well limit the true potential of the IoT.

Title image by Stefan Klauke  (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.