What is IoT?

The Internet of Things explained

The Internet of Things (also known as IoT) is about giving intelligence and connectivity to almost everything. Maybe the best-known example of an IoT device is the smart thermostat, which communicates with your PC or smartphone and learns what you like and when and programmes itself.

Some devices also use sensors to detect when nobody's home to prevent waste. Where things get interesting is when you have lots of smart devices connected to each other and to a central hub, which might be your PC or a device such as your Xbox One.

With a few well-chosen devices you could automate all kinds of interesting things, so for example your fitness tracker might tell your lights when you're off to bed and then monitor your sleep to fi nd the right time to wake you up gently, giving the coffee machine and the thermostat a nudge so the house is toasty and your coffee ready when you get up.

What is IoT

Your Kinect camera could monitor the house when you're at work, alerting you if it sees anything suspicious, and your fridge could add things to your shopping list when you're running low on supplies.

Windows 10 and IoT

But where does the Windows operating system fit into all of this? The short answer is: everywhere. Windows 10 isn't just a pretty face; under the hood of the system, Microsoft has made some big changes to make Windows more flexible than ever before.

Developers can create apps that work across all kinds of devices, and Windows 10 devices can change the way they work according to what they're connected to – so for example thanks to a technology called Continuum, a Windows smartphone can deliver a PC-like experience when you connect it to a keyboard and display.

You use the same apps, but the apps adapt – so Outlook changes from the mobile-focused version to a PC-like version. Universal apps will also work on the Xbox One, so developers can create apps that work not just for desktops and laptops but phones, tablets and consoles too.

Things get really entertaining when you add Hololens to the mix. Hololens is Microsoft's augmented reality (AR) headset, and it overlays computer graphics on the real world – so you could get it to show you an enormous TV on a bare wall, or overlay Minecraft on your sofa.

What is IoT

There are really interesting applications for outside the home too – Hololens at work might overlay key data for engineers or 3D models for architects, passenger information for check-in staff or anything else that might be useful.

And of course, Hololens is an early version of AR technology – in the long term we'll get AR embedded in normal glasses or sunglasses.

There's also a version of Windows for Internet of Things devices, called Windows 10 IoT Core. It's a subset of Windows 10 designed specifi cally for IoT devices, and example projects include robots, weather devices, connected clock radios and a wide range of home products.

It supports two kinds of devices –'headed' devices with displays, and 'headless' ones without displays. It all sounds fantastic, but you might be wondering if there are any big obstacles to the Internet of Things becoming mainstream – and sadly, there are.

While everybody's convinced the Internet of Things is going to be huge, many firms are equally convinced they have the best way of doing it – and as a result there's a standards war brewing with multiple incompatible technologies all essentially doing the same thing.

In addition to Microsoft's platform there are plenty of others. Apple has HomeKit, Google has Brillo, Samsung has Smart Things and other hardware firms have their own bright ideas – so, for example, General Electric has backed the Wink platform and British Gas is using AlertMe.

There are attempts to create open standards everyone can use, but there are many competing. The answer may be in what's called a 'bridge', a device that acts as a translator between two standards – so for example you might have a bridge that enables your Xbox One to control HomeKit or Brillo devices, or vice versa.

What is IoT

Hue and cry

A good example of connected technology is Philips' Hue lighting system, which you can control from smartwatches, mobile devices and – via third-party apps – Windows 10.

The lights connect to a wireless hub that you connect to your wireless router, and you can then create light 'recipes' that change the colours (if you buy multi-colour bulbs or LED strips) and brightness. It's one of several such systems and by far the best known.

Rivals range from rubbish remote-controlled bulbs on eBay and supermarket shelves to Wemo smart switches and the impressive LIFX, whose Windows 10 universal app is imminent.

That doesn't mean its the best loved, however. While it's great fun Hue isn't cheap – a hub and three bulbs will set you back £149 ($199, around AU$275) – and when rivals such as GE started making Hue-compatible bulbs using the same Zigbee wireless technology but with lower prices, Philips issued a firmware update that stopped third-party bulbs from working. It said it would change its mind after massive public outcry.

This demonstrates one potential danger of the Internet of Things: if you can't connect the devices you want to use, the Internet of Things is really the Internet Of Only A Few Things.

What is IoT

We shall have some Pi

The Raspberry Pi doesn't look like a PC; it's a bare-bones computer kit that uses SD cards for storage and ships without keyboards, mice and other fripperies. But it's a fantastic device and it now runs Windows thanks to Windows 10 IoT Core, a version of Windows designed for the Internet of Things.

That also means it's cheap and cheerful. For £32 (around $46, AU$64) you can have a kit that you can use to connect to and get data from sensors, to run robotic arms, to get information from cloud-based services on the internet and display it using LEDs or displays, to connect cameras and to do pretty much anything else you can think of. The Raspberry Pi can be as simple as a single sensor trigger events, or you can make it the brains of a complex system programmed in Visual Studio.

Microsoft's own demo used Windows on the Raspberry Pi 2 to control a virtual robot via a Hololens headset, overlaying computer graphics on a real, fully functional and controllable robot that can respond to voice commands.

It's fantastic stuff , and you can see the demo video on Raspberrypi.org and get the Windows 10 IoT core.

Just one word of caution though, the version of Windows 10 for Internet of Things devices is a preview, not a final release, so don't be surprised if you encounter the occasional rough edge.

For more ideas on using a Raspberry Pi and the Internet of Things, check out our collection of Raspberry Pi projects.