What caused the sudden surge in electronics usage in everyday objects?
The range of electronics-embedded devices is simply unbelievable, but what has caused this sudden surge in the use of electronics in everyday objects?
Price and innovations in hardware. Shivesh Vishwanathan, senior consultant (Mobility)—Technology Consulting Group, Persistent Systems, explains, “There are two primary reasons for the increasing amount of electronics in day-to-day products. First, the price of electronics components has come down significantly and second, the innovations that are making hardware components smaller, more malleable, etc. These advances are really capturing people’s imagination and nothing seems to be out of bounds. The resulting effect is that the line between what we call computer and what we call everyday products is blurring. The software and electronics industries increasingly resemble the fashion or consumer goods industry with a lot of brands, consumer preferences playing pivotal roles, trends changing very fast, etc.”
Availability and programmability. Anand reasons further that, “About a decade ago, electronics was not as pervasive as it is today. Most of the electronics items were analogue and not very programmable. This was one of the impediments in making electronics more interesting and experimental. However, now almost everything has at least one microcontroller inside it and programmability has increased manyfold; which means one can easily hack into certain electronic gadgets or equipment and experiment with them. Moreover, all the electronic parts are easily available nowadays at relatively affordable prices. This phenomenon (of programmability and availability) has fuelled creative thinking in terms of usage and applications of electronics in daily life. Makers now can experiment with (less expensive) electronics and realise their imagination.”
Increasing comfort levels. The proliferation of smartphone could also be the reason for people’s increasing comfort (and dependency) in using technology for their everyday tasks. “Thanks in part to the smartphone revolution with its emphasis on apps, there has been a fundamental shift in the way people see electronic interfaces. They are also able to see the value that electronics adds to their life—they can do things better, faster, with less effort, etc, since electronics can handle the bulk of the task that people had to do previously. For this improved ability, convenience and comfort, they are willing to pay a good price. On the supply side, manufacturers have been quick to realise that there is a growing market for electronics in equipment and have started mass-producing such products, improving innovation and driving down costs, further fuelling demand. This kind of virtuous cycle has helped the proliferation of electronics in everyday products and enabled an ecosystem to develop,” explains Kashinath.
Framework provided by the IoT. Whilst at present, the IoT is just a subset of the Electronics of Things, some experts, including Ugarkar feel that the IoT is fuelling the tendency to stitch electronics into everything. Ugarkar feels that “The use of sensors, actuators, meters that you see getting embedded into objects around us is not new. The boom you see in embedding electronics to sense, act or meter is because the IoT gave a high-level conceptual architecture that made it easy for embedded electronics components to integrate with each other and with the rest of the world using Internet technologies like IPV6, http, REST, Cloud, network protocols, etc.”
On the other hand, experts like Anand feel that ‘requirement fuels innovation’ and not the other way round. According to him, it is the proliferation of the electronics of things that is leading to the IoT.
Is not this simply embedded electronics?
What is so new about the Electronics of Things? Has not electronics been around for ages—embedded in military and industrial equipment; refrigerators, washing machines and ovens too? Yes, but the splurge in applications and use-cases as we can see from the afore-mentioned examples is what has brought it back into focus. It is also important to understand that this clan of embedded electronics is quite different from the traditional applications that were implemented in industrial equipment.
Dr Arun Mulpur, manager-Industry Marketing, MathWorks Inc., explains, “There are several key differences between electronics in everyday objects and industrial machinery. The first is the sheer number of different applications and the environments and purposes for which electronics are being deployed in everyday functions. These include applications such as medical devices that require very high reliability and robustness as well as recreational applications such as devices embedded in footwear which may not need safety-critical embedded software. Industrial machinery applications—in contrast—are designed to operate in fairly controlled environments and perform repetitive tasks. Because of the safety and reliability considerations, these applications must adhere to very strict quality, efficiency, responsiveness, reliability and safety requirements.”
Anand probes more into the technicalities, “From an engineering point of view, industrial machinery electronics performs a serious and critical role and has to adhere to stricter standards. It also needs to work 24×7 most of the times and has to be optimised for space, code size, power, etc. Additionally, it is built to last for many years and is not cheap. On the other hand, daily electronics is typically (trend of these days) a use and throw type, comes at a cheaper price and does not need to be run 24×7. Moreover, it may not be optimised heavily due to the fact that daily electronics is more inclined towards application rather than critical parameters. Daily electronics is also becoming easily hackable by users and manufacturers are making it so happily; however, industrial machinery electronics still remains crack-proof, robust and proprietary in nature. Besides these, there are many other (major and minor) differences. However, the ones mentioned above are more distinctive.”
“The level of qualification, certification and testing is much higher for industrial machinery as the duty cycle, environment and life cycle are very different,” adds S. Natarajan, senior program manager-India Strategy & Planning, Intel.
Ugarkar adds, “There are two primary differences between embedded electronics in everyday objects and electronics embedded or used in industrial machinery. First, electronics embedded in an everyday object must fuse or become one with the object. For example, electronics embedded in a jacket must not alter the shape or form of the jacket, so it not only needs to be small but also needs to be designed in such a way as to fuse or become one with the object. Second, design is extremely important. When I say design, I do not mean just the user interface aspects of the electronics but how well the addition of electronics continues to support the normal use of the objects as well as the additional features the electronics brings in.” (See box ‘Smart devices call for a smart design’)
From this discussion, it is obvious that the current breed of embedded electronics, targeting everyday objects, is significantly different from the mission-critical embedded systems that have been common in the past. This opens up the need to understand hardware, software, networking protocols and design from a new perspective (See box ‘What are the technical specifications of your saucepan?’).
The author is a technically-qualified freelance writer, editor and hands-on mom based in Chennai