The internet of things

At the start of 2011, we identified machine-to-machine communications as one of our key technologies to watch. By way of getting a bit deeper into its relevance for AV applications, Chris Fitzsimmons caught up with Helmut Barthel M2M partner manager at Deutsche Telekom.

Machine to machine, or M2M or the internet of things, as it is also known in the trade is a somewhat obscure term today. However, if Helmut Barthel is to be believed that’s all about to change. Assuming you aren’t in the know already, I began by asking him for a definition.

“Defining M2M is not that easy because in general it accounts for a lot of different segments, but the overall idea is that devices are connected to a network, the internet and with each other. They send and receive signals via one of a variety of different network connections. There are many different high level use cases which determine what those signals are, or what the network type is.”

The second element of most M2M applications is a level of intelligence somewhere in the middle that makes use of the data received from the various devices, before sending some kind of feedback the other way over the network. But this is dependent on the application, or use case rather than being a part of the definition of M2M.

“In the AV context we could be talking about an expensive monitor or projector. This device is connected, and the connection could be used to service the device, or track its location and make sure it’s not stolen. For high price equipment it’s particularly relevant to ensure that the equipment is available 24/7.

“For many of our partners I have spoken to in the AV market, the situation is that they are two hours away, they receive a service call for a device and on the phone they can’t find out what’s wrong. So, they have to drive to the site, where they solve the problem within five minutes. If they could remotely look at the device then that would be a significant advantage.”

Ok, great, but isn’t that what all these network ports are for that we’ve been buying on our projectors? It’s not always that simple according to Barthel.

“Very often, this equipment is in a business context such as the premises of a major car manufacturer and they are not allowed to connect devices on their regular LAN, and therefore it’s important to have a dedicated M2M network connection. 

“To order additional internet access is very complicated or costly. In that case M2M is the clear solution.”

This touches on one interesting point about M2M. At the moment, when IT refuses to allow devices on its patch, the creation of a secondary AV LAN is required. What Barthel is suggesting is that M2M bypasses this need by using wireless technology of some description.

The principle requirement for M2M to be enabled is the presence of some kind of modem attached to the device, at the moment that’s GPRS, or 3G or 4G or even wired.

“At the moment 95% of cases, low bandwidth applications, can be resolved using a simple GPRS device, similar to what you would find in a mobile phone,” he remarked.

From a practical point of view, the use cases of device monitoring, control and maintenance are all low bandwidth applications, and this can be achieved via GSM networks. 

High bandwidth applications such as video surveillance in the future could reach the limits of current mobile networks but there are alternatives available.

“The challenge in all of this is not really a technological one. The difficulty is the system behind it, and the service concept. The barrier for someone like a projector manufacturer to getting this onto the street is the process. The question is who will utilise the system? Will it be controlled centrally by the manufacturer, or by a system integrator or locally by a service company?”

One example that Helmut cites of a M2M implementation model is that used by a  well-known printer manufacturer.

“They no longer sell their printers to companies; they lease them on the basis of the amount of printed paper. They have a dedicated service for clients, similar to a managed service. It’s only possible via M2M technology. The connected devices report their toner levels, when it needs replacing, and for billing purposes how many pages have been printed. A connected system then generates an invoice which is then sent to the client. This is all done via M2M, not the local network of the client.

“Imagine the case of a University and a local AV provider. Instead of selling ten or one hundred devices, the provider gives them the equipment and uses the model of charging for the minutes of use of the equipment. Think of the implications of charging for AV hardware as a managed service.

“It will be much more in the interests of vendors to select more reliable equipment, and the perceived quality of equipment for a user will increase substantially.”

So for the AV industry what does Barthel believe are the particular benefits of the technology?

“I think the key things will be the opportunity to create new services and new revenue streams, and secondly making processes more efficient. By processes we mean things like maintenance and servicing or simple firmware updates. 

“A lot of people in AV that I have spoken to say, that if they could actually use the network connection on the devices then their lives would be much easier. M2M bypasses the barriers to this by taking it away from the domain of the IT and other departments and gives it to a third party professional provider of M2M networks.

“Another advantage is lower operating costs, by which I mean manpower and maintenance costs as well as reduced downtime.”

The benefits of remote management are already well established in terms of eliminating travel times to site and difficulty diagnosing problems. M2M offers an attractive route to remote maintenance because of the ability to operate outside the bounds of fixed networks.

But how close are we do this technological solution becoming a reality?

“It really depends a lot on the segment. There are segments such as telemetry where it’s been used for ten or twenty years. This is because you are talking about devices that cost hundreds of thousands of Euros. It’s just too expensive for them to be unavailable for one or two days.

“However, in general there is still very low awareness of the technology, a very low installed base but in contrast there is a massive range of use cases and potential for the technology.

“As the costs come down, the devices on which it makes sense to implement M2M are going down and down in price. We have two main drivers for this. The costs of the modems and the electronics required to implement an M2M solution are decreasing due to reduced production costs. The second driver are falling communication costs, either via regulation or competition. M2M solutions are becoming more and more relevant and usable thanks to these factors.

“If you look at the devices commonly featured in your publication – large projectors and displays, they are already well within the price bracket where M2M makes sense.

“In the future we expect M2M to play a big role in energy management, and smart grids in domestic and commercial premises, as well as in green applications such as electric cars but in the mean time, the infrastructure and technology will be developed by the work that goes on today in other applications.

“What we will see in the AV world is what we have seen in industrial automation in the last twenty years. It will start with high value equipment and slowly evolve down the price scale.”

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