It seems like only yesterday that 3D printing was the Next Big Thing. A magical new technology that would one day revolutionise the way we live and work. And while 3D printers are not yet in every home, many people will have seen a 3D-printed object like a jewel or a miniaturised version of themselves. The hardware is becoming much more affordable and companies are even selling 3D printers aimed at children: they can now design and print their own action-hero figurines!
One of the things that boosted the popularity and adoption of 3D printing was the fact that several key technology patents expired, opening up the way for talented and driven students to develop new open-source platforms. The ultimate goal was to create a 3D printer that can print a working version of itself.
The next ‘Next Big Thing’
It may well be that the next candidate for a game-changing breakthrough technology is what we have come to call the ‘Internet of Things’. Research firm Gartner places it at the top of its 2015 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, alongside autonomous vehicles. And the market is gaining traction for devices that integrate connected controls into everyday life.
Oxford Dictionaries defines the Internet of Things as: ‘The interconnection via the Internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data.’
Samsung has already launched its new SmartThings range in the USA, UK and Ireland, with the rest of Europe to follow in 2016. Philips is expanding its very successful Hue range of smart lighting products. And many other manufacturers are getting ready to connect virtually everything to the Internet, from our fridges to our supermarket shopping carts.
All of these solutions depend on a variety of communication protocols – but there is one that may well develop to be the true moderator of the Internet of Things: ZigBee.
What is ZigBee?
The current crop of Internet-connected devices that enjoy wide adoption – desktops, laptops, smartphones, watches, TVs, cars, cameras – use many different methods of data transmission. Some are wired through USB or Ethernet; some are wireless, using networks like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS or G4. All of these wireless technologies have a major drawback: they require a lot of energy and must be connected to batteries or another (wired!) power source.
A true Internet of Things will have to be built on everyday objects that can communicate wirelessly with the Internet wherever they are, with minimal power usage. Fortunately, there is a technology that lets us do just that: ZigBee.
The ZigBee Green Power protocol can even draw enough energy from kinetic energy. That means that the very act of pushing a button generates the power the device needs to perform its action. An example is Philips’s Hue tap switch, which controls the Hue lights and does not require any other source of power.
Other examples of ZigBee devices are: a portable ‘panic button’ for patients who may need to alert loved ones or a doctor in an emergency, home security sensors (for windows and doors), and an anti-theft mailbox detector that notifies you whenever there is something in your box.
The ZigBee standard was first introduced in the late 1990s and can wirelessly connect up to 65,000 devices across a 100-metre range. In 2004 the ZigBee Alliance was founded, which brings together big companies like Philips, Samsung, Siemens and Motorola.
As ZigBee uses very little power, it can be integrated into a device’s existing power supply – just consider the Philips Hue LED lamps, which are no larger than a normal light bulb. As the lamp gets its power, so does ZigBee.
ZigBee will work reliably across impressive distances as the central controller (which maintains the connection to the Internet) does not need to communicate directly to each and every device. The individual devices pass on information to each other, which effectively makes them all range extenders for their own ZigBee network.
Into the future
The ZigBee protocol is relatively slow but very reliable. The current standard is perfectly suited for home use, but industrial applications may still be vulnerable to smart hackers. The current version is ZigBee 3.0, but it is to be expected (considering the big names that are backing this technology) that future updates will bring security upgrades as well.
It may well be that in 5 to 10 years ZigBee will be so ubiquitous that we cannot imagine living without it anymore.
Maarten de Coninck