Controlling and monitoring your device through the cloud

So you’ve created a basic IoT prototype. What now?

One common request I see from clients is the need to monitor and control their device through a cloud interface. I’m working on a number of projects right now with companies that have legacy products that they want to modernise by connecting it to the cloud, and it’s easy to see why. They are looking for new ways to monitor their devices, remotely admin and control them if need be, and in a lot of cases develop a new advantage that they can use when making sales.

Over the last ten years there’s been a boom in IoT cloud services and the hardware that enables it has become easier to use then ever. Today I want to run through some of the tech platforms that can help you to do this and help you get started.

Blynk

Blynk offers an off the shelf solution to put together an app that can let you communicate with IoT devices, enabling a developer to easily and quickly put together an app that lets them remotely monitor and control what they’ve been working on.

If what you’re looking for is a phone app that can control a small number of devices, Blynk is perfect.

You can find a getting started guide for it here, and it’s as simple as downloading an app and installing a library.

Positives:

  • Simple to use, with an intuitive WYSIWYG editor through their app
  • Well supported, with a wide range of hardware platforms explicitly covered. In my experience working with other IoT platforms is as simple as setting up a webhook.
  • The paid tiers offer a wide range of options for scaling up, including the conversion to a web app and whitelabelling of the service.

Negatives:

  • You’re limited with what you can do for free, with the platform using a microtransaction model for adding UI elements to your dashboard. They aren’t terribly expensive, but it does add up over multiple projects.
  • Not every feature is available on their free tier.

Azure IoT Central

Azure’s solution is built on top of their currently existing IoT features, consolidating them all into one webapp interface.

I tend to recommend this platform for clients that are looking for something that can monitor and control a large number of devices, and is well suited in my experience for mass industrial use.

Positives:

  • The free tier covers all of the available features for the platform, with costs only coming up when the number of devices in use go above a set limit.
  • Easier control and analysis over a wide range of devices.

Negatives:

  • You have less control over the UI elements.
  • Compared to Blynk it’s harder to use, and in my experience harder to integrate with most hardware platforms.

If you aren’t interested in using either of these, or if you are interested in something with a bit more flexibility, then Microsoft and Amazon both offer a variety of cloud services that can help you. Although I couldn’t find an all in one solution like the others discussed above, I’ve used AWS’s Cloudwatch logging service to monitor various devices in the field successfully.

Good luck, and happy making. If you’re interested in discussing what you’re working on, feel free to contact me.

Creating your first SmartWatch

Lets say you have come up with a great idea for a SmartWatch product. Now all you have to do is make it… But how can you get started?

The market for wearable electronics have been growing quickly over the last decade and is likely only going to get busier. 305 million units were projected to be sold in 2020 with an annual projected growth rate of 55 percent. If you’re looking for proof of which, then all you need to do is to go into Amazon and search for fitness trackers. You’ll see FitBits followed shortly by a large batch of imitators and spin offs that are among the best sellers in the category.

In the hardware industry, there’s a odd contradiction when there’s a craze like this. When FitBits were originally developed, the industry exploded and a ton of companies started investing in this industry hoping to take their piece of the pie. Then the companies that make the components for hardware device saw a gold rush and they start making shovels, by which I mean prototyping modules being developed that are designed to easy to code for an eventually miniaturise.

Most smart watches on the market use a BLE microprocessor such as the nRF51 or nRF52 connected to a small OLED display, battery, and button. You can create a (slightly sized up) version of this using a prototype board for the nRF52 connected to an off the shelf screen and whatever other components you need. The developers for the board have detailed development guides that can guide you through the programming and the eventual miniaturisation of the device if everything works.

Adafruit Feather nRF52 Bluefruit LE - nRF52832
Adafruit Feather nRF52

It’s also worth checking out complete kits such as the TinyScreen Smart Watch kit, an all in one hardware development platform featuring everything you need, including a case, strap, and optional interchangeable modules. I’ve used this for a previous project and it can be a great way to quickly test a concept. You can also check out the OS Watch if you’d like something a lot more customisable at the cost of being a little more soldering intensive.

TinyScreen Smart Watch kit

Or if you like you could modify an already existing SmartWatch. This open source guide provides a guide to rewriting the code for a number of current watches on the market. Although this gives you the least flexibility as you’ll be restricted to whatever components are on the original device, if you’re careful you’ll end up with a presentable device to experiment with.

The reality of the market is that right now the health wearable market is saturated, but conversely it’s also relatively easy to make your own device. There’s a golden opportunity here, not to make a new Fitbit, but to make your own very specific Fitbit for a smaller niche. Say you want to make a health wearable for people that work in factories. You can add an air quality sensor on top of it. Or for firefighters, you can add a carbon monoxide sensor onto it. With a little modification you could be well on the way to the hardware development for your new product.

Good luck, and happy making. If you’re interested in discussing what you’re working on, feel free to contact me.