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Internet of Everything

By Joan Voight, Illustrations by Josh Cochran

Published Jan 15, 2015 8:00 AM

Research at UCLA is automating objects that will change our lives, transforming complex tech into things that are both useful and intelligent.

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The Internet and smart phones have so rapidly revolutionized how we talk to each other, shop and find information that we can barely remember life before them. But that was only Act I. Next up is the Internet of things — connected and programmable household objects and wearable accessories that collect and analyze data and respond to our needs. It will fold our physical world into the digital realm and essentially automate our lives. Google Glass and Nest automated thermostats are only a hint of what’s coming —25 billion computerized devices will be connected in 2015, reports Cisco, and by 2025 wearable technology will be the norm, say 83 percent of 1,600 technology experts polled by Pew.

But skeptics wonder if the Internet of things is mostly hype — ubiquitous computing looking for problems to solve. UCLA researchers look at it differently. They are studying problems first, and then figuring out how automating objects and wearables will solve them. Think of appliances that automatically respond to the power grid, or smart canes that predict whether an elder will fall. Health care is proving fertile territory for some of the researchers’ most exciting work. At the same time, Google and others are hustling to develop networking standards that can handle the onslaught of data from these products. Vinton Cerf M.S. ’70, Ph.D. ’72, one of the founders of the Internet, has no doubt that the world is primed for smart, easy-to-understand objects that offer clear benefits. “We’ll soon assume that the objects around us are collecting data and are interconnected. We’ll expect to control all kinds of things automatically and remotely,” he predicts. Sound intriguing? Take a look.

Part Room, Part Vehicle

Architecture Professor Greg Lynn, UCLA’s guru of intelligent buildings, is working with students on a movable room that is shaped like an egg. Forget your image of what a living space should be. This space revolves around on a base, and the furniture and walls are programmed to fold into pockets in the walls when they aren’t needed. As the “room vehicle” (RV) turns on its side, the floor becomes a wall, and a wall becomes the floor. A tablet computer and smart phone interface control the RV’s movements. They will eventually be able to predict patterns, so the RV could automatically rearrange the environment to suit the user’s routine.

“Because it’s revolving and adaptable, the RV provides 1,500 square feet of living space while taking up only 600 square feet of floor space,” says Lynn. Last spring, three UCLA students developed a smart phone and tablet interface to control the RV’s software at Suprastudio, the graduate architecture program at UCLA’s IDEAS satellite campus, located in the former airplane hangar of magnate Howard Hughes.

Lest all this sounds too far-fetched, it helps to know that a one-fifth-size model has already toured the offices of Facebook and Red Bull. We can expect RVs or similar reconfigurable rooms to be adopted by Silicon Valley companies first, then expand into other offices and eventually to homes, Lynn says.

Google Glass Takes to the Stage

We never thought of Broadway this way. The UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television (TFT) is using Google Glass — a headset that houses a tiny, wireless computer with a display screen and camera around the right eye — to reshape our notion of a theater plot.

With coding by UCLA student programmers Joon-Sub Chung and Karan Chugh, master’s film student Eben Portnoy wrote a futuristic, interactive play titled Bodies for a Global Brain, in which a young couple give themselves over to the consciousness that the Internet has become. During the performance, the actors are sent the Internet’s thoughts (actually, archived posts from Twitter) via Glass. The duo improvises on stage, using the incoming tweets in their dialogue.

Jeff Burke ’99, M.S. ’01, M.F.A. ’10, assistant dean for technology and innovation at TFT, designed the project in early 2014 as part of the Glass Creative Collective program, a partnership with Google and film schools. When the students found they needed an algorithm to manage the archive of tweets, they turned to Alex Horn, staff software developer at UCLA REMAP, a partnership between TFT and the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science.

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“The onstage performance, which was also filmed as a web series, was surprising, funny and disturbing,” and took the idea of improv to a different level, says Burke. In the next phase, Glass will feed real-time tweets from the audience to actors as the story unfolds. “Applying machine learning in an artistic way may seem avant-garde now,” says Burke, “but it will soon be mainstream.”

Refrigerators, Meet the Grid

If our electric cars and appliances could talk to the power grid, they could automatically use minimal energy during expensive peak periods. That’s the concept behind the work of Rajit Gadh, engineering professor and founder of the UCLA Smart Grid Energy Research Center (SMERC). Gadh and his team developed the WINSmartGrid, which allows electric cars, washers, dryers and air conditioners to be monitored, connected and controlled via a wireless or wireline hub. SMERC is in the process of adding electronics to about 30 refrigerators and installing them in UCLA dorms to gather usage data and demonstrate the effectiveness of the devices. The smart fridges will communicate with the local electricity grid in order to reduce the power used during the grid’s top demand time. “The temperature may go down a little in the main part of the fridge, or the automatic defrost cycle may be delayed to a nonpeak time, but residents hardly notice,” Gadh says.

Additionally, SMERC is researching smart sensors that would tweak our lighting, heating and cooling based on remote commands from homeowners and the demands of the grid. “More consumers are asking for smart appliances — the drive for the connected home is being driven from the ground up,” says Gadh.

Medical Wearables — A Direct Line to the Body

While techie fitness bracelets like Apple Watch, Fitbit and Jawbone make the news, UCLA medical researchers are quietly pushing the boundaries in how wearables can give doctors hard information where they once had only patients’ imperfect memories. The research could revamp health care: About 19.1 million patients around the world will be using connected home medical monitoring devices by 2018, up from 3 million in 2013, according to Berg Insight. Here’s a sampling.

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Smarter Stroke Rehab

The future of stroke patients is largely determined by how much and what kind of physical activity they get after they leave the hospital, say doctors. But objective information about patients’ real-life exercise patterns is tough to nail down. Bruce Dobkin, professor of neurology and director of the UCLA Neurologic Rehabilitation and Research Program, is trying to solve that problem with networked sensors that patients wear on their ankles. The sensors record the accelerations and decelerations as the person moves. A smart phone sends the data to computer programs that analyze the type, quantity and quality of the movements. Walking speed and distance, asymmetries in leg movements, and diligence in practicing particular skills can be recorded.

Twice a week, patients get a phone call. Based on the data, the patients get feedback on their activities and advice on how they might improve daily exercise, says Dobkin.

Traditionally, stroke patients see a doctor a month after being released, and then two or three months after that. “If the patient isn’t active between these doctor visits, that crucial recovery time has been wasted,” Dobkin says. He and other researchers are now examining whether the data collection and feedback increase daily exercise, improve walking and reduce risk factors for repeated stroke or heart attack. “Sensors like this could significantly reduce disability from stroke and prevent subsequent strokes,” he says.

Listening to Digestion

AbStats are a pair of disposable, one-inch sensor/microphones that people wear on the abdomen to record the sounds of the digestive tract. A computer at the patient’s bedside analyzes the information to tell doctors when and how the person should eat, says Brennan Spiegel M.S. ’04, professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Initially, it will be used on surgery patients: Because surgery shuts down the digestive system, doctors have had to guess when a digestive tract is ready to accept food again.

“Working intestines make sounds as they contract, which we can now measure. That information tells us when the patient is ready to eat full meals and can be released from the hospital,” says Spiegel, who is also an adjunct professor in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

Spiegel’s research has been licensed by start-up GI Logic. Eventually, says Spiegel, disposable and inexpensive wireless AbStats sensors and a simplified app could be used to monitor the millions of people with irritable bowel syndrome and allergies to gluten, lactose and other food substances. “We have invented a new vital sign — your intestinal rate, a measure of how quickly your intestines are moving,” he says.

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Spiegel anticipates the FDA approving AbStats for use in hospitals by early 2015, and for consumer use by early 2016.

A Cane with Brains

Consider the lowly walking stick, a candidate for a digital upgrade if ever there was one. Motion-sensing research by the UCLA Wireless Health Institute is being licensed for a new kind of ergonomic cane that senses users’ walking patterns and even predicts when they might fall. The Isowalk cane is outfitted with wireless motion sensors that send data about the user’s gait to smart phones, tablets or desktop computers. The data is fed into the user’s profile and analyzed to reveal changes or aberrations that could mean trouble.

“It can be useful for helping elders who have trouble walking, or for patients recovering from an injury or orthopedic surgery,” says Ron Goldberg, founder/CEO of Isowalk. Goldberg is lining up funding and expects to start selling the smart cane to consumers for about $179 by late 2015. Isowalk and UCLA WHI will pursue FDA approval, which would allow the device to be deployed in clinical settings and prescribed in a rehabilitation regimen. “Everyone heals differently,” says Goldberg. “This device quantifies how patients are actually doing, how well and how often they are walking. It makes their care more efficient.”

Losing Control?

While individual devices are fascinating, the real heart of the “Internet of Everything” is having objects connect with each other and invisibly respond to our behavior, which is also when our privacy is most vulnerable. When our smart objects share our information, we will probably lose control of where that info is going, says Leah Lievrouw, UCLA information studies professor and a member of UCLA’s Advisory Board on Privacy and Data Protection. Banks, employers, insurance companies and marketers are all interested in details about our lives, and “when computerized objects are networked, the product is no longer our health, energy use or banking. The product is the data,” Lievrouw warns.

Nonetheless, the technology of computerized things is proceeding at a lightning pace. If we are smart enough to manage the privacy and complexity issues, experts say the only constraint will be our imagination.