IoT Reporter Finally Feels the Spark of IoT

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

After nearly two years on the Internet of Things beat, I have finally figured out why others get so excited about being able to see the unseeable.

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I write about and think about the Internet of Things every day, like it’s my job. That’s because it is my job.

But, ironically, I almost never participate in the IoT.

My home is completely un-smart (though it is more than 100 years old and has survived many earthquakes, so it can’t be that dumb).

Alexa? Meh. If I have a question that I think the Internet can answer, I have to take that very antiquated approach to finding an answer: I have to type a query into a search engine! (Well, sometimes I do use voice-to-text.)

My car is unconnected (except for the electronic tolling transponder it carries). But it gets me where I need to go.

I have no idea how many steps I take each day.

I have an analog watch. Its purpose is to tell me the current time.

I’ve never purchased an IoT product because I’ve never found a compelling reason to own one.

But in preparing for a couple presentations I’ll be giving this week—one at the Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility (AIM)’s Partnership Breakfast, as part of the RFID Journal LIVE! conference and exhibition in Orlando, Fla., on May 4, and another during the concurrent Internet of Things Conference—I am genuinely struck by the impact and breadth of IoT technology.

There is no way I could ever truly encapsulate my past 18 months of reporting on the Internet of Things for this website into a 30-minute talk, because the list of creative applications of IoT technology—using it to literally build better mouse traps, or to improve the flow of traffic, or to track an individual’s exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays—is far too long.

I think many of the IoT applications I’ve written about are important and could have broad commercial and societal implications—even if, as I’ve noted above, I’m generally not interested in using IoT devices in my daily life. That’s why I’m a bit surprised by how much I’m currently geeking out about an IoT product I’m currently testing.

Last month, I reported on a company called TrackerSense, which sells tracking devices that are inserted into parcels to track both their locations and environmental conditions. Wayne Soutter, the company’s founder, sent me a TrackerSense device so I could play with it on my own.

I decided to ship it off to Orlando, ahead of my arrival there this week, so that I could watch its movements via TrackerSense’s cloud-based platform. Perhaps it’s just the novelty of being able to cyber-watch a thing move about the world, but this is really fun—and intriguing.

Rather than ship the package overnight via FedEx or UPS, I opted to send it via USPS Priority Mail. This way, I would get to receive updates from the Post Office about the parcel’s location, but I knew it would not take as direct a route as it might via an overnight delivery service.

It’s been fun to compare the actual GPS data I’m collecting from the tracker device to the data I’m receiving from the Priority Mail tracking service, which is based on bar-code scans of the parcel’s label.

According to the Priority Mail updates, the parcel, which I dropped into the mailbox at the corner of my block on Friday afternoon, was first scanned at a postal facility on Saturday at 5:07 PM. But before then, my package moved all over town. Not only did it zigzag around my neighborhood—presumably inside the truck whose driver collected it from the dropoff box—but all over the city, on a very circuitous path. Then it flew to Memphis, Tenn., on Sunday night. Then it flew to Denver, Colo., this morning (Monday). Obviously, the parcel was much closer to its destination in Memphis than it is now, in Denver. But I’m sure there are reasons it went to Memphis first, and I’m sure they make sense from a logistical point of view. Or at least, I’m guessing they do.

But, when I look at the alerts I’ve received from the Post Office, they make no mention of Memphis, presumably because the package was never scanned while it was there. Yet, my TrackerSense log shows a tag reading from a lattitude and longtitude of 35.080441N,-89.978783W, roughly an hour before the tag’s GPS receiver was detected at the Memphis International Airport. Does that mean the parcel was removed from the plane in Memphis? I don’t think so, because a quick map search shows that lat/long 35.080441N,-89.978783W is actually a park in the middle of a residential neighborhood not far from the airport. My best guess is that the GPS reading was collected as the airplane was preparing to land, and was flying over that park.

Since arriving in Denver, my parcel has moved from Denver International Airport to the Postal Bulk Mail Center in Aurora, a Denver suburb. It is expected to arrive in Orlando later today, so I assume it will be making the trek back to DIA soon.

Okay, so maybe this is not the most exciting stuff since sliced bread. But there is something so satisfying about being able to access more granular information about my parcel than I can get from the U.S. Postal Service. Plus, I can correlate it with the temperature, shock, air pressure and light exposure to which it is being subjected.

When I expressed this excitement to Soutter via e-mail, he responded by saying, “IoT and tracking technology ticks something deep inside us as humans, which I think is why so many of us are all so excited about it. There is something amazing about being able to watch your own ‘thing’ travel around the world… perhaps it’s the realization of real-time knowledge of where it is? Or maybe it’s the fact that you are self-reliant? For me, it’s this latter aspect that gives me such comfort and a huge sense of control.”

I think he struck on what makes the Internet of Things such a draw, no matter whether it is being used for industrial applications or for personal use. Humans want to see what is difficult or impossible to see, and that is why the IoT is so compelling.

Perhaps it’s odd, given my interest in this little parcel, that I’ve not strapped fitness bands to my wrists and delved into the quantified-self movement. But I know that when I don’t exercise, I feel lousy. And when I do exercise, I feel better. I don’t need to track the minutia of my movement stats that will tell me what I already know. But knowing what route my parcel takes from San Francisco to Orlando? And what types of environmental conditions it is experiencing along the way? That, to me, is exciting stuff.

I hope to see you in Orlando, so you can tell me how you got there!

Mary Catherine O’Connor is the editor of IoT Journal and a former staff reporter for RFID Journal. She also writes about technology, as it relates to business and the environment, for a range of consumer magazines and newspapers.