How a Standard Camera Could Replace Many IoT Sensors

November 11, 2016
By Andre Fuetsch

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. When it comes to the Internet of Things, it might be truer to say a video could eventually be worth a thousand sensors.

Consider a convenience store refrigerator. The sort of standard, glass-doored cooler you’ve pulled an icy soda or sports drink out of countless times on a sizzling summer afternoon. What do you want from that fridge? You want the drinks to be well stocked, clearly displayed, and ice cold.

Traditionally, the best the store and drink maker could do was slap a thermometer inside the case and occasionally send a cashier or delivery person around to do inventory.

In recent years, various companies have started installing all sorts of specialized sensors and devices in those fridges. A thermometer for temperature. A weight scale to track how full the shelves were. And so on.

Connect those sensors to the Internet, and send the data back to a technician in a control room. The goal is to have him sound the alarm before the store runs out of your favorite grape soda.

In the future, you may be able to do this with just one video camera. The same sort of compact and high-quality camera you have on your phone. A camera shows you instantly if the shelves are full and properly arranged.

Amazingly, you’ll be able to get precise temperature checks just by scanning high-res video of the condensation on an aluminum can. And sophisticated video recognition software will be able to scan the incoming video in near real-time and send out alerts and notifications.

You’ll know your grape soda will always be in stock, in reach and perfectly frigid.

We’re building that prototype fridge in our AT&T Foundry innovation center right now. We have researchers developing the video analytic software. There are already a handful of home fridges with built-in cameras. That can be helpful if you want to take a peak at your egg tray to see if you need to stop at the store on the way home.

Our goal here, though, is to provide data on dozens or hundreds of fridges linked to the cloud. Then we want to analyze that data automatically to dispatch deliveries as needed. We think this could be huge. And it doesn’t stop at refrigerators.

We’re also experimenting at the AT&T Foundry with a camera-equipped trash bin. We think there are many opportunities where a camera may do the work of several sensors. This insight came in part from work we’re doing elsewhere within AT&T.

We’ve talked a lot on this blog about how we’re transforming our network to be software-centric. Specialized routers, switches and other hardware are becoming apps running on standard servers. In this case, specialized IoT sensors are becoming apps enabled by standard video cameras.

Streaming HD and 4K video from millions or billions of connected cameras up into the cloud through 4G – and eventually 5G – wireless connections will definitely boost the load on the network.

We’ll be ready for it.

We designed our software-centric network to flex and grow to meet demand in near real-time. These innovations go hand in hand.

And someday soon, you’ll be able to trust that your frosty beverage of choice will always be ready when you are.

Andre Fuetsch - President – AT&T Labs and Chief Technology Officer

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