Meet the College Students Transforming Our World with Internet-of-Things Technology

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Before University of Wisconsin computer science student Songzi Wen started working in the university’s Internet of Things Lab, she was all about programming, the technical skills. But when it comes to Internet of Things (IoT) technology—which creates devices that make it easier to accomplish tasks with less human effort—big ideas are the most important fuel. That’s what allowed Wen and her team to invent a drone that could track objects using RFID technology (radio frequency identification). And it won them the Most Innovative Technology Award during a show in December.

"I used to think that, as a programmer, the only thing you need to master is all kinds of programming skills," Wen said. "But now I think programming is just for use—the soul of a project is the idea. No matter how beautiful your user interface is, it’s useless if you do not have a great idea. It’s just a vase without flowers."

UW’s Internet of Things Lab was launched in early 2014, and it’s part of a movement to, essentially, bring everyday objects to life. Business Insider described the IoT movement; as having the capability to "make many of the familiar devices and objects in our lives — from door locks to toll booths to refrigerators — suddenly Internet-connected, smartphone-accessible, and responsive." And at UW’s lab, Research Director Sandra Bradley said it’s meant to be a place that emphasizes a "spirit of innovation." "Our focus is to find out if there’s an idea that can solve a real problem," she said.

Students in the IoT lab are working on projects in various fields, from computer programming to mechanical engineering. The lab gives them the opportunity to work with advanced technologies, such as Google Glass and Oculus virtual reality devices. With Google Glass they’ve created "augmented driving" system, in which data about things like your car’s engine load and speed are displayed in real time. A "senior medication assistant," a smartphone app that allows you to scan a medication and learn everything about what it does and how it should be used, in layman’s terms. And a football helmet equipped with probes and sensors that monitor concussion symptoms and are able to contact emergency medical personnel. The "Smart Helmet" won the award for Most Potential Impact at the December show.

"I think the lab is an amazing use of funding and there needs to be more groups like it," said John Keehn, who worked on the football helmet. "It gives students fun opportunities to go and create something out of thin air."

In the future, the lab is planning to start forming relationships with companies. Previously, the staff has focused on student engagement and academic research, which have provided the foundation for the multiple student projects. Right now, they are working on a partnership with the local police department in order to use theft prevention technology in a different way.

One project in the works is a bike recovery system, which uses sensors installed in the bike rack in order to alert you if your bike is stolen. The lab is attempting to educate the police department about this technology, and it’s possible that the police will begin using it, Bradley said.

"We are going to start focusing on industry, in terms of the partnership with companies that can be formed," she said. "Companies are looking for talent, and we are going to start blossoming the talent that already exists in the lab."