You can’t avoid the ‘Internet of things’ hype, so you might as well understand it

Internet of Things
For pretty much anyone in the Western world, the Internet is not only ubiquitous, it’s practically inescapable. Between phones, tablets, PCs, game consoles, televisions and set-top boxes, the Internet exists in every corner of our lives. Almost.

In the wake of the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), we’re hearing louder than ever that the future is “The Internet of Things,” everyday devices equipped with sensors and connectivity to work together, understand what we’re doing, and operate automatically to make our lives easier. And, of course, we’ll be able to control and configure it all, likely with our tablets and smartphones, or by speaking. After all, Siri and Google Now have taken voice recognition mainstream.

But beyond a well-meaning concept that promises to deliver us all to an even higher state of connectivity, what does the Internet of Things mean? When will it finally arrive? How will it change our daily lives? What happens when it goes wrong?

The big idea

The phrase “Internet of Things” is widely credited to Kevin Ashton; he’s indicated that he coined the term in 1999 while at Proctor & Gamble, but it didn’t take off until 2009 with an article in RFID Journal. At a very basic level, “Internet of Things” means devices that can sense aspects of the real world — like temperature, lighting, the presence or absence of people or objects, etc. — and report that real-world data, or act on it. Instead of most data on the Internet being produced and consumed by people (text, audio, video), more and more information would be produced and consumed by machines, communicating between themselves to (hopefully) improve the quality of our lives.

A bathroom cabinet that lets you know when it’s running low on toilet paper could be worth its weight in gold.

Smart devices use Internet technologies like Wi-Fi to communicate with each other, your laptop, and sometimes directly with the cloud. Some also talk to a central hub that serves as control point for many different devices, like the Revolv. Ideally, owners can use that central access point from their smartphones and tablets, either at home or when they’re out and about.

That’s all pretty abstract, so let’s bring it down to Earth. The classic example is a smart refrigerator that can read RFID tags on grocery items as they’re put inside, then look up those tags via the Internet to identify milk, eggs, butter, and those four frozen pizzas you just bought. The fridge tracks usage, then — cue trumpets! — alerts owners when they’re running out of groceries, or need more food since people are coming over to watch the game this weekend. (The fridge can tap into your calendar, of course). The refrigerator could even place a grocery order automatically (perhaps delivered via Amazon Fresh). Similarly, that smart fridge could warn about products nearing (or past) their expiration dates.

In theory, extending these ideas to things like pantries, closets, and medicine cabinets is simple. Seniors and others could benefit from smart medicine cabinets that track meds, order refills, and even alert physicians if something’s amiss. And just think: A bathroom cabinet that lets you know when it’s running low on toilet paper could be worth its weight in gold. Smart closets could help you manage your clothes with reminders when you really ought to do laundry (you’ve got two pairs of clean socks left!), or take things to the dry cleaners, or even say goodbye to some items you never wear.

Can’t remember whether you need to buy toothpaste? Ask your house.

Imagining the possibilities

Internet of Things LG HomeChatThe Internet of Things concept lends itself to fantastic ideas. What if your house could save you effort by recognizing that you’re at a drugstore and automatically sending a list of things you need? Stuck out of town on a business trip? Tell your house to stay in vacation mode, turning lights on and off to make the place look lived-in, but not running up heating and cooling bills.

Device-to-device communication creates other possibilities. Simple motion sensors can detect people moving around the house, turning lights on and off, opening or closing blinds or drapes, or even adjusting temperature. This functionality is already so refined that many sensors are reasonably “pet immune,” so dogs and cats don’t trigger automated functions.

Got an important phone call and left the TV on? The house could turn the TV off (to save power) but leave the DVR running. Sensors in a bed (or an alarm clock) could notify other devices when you wake; in turn, they could open drapes, start the coffeemaker, and discretely turn on the TV in the breakfast nook for news, weather, and traffic. When the clothes dryer finishes, maybe an alert appears on your TV so you can grab items before they wrinkle. If it’s dark outside, a sensor in your front door lock could turn on the inside lights before you step inside — after all, cars have been doing things like that for decades.

Doesn’t this stuff already exist?

If these “smart home” ideas seem familiar, it’s because many are on the market — they’re just not commonplace. One well-known example is the Nest thermostat (now owned by Google). It adjusts heating and cooling based on usage patterns and even billing rates, and can be controlled from a mobile app. Nest has branched out into “smart” smoke detectors too, and has competition from the likes of Netatmo and many other smart-home solutions.

Internet of Things Nest Protect

Similarly, smart appliances have been around for years, not just refrigerators, but washing machines, heating and cooling systems, lighting, and dishwashers too. Currently, Samsung is banking on its Smart Home platform while LG is offering mobile apps that essentially let users control their appliances via text message. Dozens of commercial, custom-install, and DIY home automation systems also qualify as part of the “Internet of Things,” whether that’s a home-security service offered by a cable company that can be monitored from a mobile device, a user-installable sensor station or Bluetooth-equipped smart locks.

Smart beds? Yep, the new Sleep Number mattresses can track your sleep — it’s a short step from there to integrating with home systems. Can’t cook? Come 2015, a smart grill will guide you through not burning food.

Why aren’t we there yet?

If there are so many smart devices, why aren’t we all living in the home of the future? Lots of reasons.

First, RFID tagging of items like groceries, clothes, and medicines hasn’t trickled down to consumers — and probably won’t anytime soon. Even if items are tagged, there’s no simple way to look them up; projects like the Open Food Facts and SimpleUPC are just in their infancy. Without the ability to easily and accurately identify items, many smart appliances (like refrigerators) are pretty dumb. For instance, even the latest smart fridges demonstrated this year at CES make users track food items by scanning receipts or barcodes with their phones. That makes keeping track of household items for smart devices a fiddly chore — the kind of annoyance the Internet of Things is supposed to eliminate, not create.

If we’re not careful we might think twice about what our homes know about us, not just what we post to social networks.

Second, most “connected home” products are proprietary ecosystems. Good luck getting your Samsung refrigerator, Whirlpool washer, Nest thermostat, Sears dishwasher, and ADT home security system to talk to each other. Noted technologist Jean-Louis Gassee calls this the “basket of remotes” problem — sure, there are ways to get (some) devices (kind of) working together, but it’s too much hassle for most people — like programming a universal remote. Until connected home technology works simply and stays out of our way, having a workable connected home systems means tying ourselves to just one system or brand.

There is some room for convergence. The AllSeen Alliance is creating a universal, open-source framework to enable the “Internet of Everything,” based on the AllJoyn framework, contributed by Qualcomm. If this standard gains traction, AllSeen might solve the “basket of remotes” problem. “It’s designed to be future proof,” wrote AllSeen’s chairperson Liat Ben-Zur. “[AllSeen] can take into account what’s available now, while also taking the future inclusion of a range of other devices into account.” (The problem: Not everyone is joining AllJoyn.)

Third, home appliances don’t turn over at the same rate as smartphones, tablets, or even PCs. People don’t replace refrigerators and other home appliances very quickly. Tablets may have killed off netbooks in just a few years, but it will take far longer for smart appliances to migrate into many people’s lives.

Internet of Things Sleep Number x12

Fourth, the “Internet of Things” brings a multitude of privacy and security implications. Although recent reports of smart refrigerators sending spam are likely exaggerated, an “Internet of Things” is also an “Internet of Things That Can Be Hacked.” Smart-home devices will know a great deal about our personal lives, from our schedules to shopping habits, appointments, what medicines we take, and even what room we’re in. That makes the privacy implications enormous. We might think twice about what our homes know about us, not just what we post to social networks.

Wait and see

There’s little question the “Internet of Things” will eventually be enormous: IDC anticipates 200 billion connected devices by 2021, with more than 30 billion being autonomous devices. Using Internet technology to make our homes and devices smarter is easy to understand, but is also a very large endeavor that will take a lot more time — after all, we’ve already been at it over a decade.

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