by Sunil Maulik, January 2014
One of the biggest technology trends in 2014 will be one that remains essentially invisible to the vast majority of people on the planet, even though its eventual impact on humankind will be dramatic. The Internet of Things (IoT)—also known as the Industrial Internet, the Internet of Everything, and the Internet of Nouns—will finally become a reality in 2014, principally due to the rapidly falling cost of manufacturing power-efficient wireless chipsets capable of sending and receiving WiFi and Bluetooth low-energy signals.
The cost of adding connectivity to a device has now fallen to less than US$5.00, and these processors, with their built-in radios, can work for more than a year on batteries. Ultimately, these chips may even be able to “sip” energy harvested from their ambient environment, including stray electromagnetic radiation, thermal gradients, or even the rustle of a breeze. This will make them ubiquitous in machines, devices, transportation, and even individuals. While the most ubiquitous IoT device, the smartphone—which already incorporates sensors such as accelerometer, compass, and GPS—exists in hundreds of millions of pockets, 2014 will see cheap, ubiquitous, wireless sensors invade the physical environment. Smartphones will become wireless hubs for these low-energy devices, enabling consumers and infrastructure to become hyper-connected to each other, to their environment, and potentially to any other resource on the Internet.
The first applications of the Internet of Things will be in business processes such as the remote maintenance of industrial machinery, supply-chain optimization and security, and infrastructure management.
The resultant streams of data, emerging in real or near real-time, will be a boon to networking, storage, analytics, and visualization companies. The amount of data forecast from “things” is poised to dwarf that from humans. Providing actionable intelligence from these large, noisy, incomplete, and potentially conflicting streams of data will keep statisticians, analysts, and user interface/experience designers busy for decades. Indeed, one of the biggest challenges of the IoT will be turning the data into engaging “nudges” that modify human behavior in sustainable or habit-forming ways. (Of course, for consumer companies, habit-forming may include stoking an addiction to buying their particular product or service!)
As a consequence, the first applications of the Internet of Things will be in business processes such as the remote maintenance of industrial machinery, supply-chain optimization and security, and infrastructure management; but the technology will soon see its way into consumer devices. An area of immediate consumer impact is the “connected home” and, by combining communities of connected homes, the “smartgrid.” With the fallout from Hurricane Sandy as well as the recent devastating typhoon to strike the Philippines, individuals, cities, and municipalities are starting to take responsibility for their resource needs by creating sustainable and smart towns and cities. These leverage renewable energy, cheap storage (e.g. fuel cells), sustainable transportation, and local manufacturing to create resilient “grids” that continue to function even in extreme environments. These grids will be managed, maintained, and optimized via the same ubiquitous sensor technology running on the Industrial Internet.
The consumer version of the IoT will also advance, albeit at a slower pace. Philips already sells a light bulb which can be controlled from a smartphone. There are now numerous home security systems, wireless wrist-bands, watches, and other wearable devices capable of generating and transmitting information about their wearer, their environment, and the presence of other sensors in that environment. Video-based tracking and analysis will also increasingly become routine, raising both privacy and security issues. Applications of all this real-time data include energy management, health, fitness and diet tracking, and intelligent transportation, as well as measuring the sustainability of communities, towns, and cities.
Apple’s recently released iBeacon technology (which uses Bluetooth low energy) allows any new iPhone to detect its position in space to the nearest centimeter, meaning that shopkeepers can track where and how consumers purchase products and send them suggestions, recommendations, and discounts. The iBeacon technology has already been rolled out at Macy’s and Apple stores in the San Francisco Bay Area. The spectacular success of Nest’s “learning” thermostat, which uses occupancy sensors and cloud-connectivity to make intelligent decisions about when to warm or cool a home, paves the way of the future. Driverless or driver-augmented vehicles from Google and others are another example of smart devices that will dramatically reshape our physical world in the next few years.
What is the future of the Internet of Things? Ideally, it is a physical world as malleable and responsive as the virtual world we are already familiar with via our web browser. In a few years, manipulating our environment will seem no stranger to us than marking up a web page is today.