It’s fair to say that more people have heard of the “internet of things” than have experienced it. There is breathless press coverage of the phenomenon—always patiently re-explained by tech pundits as the trend by which all of our most mundane possessions will become internet-connected—each time novel, if obscure, inventions make a name off successful Kickstarter campaigns. These are invariably coupled with estimates that the internet of things will be a multi-trillion dollar business.
Yet despite repeated declarations by the technorati that each passing year will be the year the internet of things breaks out, one of the most successful sellers of baubles that help make your home “smart,” Smartthings, has only shipped 10,000 or so units since its debut a year ago. (Compare that to, say, the 360 million smartphones sold in China in 2013 alone.) Remotely-operated light switches and weather-aware fridges may sound fun, but people have yet to be convinced that they can solve any pressing problems. Almost everyone who is actually connecting “things” to the internet remains a hobbyist or hard-core geek—the sort of person whose itch for novelty is satisfied by internet-connected Christmas lights that change color when you tweet at them.
We’re already part-way there
In a sense the internet of things is already with us. For one thing, anyone with a smartphone has already joined the club. The average smartphone is brimming with sensors—an accelerometer, a compass, GPS, light, sound, altimeter. It’s the prototypical internet-connected listening station, equally adept at monitoring our health, the velocity of our car, the magnitude of earthquakes and countless other things that its creators never envisioned.Smartphones are also becoming wireless hubs for other gadgets and sensors, as well as universal remote controls for your smart home (paywall). “You’re now carrying the perfect tool with you in the form of your smartphone, to stay connected to your physical graph,” says Alex Hawkinson, CEO of Smartthings. (For those who don’t speak Silicon Valley English, “your physical graph” means “your things,” just as “your social graph” means “your friends.” ) “The psychological impact is that consumers are hyper-connected,” he adds.In this way, your smartphone is a gateway drug for you to enter the next level, in which the internet is “in” your thermostat, lights, door locks, car and wristwatch. Familiarizing consumers with this world, the thinking goes, will lead to what we’ve all been promised: a physical world that’s as malleable and responsive as the virtual one we already can’t live without.
What’s different about 2014
Until recently, connecting a device to the internet of things was expensive and difficult. Smart thermostats, lighting systems and appliances from giants like Samsung and GE communicated through obscure wireless standards that required installing specialized, internet of things-only wireless hubs. But in the past year or so, companies like Qualcomm, Intel and Texas Instruments have created inexpensive, power-efficient chips that enable pretty much anything to connect to the internet via Wi-Fi, or to a mobile phone via a standard called Bluetooth Low Energy. The advent of these chips isn’t so much a product of some groundbreaking technology. It’s driven more by growing interest among startups with novel visions for the future of the internet, as well as giant corporations looking to cash in, or at least not miss out on the next big thing.The marketing speak about the internet of things alone reflects big companies’ desires to dominate it. Cisco calls it the Internet of Everything, while at GE it’s the Industrial Internet. At Salesforce it’s the The Internet of Customers, and DJ Patil, a data scientist with Silicon Valley venture capital firm Greylock Partners has termed it the The Internet of Nouns. The hype has translated into demand by device manufacturers for the right kind of silicon, and chip makers are piling into the market.“A lot of these wireless technologies for connecting things have gotten cheap, reliable and low power enough,” says Hawkinson of Smartthings. “Now, the cost of adding connectivity [to an everyday device] is less than $5, and [these processors and radios] can work on batteries for more than a year.”This enabling technology means it’s possible to buy a lightbulb from Phillips that you can control from your smartphone, a home security system with no monthly fee, or a wristband that tells all the aforementioned gadgets where you are and what you’re up to—all products that have launched in the past year. It’s also making possible gadgets like Toymail, which enables two-way, long distance conversations between adults and toddlers who are too young to converse on the phone.
It’s taken considerable creativity on the part of chip makers to make this possible. In September, Intel unveiled a microprocessor that can crunch numbers and communicate via a wireless radio with as little electricity as what can be found in a glass of wine. It’s a cool trick, but for Intel to sell these small, inexpensive chips en masse, device makers are going to have to be equally creative about finding applications for them with broader appeal.
Smartphones and smart appliances are harbingers of what’s to come
The other, equally important driver of internet of things is that, through smartphones and cheap wireless chips, technology companies may have finally found a way to foist the internet of things onto more people, whether they want it there or not. Companies like GE now consider the smartening of their appliances for the coming era of smart homes to be a selling point to consumers. And in the process consumers discover that they can control their appliances in a way that saves energy.Smartthings exemplifies this strategy. Rather than selling connected sensors and other gadgets to internet-of-things aficionados, the company is focusing on selling things consumers already understand, like home security systems. Similar systems sold by retail giants like Lowe’s are testing the notion that once consumers experience the internet of things, they’ll want more.
This coming year, the internet of things will be about the convergence of ever-smarter smartphones and connected “things” that are cheaper and easier to use. For example, Apple’s iBeacon technology, which is part of iOS 7, allows any newer iPhone to sense its position in space to the nearest centimeter; anyone shopping at US department store Macy’s this holiday season can try it out. The result: In 2014, there will be countless ways to join the internet of things. What remains to be seen is how many of us are ready to take the plunge.
Finally the year that the “internet of things”— that effort to remotely control every object on earth—becomes visible in our everyday lives.But most of us don’t recognize just how far the internet of things will go, from souped-up gadgets that track our every move to a world that predicts our actions and emotions. In this way, the internet of things will become more central to society than the internet as we know it today. The web will survive, just as email survived the arrival of the web. But its role will be reduced to that of a language for displaying content on screens, which are likely to be more ubiquitous but less necessary. Here’s a closer look at the internet of things that’s already here, and where it’s headed.
The internet of things will create a world of “invisible buttons”
The pioneer species of the internet of things is the smartphone. For example, every time we take a smartphone with us in a car, it beams information on our location and speed to Google. The result is real-time traffic information that can be used by everyone.That smartphones gather traffic data without their users ever being aware that they’re doing so shows how the internet of things replaces the internet-related actions we already know—click a button, navigate a webpage—with context. This awareness, especially as it relates to where we are in the physical world, what time of day it is, and whatever other data Google and other companies have about us, leads to what Amber Case, a researcher for mapping company Esri, calls “invisible buttons.” An invisible button is simply an area in space that is “clicked” when a person or object—in this case, a smartphone—moves into that physical space. It could be as small as a two-inch square on top of a conventional credit card reader, to enable payments, or as large as a room, which might want to know that you have entered or left so that it can turn on or off the lights. With Phillips’ Hue and countless other smart lights, this is already possible.If invisible buttons were just rigidly defined on-off switches, they wouldn’t be terribly useful. But because the actions they trigger can be modified by an infinitude of other variables, such as the time of day, our previous actions, the actions of others or what Google knows about our calendar, they quickly become a means to program our physical world.
Apple’s play for the internet of things
Apple seems keen on the idea of invisible buttons. While the company has been relatively quiet about the technology, it recently rolled out something called iBeacon, which allows any newer iPhone or Android phone to know its position in space with centimeter precision. You can think of iBeacon as a version of GPS that works indoors, and which is also more precise. This allows the developers using Apple’s technology to define “invisible buttons” of just about any dimensions.
Anticipatory computing and the end of interfaces
Objects on our bodies (health monitors, smart glasses) and in our homes and businesses (smart thermostats, lights, appliances and security systems) can all be programmed to interact in complicated and unexpected ways once the internet knows that we’re present and what our intentions might be. For example, a smart home might know when you wake up based on the activity monitor on your wrist, and begin warming up the house, brewing a pot of coffee and switching off your security system. That’s the vision of companies like Smartthings, which is in the forefront of making the internet of things accessible to people other than techies and hobbyists.
So what’s required for more companies to tap into anticipatory computing? There are companies that specialize in “reality mining,” which refers to using data to track the remarkable predictability of our daily lives. This is a potential bonanza for marketers who want to target ads to particular times and places. Marketers are already starting to use this technology to target both online and real-world advertising (like billboards).
Wearable computers will keep us connected at all times
The next layer of the internet of things will require combining disparate streams of data “mined” from reality—everything from your location to the members of your social network. This is called sensor fusion, a task that is basic to all big data projects. Knowing where you are throughout the day won’t mean much, but add in data about who else is present and a computer algorithm can tell you how likely you are to get the flu. Finding the connections—in other words, meaning—in all this data is key to making it useful. “We have frictionless data gathering but we don’t have frictionless correlation,” Esri’s Case said at last year’s Le Web conference. “If you have to be a data scientist to do it, then it’s totally wrong.”Mike Bell, head of the new devices group at Intel, says that the future of smart devices, “whether it’s a wearable [computer] or a next-generation tablet replacement, will have a real user interface, but it’s not necessarily visual.” Bell, whose primary interest is wearable computing, can’t talk about what Intel is currently working on, but I’d guess from our conversations that it’s more likely to look like a wristband fitness monitor than another cell phone.In other words, the internet of things will replace the internet, but not by giving us another way to explicitly tell computers what we want. Instead, by sensing our actions, the internet-connected devices around us will react automatically, and their representations in the cloud will be updated accordingly. In some ways, interacting with computers in the future could be more about telling them what not to do—at least until they’re smart enough to realize that we are modifying our daily routine.
Sensing and responding to your needs, wants and emotions
If this all sounds like mind reading, that’s because in a way it is. Munjal Shah, entrepreneur in residence at Charles River Ventures, surveyed a thousand people about what super powers they would acquire if they could. The most popular answer was “speak all languages,” but the number two answer might surprise you: the ability to comfort anyone. Shah had conducted the survey in order to determine what sort of businesses could be built to give people these abilities (the first one, universal translation, is at least plausible). Comforting a friend is, he concluded, exactly the sort of thing the internet of things would be good at. First, our connected devices will be able to monitor our state—inactivity could indicate sickness or depression. And maybe we’ve recently posted on social media about a tragedy that befell us. Text alerts are sent out to friends, asking them to reach out, and voila—in as much as mediated communication is any sort of comfort, no one need ever feel lonely again.Once our possessions can both sense and respond, and are directed for the most part by computers, the world becomes something like a living creature. “We believe the digital world and the physical world are merging, and that done correctly what this will do is create a virtual representation of all of our physical devices online,”said Jeff Hagins, chief technology officer of Smartthings. “What that will accomplish is that it will make the physical world programmable. When we change the digital representation, the physical world will change in response.” If your goal is to fuse your mind and body with the internet, this is good news. But if you were hoping that in the future, getting away from it all would be as simple as switching off your mobile phone, you’re in for a rude surprise.