The Internet of Things may be one of the clumsier neologisms to have emerged in recent times, but that has seemingly done nothing to slow its growth. For those unfamiliar with it, the Internet of Things (also known as M2M or machine to machine) refers to an expanding network of interconnected internet-enabled devices. Driven by miniaturisation, the affordability of components such as cheap Bluetooth sensors, and the growing ubiquity of technologies such as Wi-Fi, it is now possible to connect devices in a way that would never have previously been thought possible. While still in its "early adopter" infancy, some estimates suggest that by 2020 there will be in the region of 50bn IoT devices - all talking with one another on a constant basis.
"Consumers are beginning to realise that this technology isn't an outlandish, futurist concept coming to life from The Jetsons but in fact can be used efficiently and effectively to solve everyday problems," says
Already tech giants are getting involved, viewing this as a logical progression from the personal computer and smartphone races of previous decades. At its Worldwide Developers conference (WWDC) event last Monday, Apple introduced Homekit, an Internet of Things platform that will co-ordinate various third-party home automation accessories, allowing you to unlock your doors or turn on and off your lights via your iPhone.
What unites products as seemingly disparate as driverless cars and fitness-tracking wearables such as the Jawbone UP is their ability to collect data from, and on behalf of, their users.
"When people talk about the Internet of Things, they tend to get hung up on the 'things' themselves," says Ian Foddering, chief technology officer and technical director at Cisco
"Data empowers us," says
While marginal gains in toothbrushing might not sound like much, the overall point about the power of big data is certainly valid.
Entrepreneur and former Apple employee
"It's a revolution," Grothaus says of the burgeoning connectivity. "It won't be as flash or obvious as the smartphone revolution, but it will be more profound because it connects everything together."
But if the Internet of Things is revolutionary, it is also, in a sense, evolutionary.
"In the early 20th century, all sorts of devices and objects became electrical," says
What differentiates Internet of Things devices from the PCs, tablets and smartphones that came before them is their invisibility. The likes of Kolibree or SITU come with no screen or traditional input device such as a keyboard. "The most profound technologies are those that disappear," wrote
Sometimes, these devices are indistinguishable from the world around them on account of their sheer scale.
In other cases, it might be that the technologies are so small that we do not readily see them. The dream of those working in the biotech field today is for physical augmentations that constantly monitor our wellbeing - with sensors and microscopic robots in the circulatory system, tracking blood pressure and scanning for early-stage cancers. While we don't yet have all the details about Apple's work in this area, it seems clear that this is the domain innovations such as the just-announced HealthKit (and possibly the forthcoming iWatch) will focus on.
At the moment, people who choose to track and share their data still represent a minority. But while no one is going to force you to wear a connected device (in most jobs), those who do will become increasingly common - and will be incentivised for it. The car insurance company Drive Like a Girl, for instance, installs on-board car computers that monitor your driving and offers cheaper premiums to those drivers who prove less likely to have an accident. "We use the latest telematics technology to give girls the fair price they deserve, not because they are female, but because they are safer drivers," the company's website states. "With telematics, they can prove it."
Perhaps more intrusive is the idea of an Internet of Things-enabled lavatory, which uses sensors inside the bowl to sample your stool and provide health-related insights. By testing urine, these sensors might be able to detect hormone changes in a woman and advise if she is pregnant. It could similarly look for bacterial infections and suggest whether you can stick to Pepto-Bismol or should seek medical advice. If neither of these sounds enough of an incentive to ditch your lavatory for one with its own Twitter account, you may be in the minority: a recent survey suggested that 70% of people would be willing to share data from their lavatory if this could lead to healthcare savings.
In a post-
IoT devices offer new ways for us to take control of our lives, but also paradoxically cede that same control. It is here that a techno-sceptic like
Will these concerns be enough to put people off using such devices? Concerns have already been raised about the implications of
Beyond this are issues about security - such as what would happen in the event that our devices were hacked by someone with the ability to shut off our water supply, or take control of our cars, or unlock the doors of our houses from thousands of miles away. For those working in the field, however, these are temporary concerns, which can be addressed with the right amount of planning.
"There is no reason why organisations today should not have a robust end-to-end security policy," says
Q&A: Chip designer
How is the Internet of Things going to change the world?
We're going to see more technology that's woven into the fabric of the planet - whether it's intelligent lighting systems or microcontrollers in parking spaces so you can detect whether the space is available using your smartphone.
How has this affected ARM's business?
Our business works by licensing technology, primarily processors [including to Apple], meaning the intelligence that is in a smartphone or the braking system of a car, for example. We want to provide the technology that makes it as easy as possible for companies to get connected products into the marketplace.
What's been responsible for the recent surge of interest in this area?
First, there are so many smartphones, companies can think about providing technology that uses that technology as a way of connecting - whether that's a fitness band or Google Glass or a smartwatch. Second, we've seen innovative groups such as the "maker" community come together to connect things to the internet in innovative ways. Crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter have helped build and test all kinds of connected devices.
Apple has its new HomeKit platform for co-ordinating home automation accessories using the iPhone. What does this mean for a company such as Apple?
If you look at what Apple does very well, it has an
What do you see being the big ethical questions involved with this?
Security is a big one. For us as ARM, better security means more CPU intelligence, which potentially increases the cost of a device - or else lowers how long it might last on a single battery charge. We need to continue to look at how we evolve to let people still build compelling technology within cost, energy and security expectations.
GO GO GADGET EVERYTHING. . .
Philips Hue LED light bulbs connect via Wi-Fi and can be controlled from your phone. You can set them up to create 'mood lighting' and to come on gradually in the morning in time with your alarm. They can also flash or change colour when someone rings your doorbell or you receive an email. Or you could use them to turn your home into a scene from Saturday Night Fever.
Jawbone recently filed a patent for a method of measuring body fat percentage using smartphones. By sending impulses from the phone using its vibrate feature, the device would wobble your fat, measure the frequency of the wobbles and so allow it to determine your body fat percentage. This could then be used to create a more tailored fitness regime.
The Nest thermostat in your home learns your preferences and automatically adjusts itself to the correct temperature, enabling users to save money and energy. Connected to a smartphone app, it also lets users control the thermostat when on the go.
SITU's Kickstarter project will weigh your food and, via your smartphone, calculate the ingredients' nutritional value, enabling to you to track your salt consumption, for example.
This 32-bit microchip produced by
This smart body analyser made
by Withings measures your heart rate, body mass index and, of course, your weight. This data can be displayed on a portable device or computer and shared with other fitness tracking apps to reveal patterns over time.
This Bluetooth-enabled, Kickstarter-funded toothbrush made by French startup Kolibree will calculate and rate your brushing style, keep track that you've found all the right places and provide you with real-time feedback. The firm suggests you can transform otherwise boring dental hygiene activities into a competitive family game.
This electronic anklet made by Sensoria is designed to be attached to special socks with sewn-in sensors, which, in addition to tracking the usual fitness data, can tell runners about their cadence (the number of steps per minute) and foot landing habits, enabling them to adjust their running style to avoid injury.
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