The term ‘Internet of Things (IoT)’ isn’t the most eloquent moniker. Perhaps, when Kevin Ashton, an IoT pioneer, conceived it in 1999 the vision for its vast capabilities called for a ubiquitous, if not ambiguous, title.


Clunky as it might sound, its capabilities herald a landmark evolution in the digital age. Imagine the internet with billions of tentacles reaching out from a computerised device and into your home, your workplace, your city, giving virtual life to all the things around you. It’s a rudimentary analogy, but it provides an interesting visual on how IoT works, in terms of interconnecting objects in our physical environment with the internet. Still in its infancy, IoT presupposes that just about anything can be transformed into a “smart object” that can intuit day-to-day operation. So, things such as your home and work appliances, cars, utilities, cities and even people can all be wired up to the internet.


In regards to IoT, technology and consulting company, IBM, believes that, “In effect, the planet has grown a central nervous system and is developing intelligence.” Technology experts are currently grappling with IoT’s potential impact on both industry and the economy. Gartner, a leading research company, predicts that, excluding current mobile devices, the number of smart objects in use in 2020 will reach somewhere around 26 billion. Meanwhile, technology company Cisco Systems, estimates that in total it will sit around the 50 billion mark with the worldwide economy reaping $19 trillion from IoT in the next decade.


While IoT is seemingly limitless, experts are warning that smart objects need to be useful
to prompt customer engagement. Essentially then, devices need to provide a personalised experience, offer greater convenience, and/or be socially interactive and fun for customers. It’s projected that the quintessential smart object should also have the ability to interact with devices from a range of different providers and manufacturers. So, for example, in the future when you arrive home, your front door will open with, say, voice recognition. The front door opening will trigger the lights to switch on which might then activate your TV or sound system. Knowing your estimated time of arrival home, the temperature of your home is already set to your personalised preferences and the washing machine has just completed a load ready for you to hang out. It’s likely your smart fridge will suggest what you can eat for dinner based on your dietary requirements and what ingredients are available.


It’s little wonder then that General Electric (GE) is reportedly partnering with Intel and other major technology brands such as Cisco and Verizon to deliver its Predix platform, which creates smart machines and utilities. Last year saw Samsung and software company, SAP, partner up to create products and services in wearable technology. With its fingers in many pies, Google is partnering with some of the giants in car manufacturing to bring you Android-connected cars that you can open and close, start and monitor for performance, all from a smart phone.

Smart homes and cities are the future and temperature regulation has already successfully kicked off the notion of the smart home. Nest Thermostat created by US manufacturer, Nest, has the ability to learn a household’s temperature patterns and then regulate the home accordingly. It intuits when someone is home and when the house is vacant so that money isn’t wasted on unnecessary cooling and heating. Early last year, Google purchased Nest for a cool $3.2 billion indicating just how serious the company is about IoT.


Wink Relay, by New York start up Wink, is a touchscreen device that allows users to control and monitor Wink-enabled home devices produced by approved brands, such as GE. Taking it a step further, MIT Media Lab is currently working on smart rooms within the home to make better use of space. The company is experimenting with rooms where dining tables retract to the ceiling, beds are stored in cupboard spaces and walls literally move when not in use, all of which are interlinked with the internet. The idea feeds into a more expansive plan to create smart cities. The philosophy that underpins a smart city is to explore digital solutions that counteract urban challenges such as traffic congestion, transportation, energy consumption and sustainability.


Cisco Systems has been consulting with cities over the last decade to shift its focus to urban digitalisation. City 24/4, in conjunction with Cisco and New York City, released a number of public smart touchscreens that provide current and “hyper-local” information to people so they can navigate the city with greater ease. The platform provides emergency services with live information to try to circumvent hazards and analytics derived from it and provide the local government with information to better plan for the future. The Dutch city of Eindhoven is also paving the way for smart cities with its intuitive LED streetlights. With sustainability and intelligent technology at the heart of the project, the city’s streetlights are now automated to dim when the streets are vacant and then light up when movement is detected. The streetlights can also be set to a particular colour to create a desired mood throughout a location. Energy savings for the project have come in at over the 50% with more cities across the globe set to follow.


Logistically speaking, IoT is affording new opportunities to streamline trade practices and contribute to smarter cities. In 2012, SAP worked with the Hamburg Port Authority (HPA) to create the Smart Port Logistics. The platform draws on a number of data streams from transport companies and road authorities, to assist HPA in improving the delivery of goods to the port terminal. The platform can even indicate free parking spaces to transport trucks ahead of time and decrease delays at stopovers. The end result has proved faster times in the transportation of goods and an increased turnover of containers at port. Retail is also set to capitalise on logistical smart devices, with Walmart in the US already using the technology to manage inventory and chain of supply.


The health sector is set to experience some major changes with IoT. Remote monitoring devices worn by patients can already tell health professionals what someone’s vital signs are at home. eNeighbor by Healthsense can even detect if a person has fallen at home or missed any medication through its custom monitors. In the future, we could be privy to such devices as smart apparel, clothing which monitors blood sugars or vital signs of the wearer. Contact lenses could potentially analyse blood sugars in tears as well as detect early retina damage. Going a step further again, a smart toilet could monitor your daily hydration and vitamin levels. Health experts believe that technological advancements in healthcare will lead people to be more involved with their health and detect disease earlier with self-monitoring.


Gaming in the future will be experienced via a three-dimensional world of holographic entertainment. The likes of Samsung Gear VR – Innovator’s Edition, a virtual reality headset, has already got some people excited. Pitched at early adopters, if reviews are anything to
go by, the headset is impressive in terms of being the first real headset to hint at future
3D capabilities. Limited in its offerings – a few games, demos and 3D landscape experiences – reviewers are seeing a bright future for gaming in IoT devices.


While IoT is no doubt an exciting innovation, the more devices connected to the internet, the more security risks abound. IT company, HP, claims that 70 % of general IoT devices today are vulnerable to security risks, as outlined in its Things State of Union Study undertaken in 2014. The types of IoT devices that are reportedly at risk are thermostats, door locks, webcams and alarms, just to name a few. In an isolated example, BBC resounded the concern when it hired a computer security team to show how it could hack into all the smart devices in a home, even managing to turn a smart phone into a bugging device. On a larger scale, imagine the chaos that would ensue if city grids and health devices were compromised. HP believes that more security measures need to be considered when innovating IoT devices and applications.


With IoT, a new frontier of innovation is burgeoning, but some questions remain. Will wiring everything up to the internet really make our lives easier or will it simply overload us with technology. Likewise, with information becoming ubiquitous via big data software, details about our individual behavioural patterns will likely become accessible to anyone with a smart phone. How will this impact on the way we negotiate our work life and relationships? And finally, by making smarter machines, is the threat of an intuitive technology overriding humans one day merely a projection of science fiction or could it become a reality?

One thing we know for sure, IoT is happening now and its presence in our lives will only continue to expand. Of course, no one can ever tell exactly what the future holds.


Originally published in the Touch Magazine.