So what is the Internet of Things? Well, it’s too wide-ranging, too nebulous a concept to describe in one pithy soundbite, but we’ll give it a shot: it’s when objects in the physical world connect to the web – and each other.
That probably doesn’t come close to explaining why it’s such a big deal, but look at it in this way: what if almost everything in the world – cars, computers, coffee mugs, cereal boxes, chairs, even cows – were all part of a huge global network? And each had an individual identity within that network?
Taking the example of a chair. In an Internet of Things scenario, you might be able to single out a particular chair, anywhere in the world and find out (a) if someone was sitting on it and (b) who that person was. The chair would only need to have a pressure sensor, an individual ID, an Internet connection and the ability to read RFID tags.
Image credit: Gregory Han
Why would we build it?
You might as well ask “why create the world wide web”? The Internet of Things will make a lot of new things possible.
For one thing, it will allow us to interact with objects in an entirely new way. Go to the supermarket, point your phone at a packet of mince and you’ll be able to find out its calorific value, where the cow came from, how much of it is horse and what the use-by date is. Point it at a person you’ve just met for the first time and, assuming they’re happy to share their personal info, you could quickly download business card-style information.
If objects in the Internet of Things are location aware, we can search for them. Imagine asking Google, “dude, where’s my car?” and having the answer presented to you instantly. Or your keys, or your TV remote, or your cat – or your kid? Wondering why your pizza delivery is taking so long? Find out exactly where the box is, and maybe even check if the pizza’s still hot while you’re at it.
No more traffic jams
Then there’s the value it can bring to systems like healthcare and traffic by increasing their efficiency and effectiveness. Take the former: a heart monitor could enable a hospital to keep tabs on your ticker remotely and use an algorithm to predict future complications. For the latter, a city’s system of traffic lights could be controlled by a computer that is constantly monitoring every bicycle, car and bus, to ensure that traffic flows more efficiently. Everyone gets where they’re going faster and road rage is reduced.
This efficiency can also translate into decreasing our environmental impact. Consider, say, a washing machine connected to the Internet of Things. You could load this with your clothes and liquid, then leave it to your energy provider to remotely turn it on at the time of day when the grid is experiencing its lowest load.
Image credit: grendelkhan
Augmented augmented reality
The Internet of Things would also make augmented reality apps more accurate. Mobile AR is currently working at a small fraction of its potential, and relies mainly on GPS and data – neither 100 percent reliable – to make labels and the like pop-up in your phone camera viewfinder. With the Internet of Things, location-aware objects and even people would be clearly marked and tagged. Imagine playing an AR game with other human beings as the “enemies”.
How would we build it?
For an object, animal or person to join the Internet of Things, it requires that it be given an individual identity and to have wireless access to the Internet.
Both are possible now for a lot of objects (in fact we’ll touch on a few current forays into the Internet of Things below). IPV6, the addressing protocol used by the Internet, can theoretically support an infinite number of individual IDs. However, getting something like the aforementioned packet of mince hooked up to a wireless network is something that clearly isn’t going to happen for a while. It’s entirely possible – it would just cost far too much using today’s technology. As wireless connectivity improves, chip sizes decrease and prices drop, expect to see more and more “everyday” objects joining the Internet of Things.
For more functionality, other traits can be handy. The smart chair we mentioned above, for instance, would need to bolster the ID and connectivity to work. For other things, like cars, it’d make sense for them to be consistently location aware.
There’s also the possibility of controlling objects in the Internet of Things. An air conditioner or a washing machine, for instance, could be switched on from afar (the former when you’re on your way home on a hot day, the latter at a non-peak time when electricity costs are lower). In this case, some kind of control circuit would need to be embedded in the object.
Can it be used for evil?
Oh yes. In fact the very idea of the Internet of Things presents the world with a big question to ask itself: do you want to give over control of objects you own and more information about yourself to governments and technology corporations? The Internet of Things could make the recent PRISM snooping revelations look like a storm in a teacup: imagine if your government had the ability to spy on you through not just your emails, Facebook messages and texts but through half the items you own – your car, your clothing, even perhaps your body.
Privacy's a goner
Total privacy would be a thing of the past – unless, perhaps, the system is strictly regulated as its rolled out. And if you think Facebook, Google and Amazon’s targeted advertising is creepy now, wait until you’re living in a world which resembles the above scene in Minority Report (for more on this, check out our article on indoor navigation).
Even if you believe governments and corporations to be trustworthy, what if they’re incompetent? If a city’s Internet of Things-controlled traffic light system went haywire, the results could be disastrous. And what if it got into the hands of terrorists or hacker collectives?
So when is it coming?
Well, it’s already here – or at least its first green shoots have begun to sprout. While we’re a good few years away from smart packets of mince, there are several products available now, or very soon, that can legitimately claim to be a part of the Internet of Things.
The August Smart Lock (see the video above) is a keyless lock that automatically unlocks your front door when you – or someone to which you’ve given access – approaches. It’s twinned with a smartphone app and you can grant access to people (let’s say a plumber) temporarily, retracting it whenever you like.
The Ninja Block is a Kickstarter-funded home automation kit able to run a huge range of apps that let you monitor and remotely control things like air conditioning and heating, receive notifications when your door bell rings or motion sensors are tripped and lots more.
UPDATE 9/10: The recently-announced Nest Protect uses its web connection to provide up-to-date info on your abode's status (on fire, not on fire, that sort of thing) direct to your phone, tablet or browser, while in the US Nest's thermostat chats to energy providers to find out when an expensive 'peak day' is going to hit so that it can curb your energy usage and save you cash.
Then there are the wireless fitness trackers like Fitbit, Philips’ Hue bulbs that automatically switch on when you’re close to home and British Gas’ Remote Heating Control system. These products and services and others like them are the first forays into the Internet of Things – but they’re only the tip of the iceberg. Make no mistake, Things are about to get very interesting.