The Internet of Things: Too Far Away?

“The Internet of Things” has been a topic of interest in the technology circles for as many as 15 years. Like “Web 2.0”, “the Semantic Web” and “Cloud computing” it is a term that excites keen interest. But how much is hope, and how much, hype ?

The phrase “The Internet of Things” is generally accepted as being proposed in 1999 by Kevin Ashton, who was seeking to apply RFID to manage Procter & Gamble’s supply chain. The Internet of Things is understood by many people as a glamorous way to describe something that has always existed: sensors connecting “inanimate” machinery to a computer, maybe with a network of such sensors all connected to each other thrown in.  Other consider it to be the inclusion of RFIDs on every “thing” – from books to cars to cows – so that those “things” become capable of being tracked and we can easily capture things that we are interested to know about them. Another view is that “smart” grids and “smart” houses form the sum total of the Internet of Things. Right?

Not really. While it incorporates all of the above, the concept of The Internet of Things (IoT) involves much more than that.

Let’s first start with why it is called The Internet of Things. Why not just “connected devices”? Or M2M (machine-to-machine) communication?

At its most ambitious, it is supposed to emulate the way the Internet (IP) connects hundreds of thousands of smaller networks (our “traditional” IP is the Inter-network, or a network of networks). The idea behind the Internet of Things is this:  not only should ordinary objects that we don’t normally visualize as generators of information be connected to each other, many smaller networks of such objects should be able to “talk” to each other. Potentially, one should be able to connect all the objects on the planet to each other. Whether that is necessary of course is a different matter. However, it does point to the fact that the number of such devices in any network will be extremely high. (Consider for instance an electrical grid with thousands of “smart meters” on the network).

Considering its scale, therefore, The Internet of Things will be possible only because of developments in a number of fields, from nanotechnology to wireless sensors.

Applications

Potential applications include:

  • Energy – “Smart” grids leading to more efficient energy use and billing
  • Transportation – Transportation solutions that could track traffic conditions and ease congestion;  automatic emergency handling services (for example, eCall is an European initiative to deploy devices in all cars that will automatically send an emergency notification, data on the seriousness of impact, and coordinates to the emergency services in case of an accident )
  • Household applications – Smart homes
  • Healthcare – Care of the elderly and patients (For instance, implanted devices that can inform a caregiver automatically in case of a fall, or a drop in vital levels)
  • Environment– Monitoring pollution levels in water bodies
  • Security
  • Industrial applications

Developments

A number of ventures claiming to be associated with the “Internet of Things” have grown in the years since 1999, when the idea was first presented, and the present. Most of them revolve around specific products or services such as Netatmo’s “connected weather station” which allows users to track temperature and air quality inside their homes via sensors which are internet-enabled. Withings, a Paris-based company which raised $30 million in venture capital funding in October 2013, produces items such as wireless-enabled weighing scales and other consumer health devices, while Invoxia’s main offering is an audio device for iPhones/Android. In a very different field, Camgian Microsystems is notable for manufacturing hardware products (chips and sensors) that are usable in security and warfare applications. The Mississippi-based company has partnerships with DARPA, Boeing and Honeywell among others.

Unfortunately, most of these products are disparate in that they do not connect to the wider environment, or to other low-level devices (except phones and tablets). An ideal “Internet of Things” application would be, for instance, a weather station that also took into account your current health data (measured through another monitor and transferred to the weather station) and the current outside weather conditions and advised you to wake up and get more exercise (via a connected alarm clock/phone).

Thus, what is urgently needed is a set of common standards so that multiple different companies can build different products that are able to talk to each other. The plethora of platform providers currently being marketed for different uses makes it unlikely that this will happen any time soon.

The Way Ahead

An October 2013 Forbes article notes that the Internet of Things is definitely not here yet, but holds out hope for it by emphasizing the need for “open APIs and common standards”.  Besides this major challenge, other issues to be tackled include potential energy sources (especially important in view of the large number of devices on the network), sensor costs, as well as data privacy, security and ethical concerns.

The International Telecommunications Union in a 2005 report held out great promise for IoT’s applications, predicting everything from smart beverage machines to electronic wallpaper that changes according to one’s mood.  Sounds like a science fiction novel? As Arthur C. Clarke said:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

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Krittika is a PGP-2 student at  IIM Ahmedabad and a member of the Consult Club. She is interested in technology and learning. She holds a B.E in Information Technology from Netaji Subhas Institute of Technology, Delhi.

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