In the not too distant past, we communicated with each other with the spoken and written word, telephone, telegraph, and real paper “snail” mail complete with a postage stamp. Fast forward a few decades, and now, in terms of personal communication, we use satellite dependent cellular phones, e-mail, texting, video conferencing, social networking, and other forms of digital media. While generally very efficient in terms of time and energy, these new digital communications technologies have also made us somewhat lazy, something that countless others and I are guilty of. Just tonight, for example, I was grilling dinner on the backyard grill; my wife was doing school work in the bedroom on the opposite side of the house. Rather than shouting, or getting up from my patio chair to come into the house and verbally inform her of when dinner will be ready, I sent her a text message from my smart phone to hers; millions of dollars worth of technology were utilized to send just a few words about 20 yards in distance, telling her that dinner would be ready at about 5:30. Now the realists among you will admit to it – that you have done similar “lazy” forms of communication.
Now, with the rapid advances in digital technology and the near universal availability of internet connected Wi-Fi and cellular networks, we have gone from the traditional internet of web searches and email to an evolving utilization of the “Internet of Things”, commonly abbreviated “IoT”. While there are multitudes of often parallel and competitive developments of technology that can connect more of our everyday home, business, health, and other devices to the internet, major players in this evolving technology cannot even agree on what it really is and what to call it. Rather than the widely use “IoT” acronym, technology giant GE calls it the “Industrial Internet”, and networking powerhouse Cisco calls it “The Internet of Everything.” Whatever we call it, this IoT is already becoming big business with an estimate of about seven billion currently connected devices, according to a report published by BI Intelligence. According to this same BI Intelligence report, this number of connected devices will double to about 15 billion devices within the next two years, and is estimated to increase to about 25 billion connected devices by the year 2019, a scant four years from now. Cisco, the networking company, predicts 50 billion connected IoT devices in the same time frame.
The potential for revenues and profits is not lost on the players in this technological advance; according to an article posted by Forbes, dated April 22, 2015, citing a report published by MarketResearch.com, “(T)he healthcare Internet of Things market segment is poised to hit $117 billion by 2020. … they recognize that the $117 Billion in healthcare devices is only a slice of what’s coming.”
So, what is this dynamic technology of IoT that is now becoming so common in our homes, businesses, doctors’ offices, and other places? Basically, it means that more of our common devices, other than our current crop of smart phones and other intelligent devices that most of us already use, will be joined by other mostly already existing devices that will be connected through the use of “smart sensors”. Wikipedia defines the IoT as, “The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of physical objects or “things” embedded with electronics, software, sensors and connectivity to enable it to achieve greater value and service by exchanging data with the manufacturer, operator and/or other connected devices. Each thing is uniquely identifiable through its embedded computing system but is able to interoperate within the existing Internet infrastructure.”
Several years ago, while I was attending Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, I was amazed by the demonstrations of how some common household devices could seamlessly connect to the internet. One major manufacturer of residential washers and dryers demonstrated how these appliances would self-monitor their internal workings, sending an email to the owner, manufacturer, repair service, or other appropriate party as needed. If a part was in danger of failing, the appliance itself would simultaneously send emails to the user advising him of the problem; another email to the manufacturer describing the problem and the part number of the failing part; and still another email to a nearby authorized repair facility with the part number that needs to be replaced, the location and contact information of the owner, and even arrange for payment if the item is still under warranty.
I was amazed by what appeared to be an everyday microwave oven, similar to what is already in millions of kitchens, but this was a “smart microwave oven”, connected to what we are now calling the IoT. The control panel on the microwave oven was a bright LCD touch screen that did not just have the traditional time and power buttons, but also offered much more through its Wi-Fi connection to the household Wi-Fi network. Being connected to the manufacturer’s server via the internet, not just would the oven report its condition and functionality to the maker and owner, but it also would display customized recipes, generate emails with shopping lists correlated with the recipes, and calculate and implement the proper programming in order to have the selected meal completed and ready to serve at precisely the desired time.
An internet connected refrigerator was intended to save its owner time and money at the supermarket, as well as the now common function of monitoring and reporting its performance. An optical bar code scanner was installed on the door of the refrigerator, which could be used to scan the UPC bar codes of any grocery items that need to be purchased. A touch screen, resembling today’s common tablet devices, was also on the door, which was connected to the supermarket of choice. On the touch screen, shopping lists could be created and edited, with sale items displayed (the weekly supermarket sale book), along with a listing of available digital coupons which can be automatically applied at the time of checkout. A digital shopping list could be sent to the user’s smart phone, or printed on the home printer via a Wi-Fi connection between the refrigerator and the printer. What was especially interesting to me was that the printed or digital shopping list was coordinated with the supermarket, such that the items on the shopping list were in the same sequential order that they would be found in the aisles and shelves in the participating store, greatly speeding and easing the grocery shopping process. For those too busy, or otherwise unable to do the grocery shopping, the shopping list could be transmitted directly to the selected supermarket, where the items could be preselected for pickup, or even delivered, if delivery service was available.
My wife’s car is a current participant in the IoT, as it sends her periodic and frequent emails and text messages presenting her with the current details on the physical condition of the major components in her car, as well as immediate notifications of newly detected problems. Many modern home security and energy management systems are internet connected, allowing the user to remotely view video cameras, control the temperature and lighting in the house, and perform other household functions. Both my household cable TV system and my supplemental Amazon TV Fire Stick are internet connected; cable connected devices such as DVRs can be controlled remotely from anywhere by smart phones with the appropriate app; my Amazon Fire Stick can be controlled by my smart phone via my Wi-Fi connection, rather than through its separate remote control. IoT can also be used to maximize the household energy savings by coordinating energy use with the utility company’s “Smart grid” program.
In terms of health care, Wikipedia states, “IoT devices can be used to enable remote health monitoring and emergency notification systems. These health monitoring devices can range from blood pressure and heart rate monitors to advanced devices capable of monitoring specialized implants, such as pacemakers or advanced hearing aids.” Articles have been published about IoT connected glucometers for monitoring diabetics, which can automatically compile and remotely send blood sugar reports to the physician. Other connected devices could automatically monitor the well being of senior citizens, and persons with mobility impairments.
Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_of_Things) also explains other areas in which the IoT is in the process of being utilized, including marketing and related marketing research, such as tracking shoppers’ smart phones and displaying personalized coupons and specials offers while in a participating store. IoT can also be used for environmental monitoring, which will use smart sensors to monitor water quality, air quality, soil conditions, seismographic activities, weather conditions, and wildlife movements. With the recent spate of volcanoes, tsunamis, and earthquakes (such as the recent disaster in Nepal), the IoT can be used for helping to predict potential natural threats, provide an early warning system to other connected devices alerting the population, and even in rescue and disaster recovery.
Industrial users are widely implementing the IoT to monitor and control infrastructure and manufacturing processes. IoT can monitor the conditions, repair, and maintenance, needs of manufacturing and other industrial equipment. Safety and security devices can be interconnected, monitoring in real time the relevant concerns. Loss due to theft and pilferage can be reduced, as the activities of IoT connected inventory and equipment can be continuously monitored. Effective energy management is not just good for the environment, but it can also save the organization a lot of money, with IoT connected devices reporting energy needs in real-time. If coupled with utility company energy demand planning and “smart grid” technology, and energy consumption is managed in order to take advantage of variable energy pricing, significant savings can be realized.
There is much more to the “Internet of Things” that will become more prevalent in the near future, as more of the technology is implemented in our everyday devices. Some major concerns now being heard in the cyber security community have to do with the privacy of the IoT users as well as the potential for hackers to break into almost any internet connected device with potentially expensive and disastrous results. The growth of an IoT security industry will parallel the growth of the IoT itself.
The IoT technology is getting interesting; watch for it in your home, car, doctor’s office, and place of business.