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Where objects talk and humans watch

December 09, 2011

Imagine this: You wake up in the morning and walk over to the kitchen. The fridge informs you that it’s time to get more milk cartons from the store. It updates you on the day’s weather, and just as you’re reaching in to grab the last carton of milk, the stereo behind you starts playing Rocky’s soundtrack, because that’s what gets you pumped up for the morning jog. Forty minutes later, your shoes talk to the health tracker app on your phone, and tell you how far you’ve run today, and whether or not you can compete for next month’s marathon. Back at the apartment, the TV on your wall reminds you about your 10 o’clock appointment with the suits from the ad agency, and that traffic on I.I. Chundrigar road is a little packed, because some guy is attempting to parachute off Habib Bank Plaza. The play-list segues to a Florence and the Machine track, just as you jump into the shower, where, of course, the water temperature adjusts itself to the weather outside.

Before you become dizzy with your own imagination, let me enlighten you about the “Internet of Things”. It’s not much of a name yet (though work is being done to strengthen its architecture, and establish its abbreviation, IoT), but it’s engrossing enough to make you wonder how you lived without it, just like the internet.

The age of the machines

It’s a simple idea: A world where everything is ‘intelligent’ and connected, so that most mechanical decisions are made automatically. Essentially, IoT is built on the M2M (machine to machine) concept, which came about as a remote way for companies to track and monitor their assets. It relies mostly on a communication module or sensor embedded in an entity, through which information about its [the entity’s] status and performance can be sent to a computer information system. However, the name IoT began being used about a decade ago with the increased use of the internet, which eventually opened up a whole world of possibilities.

An indexed world

We can already see the initial stages of the phenomenon; Facebook and Twitter apps on our phones sync automatically with our phonebooks to give status updates; GPS-integrated shoes, such as those by GTX Corporation, give out alerts when the wearer steps outside a set safe zone (an excellent utility for Alzheimer’s patients); or the RSG309 refrigerators from Samsung that use customised apps to provide weather reports, track social network feeds and even Google calendar updates. On the commercial side, Walmart uses an automatic inventory tracker that updates its materials management database across all geographic locations each time a barcode is scanned. This means that the moment you scan and pay for a box of ‘Betty Crocker’s Fudge Brownies’ mix, Walmart ‘knows’ that it needs to get another such item shipped in; it updates its order list to the supplier and charts out consumer demand for the product simultaneously.

Are we ready?

There are hardly any limiting factors to impede the true emergence of the IoT. Internet bandwidth is expected to continue to increase, and the IPv6 addressing scheme promises to support an internet address for practically everything in the world. The rate of technological development is ahead of what is being used at the moment, with nanotechnology, alternate reality, and light and pressure sensors becoming common place. The only factor inhibiting acceptance right now is the cost of the technology in consumer markets. Most ‘IoT-enabled’ products are at least 100 to 150 US dollars more expensive than the standard. On the other hand, with governments making it their national goal – Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has made it his country’s priority to be a ‘harmonious’ society – and the European Commission is aiming to finalise policy recommendations by 2012 or 2013, acceptance and use is inevitable.

Fact or (sci) fiction?

Given how connected the world would become, shoelaces could talk to wardrobes, cars could set appointments with mechanics themselves, and stores could tell you what would be appropriate for you, based on your past purchase preferences. A number of companies are already unveiling or working on products and solutions geared to the IoT – Toyota and Microsoft are collaborating on next generation telematics, Audi and Google are working on a real-time navigation system based on Google Earth, General Motors and Progressive Insurance already offer ‘OnStar’ – an in-vehicle safety and security system that leverages GPS technology, while HP Labs are working on developing nanotechnology sensors.Analysts predict the phenomenon to gain widespread attention within the next few years, and the world to be ‘taken over’ in just a decade. Soon enough, IoT-related privacy will become an issue and the inevitable threat of hackers will emerge (in a connected world, they could be infinitely more dangerous than in The Net). People are already debating how far along we are from sci-fi movie scenarios and whether life will be more like Minority Report or 1984. But until the doomsayers proclaim the end of the world, the IoT should be a whole lot of fun.



Shayan Shakeel wrote this article for the December 2011 issue of Spider magazine.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.