What to expect from the Internet of Things

January 26, 2015

One of the major themes at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was the Internet of Things or IoT. Many of the speakers — including CEOs of major corporations, industry analysts and investors — discussed the topic.

IoT refers to devices and home appliances wirelessly connected to the Internet, the cloud or to each other that provide new capabilities. And from all of the discussions, many think it’s destined to be the next big thing in consumer tech.

With such connectivity, including cellular, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, devices can be smarter and behave differently as a result of external information or events. They can react based on communications from the cloud, the user or other devices, automating things that are now done manually.

For example, the Nest thermostat reacts to outside weather conditions, which it learns from being connected to the Internet, and detects activity levels in the home, lowering the temperature when no one is there.

While IoT offers great promise, it’s also something that has the potential to make our lives more complicated if we are not careful. Clearly, there are some things we do that could benefit by this, but many of these will not make a huge difference, and some will be downright annoying.

One idea mentioned at CES was a device that turns off your TV and lights when your fitness tracker detects that you’ve fallen asleep. While it sounds innocuous and maybe even useful, can you imagine setting it up? You need to connect your fitness tracker, the TV and lights to the cloud or to a hub in the home. Each likely requires an app, and you need to set up your preferences. And it’s probable that each item, made by different companies, won’t work well together.

We already have devices that turn the lights on when we turn into our driveway or enter a room, and turn them off when leaving. But if we’re simply reading on the couch when the lights go out due to a low level of activity, we then must wave our hands to turn them back on. If something like this can’t be done perfectly, how well can more complicated activities be done?

The area of health offers great potential. New sensors that monitor vital signs that can alert us or our doctor could be life-saving. Dr. Brian Alman of Encinitas, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, imagines emotional-mental-behavioral solutions for health sensors detecting high stress where he can deliver a short phone message or video to the user, much like a personal coach.

The challenge is to make these devices easy to set up and maintenance free.

As more devices become connected, imagine trying to troubleshoot a problem. Was the alert message on my phone triggered by the heart sensor on my watch, the sleep sensor in my bed, or the activity sensor on my treadmill?

The CEO of Samsung says that all their products — including humidifiers — will have wireless connectivity. I’m sure he’s motivated by using IoT as an opportunity to sell us something extra and encourage us to buy only Samsung products so they can talk to each other.

We are already interrupted hundreds of times each day, if we allow it. Emails, messaging, phone calls and so on. Do we need more interruptions from our clothes dryer, frying pan or coffeepot? We don’t want to be a slave to inanimate objects. It’s important not to be awed by the technology, and focus instead on specific applications. Is the benefit worth the overhead?

These are some the challenges that need to be overcome:

• Standards: Every company will have its own standards and it will take years to sort this out so products from different companies can talk to each other. Just think of the difficulty now in setting up a universal remote control. While there are some industry standards evolving, we’ll likely buy a complete solution from a single company.

• Setup: It will be difficult setting up so many things with different interfaces and different functionalities. Some of us still have problems getting a Wi-Fi connection in our home.

• Privacy: With all these devices and sensors connected to the cloud, some enterprising startup will figure a way to provide us with free devices and services for sharing all of our home and health data and allowing them to sell it to advertisers.

You’ll hear lots about IoT in 2015. Some of it will offer amazing new opportunities. But remember, just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be!


Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to phil.baker@sddt.com. Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.

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