2015 CES

The 'Internet of Things' Heralds the Arrival of the Jetsons Age

Your fridge may soon tell you when to buy milk

Illustration: Jeffrey Bowman

What smartphones and apps have done to connect people to the Internet wherever they go, emerging new technologies will soon connect seemingly every other object in your life (even the most nonelectronic in nature) to the Web. It’s a weird phrase you’ll hear a lot this year: the Internet of Things.

These “Things” aren’t new. They’re mundane devices—lights, garage doors, toasters and other household appliances—all tricked out with sensors and wired into semi-autonomous algorithms. It’s all designed to give consumers more control, make their lives easier, give them more information—in short, to borrow from a famous slogan, to bring ordinary things to life. Or, to go a little darker, it’s like Skynet from the Terminator movies right before it turns on humankind. Take your pick.

At last year’s International Consumer Electronics Show, attendees witnessed a coming-out party for the Internet of Things. Many of those things, including watches or sports aids like a golf tee to help you with your swing, did one thing really well. But those devices didn’t talk to each other. This year, because they are starting to share information, they’ll do more than just one cute trick.

Three emerging technologies will lend the IOT its intelligence: sensors that can track temperature, movement or speed; systems that integrate the control of devices; and a shared syntax that lets them talk to each other. Think of thermostats that turn down the heat after everyone has left the house; smart calendars that tell you to leave for that important meeting right now because traffic is bad; a refrigerator that updates your online grocery order when your milk has reached its expiration date or your lettuce is wilted; apps that adjust your prescription dosage based on diet and exercise for the week; or the robotic vacuum cleaner that activates after the 20th person has walked through the door. Once the devices can talk to each other through the Internet, the consumer won’t have to push a button to make something happen because the devices will anticipate what you want. Yes, we are headed to a Jetsons kind of future. 

Illustration: Jeffrey Bowman

“The rate of innovation in this particular sector is immense,” says Shawn DuBravac, chief economist of the Consumer Electronics Association. “In 2000, only 3 percent had broadband connectivity. There are still things that aren’t connected, but the list is growing short.”

There is even an Internet of Things Consortium that brings together companies making IOT devices and services to tackle business and marketing challenges. Last year, it had 10 company members; today there are more than 100. From another perspective, a staggering 10 billion “things” are now connected. By 2020, that number is expected to hit 50 billion, according to Cisco, and generate global revenue of $8.9 trillion, per International Data Corp.

That said, just because you can connect something to the Internet doesn’t mean you should. There are some pretty wacky IOT devices out there like connected toothbrushes or headbands that let you see your brain waves. “When you provide connectivity, you want to make sure there is a clear value proposition,” explains Jason Johnson, chairman of the IOT Consortium and managing partner of the technology incubator Founders Den. “The big question is, how do you move from a cute gadget to something that has real value that people will pay for, use and make a part of their daily lives?”

Illustration: Jeffrey Bowman

Just think of the data that IOT could generate. By 2020, from 50 billion to 75 billion connected devices will create 13 quadrillion connections to the Internet and generate 200 exabytes of data a year. (The Library of Congress houses 5 exabytes.) It’s data that ostensibly can be used to improve consumers’ lives and indubitably will be used to market to consumers—bringing a whole new meaning to “reaching the right consumer at the right time with the right message.” Like personal computing and the smartphone did before, IOT will forever change how we live, work and play.

With all that potential comes just as much fear and loathing about the negatives. It’s little wonder that policymakers and privacy advocates are on high alert. The Federal Trade Commission has already held a workshop on IOT; it’s even brought a couple of small enforcement cases. 

“There will need to be new social norms, economic models, regulations and personal boundaries frameworks reenvisioned and developed,” says Michael Becker, North American market development and strategic advisor for Somo, a global marketing company.

Though we shouldn’t yet send a terminator back in time to protect Sarah Connor, here are three significant categories that soon will be transformed by IOT.

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