Internet of things: changing how we live

The internet of things is changing the way we live as machines, objects and animals are communicating through cyberspace, writes Charles Orton-Jones

You are on holiday. On the beach. In Greece. The annoying thought pops into your head that you’ve left the heating on back home. Normally, the thought would nag at you for the rest of the trip. Images of pot plants wilting would drift into your mind, tainting the sweet pineapple taste of that third piña colada. No more. With a few swipes on your smartphone the thermostat can be dialled down remotely. The boiler turned off. Appealing? Google thought the thermostat idea was powerful enough to warrant spending $3.2 billion for the market leader Nest.

It is not just thermostats that are getting plugged into the internet through machine-to-machine or M2M communications. Everything is being wired up or connected wirelessly. Rat traps in warehouses, for example, send an alert via the mobile phone network when they are triggered, making it easier for the watchmen to dispose of the dead rodents.

Toilets at London’s Heathrow Airport report on their usage (seriously). Sensors made by Eurotech count how often each stall is used and trigger an alert to cleaning staff when a threshold is hit. Trivial? The project was done in collaboration with the world’s largest chipmaker Intel, which reports: “The data is then analysed in the cloud showing which loos are used more and potentially enabling dynamic signage to direct people to where there are no queues or even to re-purpose space if toilets are superfluous.”

Now we have objects doing the communicating, hence the nomenclature ‘the internet of things’

There is seemingly no limit to what can be connected to the internet. Even cows. Farmers struggle to identify when cows are in heat. So Deutsche Telekom and French IT firm Medria created a collar for cows to wear, which is connected to the internet wirelessly. Sensors in the collar measure the cow’s movements and transmit the data via the 3G network. Cows in heat move about significantly more than usual, so when the monitoring software registers a cow hitting peak fertility, the farmer and the local inseminator receive an automated text message.

The technology, called HeatPhone, means farmers no longer need to physically monitor the fertility of their livestock. Other devices can record the cow’s food intake and body temperature to diagnose health problems.

OBJECTS COMMUNICATING

This is the new internet. Before, humans sent messages to humans. Now we have objects doing the communicating, hence the nomenclature “the internet of things”. It’s a clumsy term, abbreviated to the still-not-very-attractive IoT.

Ian van Reenan, co-founder of IoT software firm CentraStage, offers this pleasingly concise definition: “The internet of things is a system in which unique identifiers or codes are assigned to objects, people or animals. These unique identifiers then transfer any data they’ve collected about their assigned ‘thing’ over a network, without the need for human involvement.”

Others hanker after something which conveys the devastating impact the IoT will have on our lives. Richard Moulds, vice president of strategy at Thales, remarks: “The internet of things – it’s a ridiculously vague term, rather like describing a gorgeous meal as a plate of stuff or a gripping book as pages of words.” He says the idea that the IoT is composed of reactive, passive objects reporting in is not quite right either.

“Think of the IoT more as an army than as a slave or a scout. Just like people in an army, each device performs its own role, co-ordinated from the centre, serving a greater effort. Whether to deliver a smarter city, smarter grid or smarter transportation, it’s the system as a whole we should be focused on – the interplay between the things,” he says.

If this sounds like the birth of a “hive mind” then you aren’t too far wrong. Analysts at Morgan Stanley predict there will be 75 billion connected devices by 2020, not too far short of the brain’s 86 billion neurons.

Intimidated? Don’t be. The pupils at Writhlington School in Somerset have used the internet of things to watch how orchids grow. They use a BioBox to observe how changes in the environment affect the orchids. They recently switched from their own greenhouse to controlling the growing conditions of orchids in Vietnam. If schoolchildren can manage to implement IoT technologies, then your firm shouldn’t struggle.

Do you need to engage? Absolutely. It’s hard to imagine any facet of commerce which will escape the IoT revolution. Some applications may seem frivolous. Hapilabs’ fork tracks how fast you eat to help you slow digestion to combat overeating and gastro reflux.

More serious is Valley Health’s IoT cardiac care equipment. This connects ambulances to regional accident and emergency centres to relay electro-cardiogram data so doctors can assess the patient’s condition in transit. Paramedics can be given advice using real-time data sent direct from the patient’s body.

Life-changing. Energy saving. Cow friendly. The internet of things is a concept with the potential to redefine everything about the way we live on this small blue planet.