The internet of things and machine-to-machine communication are set to revolutionise our day-to-day lives. Stephen Armstrong explores how and asks will it be for the better?
The internet of things (IoT) and machine-to-machine (M2M) communication still sound a little bit too much like a sci-fi movie for some people. We’ve been hearing talk of fridges ordering your milk since the early-1990s, but we’re still making panicked runs to the corner store when we run out.
Fewer than one in four European companies have any M2M solutions in place, according to Vodafone’s recent market survey, while in the United States it’s fewer than one in five. And yet, for those companies that do know what’s coming, there are literally billions of pounds to be made, here and now.
Take the recent Apple purchase of Beats headphones, founded by hip-hop producer Dr Dre. The $3-billion price tag seemed excessive to many observers, but people close to the deal say it’s the M2M/IoT future that prompted Apple to dig so deeply into its wallet.
“The future of music is live streaming anytime everywhere over 4G and 5G,” according to one insider. “The idea of owning a song is going to be history. Beats has great relationships with labels and a very strong curated streamed playlist offering. The deal means Apple can play tracks through your headphones whenever you want to hear them. It saves iTunes basically.”
“We have to be clear about what the internet of things – or M2M – means,” says Jim Tully, chief of research at Gartner. “At one level its all around us already – point-of-sales handsets at your table in a restaurant, ATMs, smart TVs with a set-top box, these are all physical objects with embedded chips that communicate with other machines without human commands.
There are huge sales opportunities and cost-saving possibilities for business, but they come with certain risks, including job losses and security implications
“The future is more complex; there are huge sales opportunities and cost-saving possibilities for business, but they come with certain risks, including job losses and security implications.”
In cost-saving terms, Mr Tully cites the Big Belly bins in Bath. These solar power waste bins on the streets of the city have trash compactors and alarm sensors that report when they’re three-quarters full. In Philadelphia the bins are credited with saving the city $1 million a year by reducing the number of bin lorries previously on constant patrol.
At MIT’s SENSEable City Lab, meanwhile, director Carlo Ratti is planning a version of this beneath the streets with Underworlds, a near-real-time network of biosensors, automata and purpose-built labs to decode the biological signature of cities and help plan public-health strategies.
Closer to home 24eight slippers have pressure sensors in the sole, which enable health professionals to see if an elderly person has failed to put their slippers on or has fallen over. Analysing the data, 24eight found they could also identify wandering patterns that predict the early onset of Alzheimers.
“The big privacy question we’ll have to deal with is how much of our lives we’re prepared to have monitored,” says John Coates, senior research fellow at Cambridge University and former Goldman Sachs trader, who’s pioneered bio-feedback monitoring of dealers on trading floors to spot rogue behaviour.
On the sales side, M2M allows companies to keep a sales relationship with customers long after initial purchase. In 2013, for instance, the Audi S3 was launched with an integrated 4G-capable “infotainment” system, offering streamed movies and music, speech activated social networking and Google Earth GPS sat nav. Downloaded movies offer an untapped revenue stream for car companies. From 2015, most Audi cars will come with an embedded SIM enabling similar connectivity. Having your car online, of course, makes it vulnerable to hackers.
“Part of what will happen over the next five to ten years is that the very virtual concept of a firewall will less apply to a desktop computer than it will apply to the house or office,” explains Jonathan Bell, technology consultant and former architecture editor of Wallpaper* magazine. “With all these machines, like vending machines or fridges streaming data traffic, you’ll need virtual security bars around the whole building.”
If that all sounds a bit scary, perhaps you’re ideal audience material for the world’s first M2M theatre production – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde from Bristol-based pervasive games theatre company Slingshot. Director Simon Johnson uses body sensor vests to monitor audience members breathing or heart rate as they move around buildings trying to open doors or turn lights on by controlling their fear. Over time, he hopes, players will feel increasingly alienated from their own body, recreating the horror of Dr Jekyll with a beast inside. What could possibly go wrong?