The Internet of things may seem like a relatively new concept, but surprisingly the first IoT devices actually predate the modern World Wide Web by several years.

Graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science developed a system to monitor stock levels within their departmental Coke machine back in 1982 via the ARPANET. The system enabled students to monitor stock availability, as well as monitoring the frequency of the replenishment schedule to check that the product was sufficiently chilled. After numerous iterative changes the Carnegie system is still in use, and you can check the stock status of the machine, and a growing list of internet connected vending machines here. The space didn’t get an official name until 1999. When Kevin Ashton from MIT coined “Internet of Things” in a presentation to Proctor & Gamble.

Over the last two decades furious research and development has been going into making the Internet of Things a reality. In his presentation Kevin Ashton observed that virtually the entire internet at this point was dependent on human beings inputting data via computers. The amount of data stored on all of the world’s computer systems totalled just 50 petabytes back then. The Internet of Things enables devices of all shapes and forms to plug into the web with a unique IP address and upload or download information and commands. Voila – smart devices!

The potential of the Internet of Things

Like those university researchers’ Coke machine back in the 1980s, many of the developments that have come so far have been spurred by convenience. While many people outside of the technology space aren’t necessarily aware of the Internet of Things yet, they have likely heard of the fridge that can tell you when you are running out of milk,  and a glut of other products released annually during CES in Las Vegas, dubbed by some; The internet of Pointless, Perilous Things.  The IoT offers immeasurable potential, but one can’t help but feel that potential hasn’t yet quite been fully realised with products like the HAPIfork, a bluetooth enabled fork which monitors how quickly you’re eating your food, or the Kolibree Smart Toothbrush, which connects to an app to provide information about how long the user has been brushing their teeth.

For dental fanatics seeking a way to monitor the efficiency of their brushing technique, the Kolibree Smart Toothbrush has arrived

For dental fanatics seeking a way to monitor the efficiency of their brushing technique, the Kolibree Smart Toothbrush has arrived. (not actual product shown)

The Internet of Things has the potential to change the way we do stuff immeasurably. One of the first types of product to gain any real traction has been smart TVs and internet enabled Set Top Boxes. You can pick a smart  TV up from the shops for a few hundred quid. And they offer more than just convenience. They are just a better way of doing TV, giving you more choice and more flexibility – particularly with on-demand functionality. If you’ve forgotten to tape your favourite TV show you can can login to your app while out and about to make sure your PVR is scheduled to record it, or use a product like Slingbox to seamlessly stream the show from your cable or satellite box to your iPad while you’re out and about.

Smart TVs - One of the first IoT products to become seemingly ubiquitous

Smart TVs – One of the first IoT products to become seemingly ubiquitous

The next big thing

Utilities are likely to be the next big thing. Smart control centres that can optimise your home for heating, lighting and electricity usage. Convenient yes, but also better. Much better. They drive efficiency so you can lower bills and reduce your carbon footprint. There is loads of research and development going on in this area, with a growing number of systems coming to market. This is big business. Google bought NEST – one such system – in January 2013 for $3.2 billion.

Re-imagining unloved products

Tony Fadell, one of the founders of NEST, describes the vision behind the company as seeing an opportunity to re—imagine the so called “unloved products”. That’s a great way to think about the Internet of Things. Not all development has to be smart, i.e. have an element of thinking. Consider the Tile. A tiny key-ring that you can attach to your keys or slip in your wallet. It acts as a beacon that communicates with your smartphone meaning that should you ever lose your keys or wallet (or whatever your tile is attached to) you can track it down in seconds with the touch of your screen. Simple but clever…and incredibly useful. Or how about June. This is a bracelet that monitors your exposure to the sun and warns you via your smartphone if you have been soaking up rays for too long. Here are some more cool things out now or around the corner.

The challenges of the Internet of Things

We have alluded (tongue in cheek) to the Luddite fears of the Internet of Things, but that is not to say that it does not face some considerable headwinds.

Adopting a universal standard for the Internet of Things

Like many new formats, the Internet of Things faces a struggle to establish a universal standard. Three consortiums are doing battle on this front: IEEE, Open Interconnect Consortium and Thread Group. History shows that such struggles can get messy. But until a universal standard is agreed upon, the Internet of Things will find it difficult to find large scale traction with consumers. They will not want to commit to a system that may be mothballed within a few years.

Hackers

Earlier this year it was reported that a smart fridge had been used in botnet attack – when hackers take control of a huge number of (until now) computers and use them to send spam email on an industrial scale. While there is certainly something surreal about your fridge illegally sending emails without you knowing it, this highlights a massive problem for the Internet of Things. It’s hard enough trying to protect your computer from hackers and viruses. Constant software updates, expensive anti-virus software and trips to IT professionals. Imagine having to consider that for every appliance in your house. Or the implications of having to protect your car from being hacked. There are even reports that a commercial plane’s navigation equipment could be hacked via its Wi-Fi or in-flight entertainment system!

Who owns the data?

Just as the Internet of Things presents opportunities to hackers, so does it give corporations whole new ways to track our behaviour, store personal data and advertise. If the regular internet is anything to go by, individual privacy will be signed away in longwinded terms and conditions. But will invasive algorithms in our fridges be too much for us to stomach?

Where is the clamour?

As exciting as it is, people are not beating down doors for the Internet of Things. It is largely supply-side driven. While this means it may take longer for it to become accepted it does not mean it will not get there. And as developers deal with all the other issues, and the trickle of products becomes a stream demand is sure to increase.

Where is the R&D in the Internet of Things?

That’s easy. EVERYWHERE! From the cool products, to apps, security software, the platforms, analytical algorithms. There is a whole world out there waiting to get connected. What is more, if you are conducting research and development on the Internet of Things in the UK, you are likely to qualify for generous tax credits to help you on the way. To find out more contact us for a chat to see how you can benefit.

Open the floodgates

Forget re-inventing the wheel, that has already been done for the internet of things – tyre pressure sensors to alert the driver to a fall in pressure in one of a cars tyres are now increasingly commonplace – The Internet of Things gives everyone the chance to re-invent just about everything with useful internet functionality. How inspiring is that?

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