It's gonna get physical...
The internet of things, you say? Sounds like an oxymoron to me.
The internet of things - or IoT for short - is all about bringing the analogue (physical) world into the digital (virtual) sphere so that physical objects can be identified, tracked, located and even controlled online, in real-time.
And what does the IoT mean? Lots and lots more lovely data.
Tell me more...
IoT describes a not-so-far-distant future reality towards which our increasingly wired and sensor-strewn society is accelerating.
There are many names for this already: other terms you may have come across include: ubiquitous computing (or ubicomp), invisible computing, pervasive computing and even - somewhat inevitably - web 3.0.
The gist is: couple ubiquitous wireless and cellular networks with everyday objects that have wireless sensors embedded in them et voila: there's your internet of things - smart objects that can be identified by the tiny chips they contain.
What kind of chips/sensors are we talking about?
RFID - radio frequency identification tags - for one; mini chips that can transmit data via radio. Passive RFID chips draw power from a RFID reader, meaning they don't have to rely on batteries either.
Of course the world contains plenty of 'smart objects' already - obvious examples include your wireless-enabled laptop and the smartphone in your pocket. Rather more weird and wonderful smart objects that have been hacked together include Twettle: a wi-fi-enabled kettle that can send a tweet when it boils, a Twitter-enabled toilet to tell the world when it's flushed - yes, really - and a Twittering toaster. There is also this Twittering tree...
Ingenious hardware hackers such as the creators of Twettle, Twoilet and Twoaster won't be needed to create the IoT, however. It will be driven by cheap, ubiquitous wireless sensors piggybacking on ubiquitous wi-fi and cellular networks - the ones that are already all around us. Forget the expensive radio collars used by scientists to study wild animals. The IoT will be powered by wireless sensors that are cheap enough to slap on a Lion Bar, not just a lion.
How many smart objects are we talking about then? Millions? Billions?
The sky's the limit really - how many objects are there in the world? Last year networking-kit maker Ericsson stuck its neck out to predict 50 billion connected devices will be plugged into our networks by 2020. "All devices will have connectivity - your cameras, your everything," said the company's VP of systems architecture, Håkan Djuphammar. "I'm not sure if you will have broadband in your toothbrush but maybe your dentist wants to know [how you brush your teeth] so why not? Connect everything."
Also speaking last year, Intel's John Woodget, global director, telecoms sector, was a little more circumspect in his crystal-ball gazing - but he reckoned we should be banking on at least 20 billion connected devices by 2020.
OK but why would I want to get all that stuff online? What's the point of being able to pinpoint my toothbrush in cyberspace? I know where it is already: on the bathroom sink where I left it.
It all comes down to data - and, crucially, what can be done with that data once it's analysed, mined, visualised and so on.
From a consumer point of view, use cases for an IoT are many - from locating misplaced items and refilling your fridge, to monitoring your health. Enterprise uses are typically centred on creating more efficient business processes - ones that are smart and even self-regulating - thereby cutting costs and perhaps reducing risk.
For instance, chip factories already use sensor-based process optimisation because they are dealing with expensive components in a manufacturing environment where there is only a tiny margin for error.
Another example of an industry that is already utilising IoT...