Never mind 20 million Google+ users. Since 2008 there have been more 'things' connected to the internet than there are people on the earth: by 2050 there will be 50 billion connected devices — from cattle with wireless sensors that report when a cow is sick or pregnant, to implanted defibrillators that upload diagnostic information and heart rate patterns, to bridges that record every time a boat sails underneath them.
There are ambitious ideas about monitoring the weather, detecting when buildings have been affected by earthquakes, predicting traffic jams and avoiding accidents by having cars tell each other where they are (something Ford and Toyota are working on together), spotting epidemics before they start — all by building up massive, real-time data sets to analyse and act on.
But the 'Internet of Things' doesn't have to be large scale to be useful; it also fits in perfectly with rising interest in open-source hardware hacking and home robotics, as well as personal tracking.
Take home automation ideas. If you want to rig up a system that helps you save power by turning things off automatically when rooms are empty, a garden irrigation system that waters plants only when the soil is dry, a wine rack that updates your wine database when you take a bottle off the shelf, a toothbrush that keeps a record of how long you brush for each day or a way to open the curtains automatically when your alarm goes off, you're using the same concepts of embedded computers, sensors and actuators.
If you want to actually start building your own internet-to-thing connections, Cuno Pfister's Getting Started with the Internet of Things is an excellent and practical introduction that will whet your appetite. It will take you from the basics of programming a Netduino Plus board (a fairly powerful embedded controller running the open-source .NET Micro Framework), through hooking up simple sensors and actuators, to using the Pachube cloud service to relay data from the things you're monitoring. It doesn't assume much prior knowledge, explaining everything from reverse HTTP to multi-threaded parallel programming. However, it does assume you're using Windows — there are Mono tools on the way for Linux and Mac OS X, but they're still in development.
If we have a criticism of the book, it's that because it concentrates on making this trend easy and accessible, you don't get projects that take advantage of the power of the Netduino Plus — which could easily run that entire home automation system you've been dreaming up. Pfister doesn't give you many ideas for further projects either — he assumes you already have an idea of the possibilities and just need simple training. But he does suggest one of the most important reasons for getting involved in the Internet of Things at this early, homebrew stage: if devices are going to get "the potential… to spy on our every move", we need to understand how these systems work so we can think about the privacy policies that massive numbers of connected devices are going to need.
Getting Started with the Internet of Things: Connecting Sensors and Microcontrollers to the Cloud Cuno Pfister O'Reilly Media 192 pages ISBN: 1-4493-9357-8 £18.99