Today, the Internet -- tomorrow, the Internet of Things?

Anything with an on-off switch will be part of the network and will generate data that takes on a life of its own.

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HP Labs is currently developing nanotechnology sensors for IoT use, says Stan Williams, senior HP Fellow and director of the Nanotechnology Research Group at HP Labs. So far his lab has developed a MEMS-based device for detecting vibration and movement, which can sense vibration on three axes and rotation on three axes. HP Labs is also working on taste and smell sensors based on laser scattering. They are sensitive to one part per trillion, and can be used to identify chemicals and biological species, Williams says.

Both are about one square millimeter, meaning that they would be very inexpensive to mass produce, he adds. Other types of sensors needed to complete the IoT, such as for pressure and light, are already available on the open market, he adds.

In the next year HP Labs will be mounting its first big project using IoT technology, a seismic imaging project for Shell Oil, giving transparency to the top 20 kilometers of the Earth's crust over an area of ten square kilometers. "We'll be doing the same for the Earth as has already been done with imaging inside human beings," Williams says.

Connected fridge
The Samsung RSG309 LCD Refrigerator ($2,700) sports a built-in 8-inch LCD touchscreen on the left-hand door that supports Pandora, WeatherBug, Twitter, Google Calendar, a slideshow viewer for Picasa images and several more apps -- with more in the works.

But once IoT use is widespread, the volume of data that will be generated will be thousands of times what we have today, so the processing technology "needs to be thousands of times more capable," adds Williams. "Is that possible? Yes."

The processors may be capable, "but at what point do we run out of bandwidth?" IBM's Frase asks. To avoid that, the information must be filtered in some way. IBM is working on stream processing (to discern signal from noise using rudimentary analytics), and is doing other work at the device level to make the current bandwidth more effective. The goal, Frase says, is to "make it more affordable to deploy devices."

Meanwhile, the devices being attached to IoT will need new user interfaces, which must be intuitive and not require new behavior from the users, notes Burney. The basic technology, the interfaces and even the procedures for initializing new devices will involve new specializations that will require extensive industry partnerships, she predicts.

Privacy and security

Whatever the challenges and advantages of the IoT, users will want their data to remain private. There appears to be no ready answer as to how that can be assured.

"We're not there yet," says MIT's Schuster of the necessary security environment. "Basic e-mail is still getting hacked and we've had that for 25 years."

Cisco's Evans agrees. "We need to make sure that we add all the appropriate security overlays -- that needs to be part of the architecture and not an afterthought."

Meanwhile, "Could you hack into your power meter and get through to the nuclear power plant at the other end of the line?" asks Brisbourne. "To be perfectly honest, there are projects at the federal level where they have people trying to do just that and find where the security holes actually lead."

Internet of Things

There is already a European Commission task force studying expected IoT privacy issues, says Dan Caprio, a former Federal Trade Commission official who is now a strategic advisor at the Washington law firm of McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP. Last year the European Commission appointed him its transatlantic subject matter expert on the IoT.

"There is an assumption in both Europe and the U.S. that we will have an Internet of Things," he says, adding that the EC's taskforce is expected to finalize its policy recommendations in 2012 or 2013. He expects its recommendations will be heavily influenced by the guidelines approved by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in 1980, which were based on the concepts of consumer notice, consumer choice, consumer access and security.

The U.S. will doubtless continue its grass-roots approach, he says, concentrating on the protection of sensitive information concerning children, healthcare information and financial information.

"The Europeans have a lot of regulations but few enforcement actions," he notes. "We (in the U.S.) don't have the baseline regulations, but we do have effective protections against deceptive practices."

In the U.S., advertisers may find the data gathered by the Internet of Things especially attractive, notes Burney. It will take three to five years to work out what is legally prudent, but "I think the result will resemble a do-not-call list, with the users given control about what data they want to share about themselves," she says.

But with an intelligent contextual system that is positioned correctly with the right information at the right time from the right advertiser, "it will be almost a pleasure to be advertised to," she predicts. "People may come to like advertisements since advertisements will have value to them."

Cars, buildings, medicine, entertainment, even advertising -- it appears that the IoT will eventually touch nearly all aspects of life. The end result could be as unimaginable today as the modern electric power grid would have been to Benjamin Franklin.

Lamont Wood is a freelance writer in San Antonio.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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