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.

Embedded in the heel of his shoe was an early example of the Internet of Things -- but Andrew Duncan didn't know it at the time.

"My girlfriend was able to watch me on the computer screen as I did a five-mile walk," recalls Duncan, a Los Angeles technology consultant, of his participation in an Alzheimer's fund-raising walk in November of 2010. "And the shoe will send you text message if the battery gets low, or if the wearer steps outside of set zones."

His GPS-equipped shoe is from GTX Corp. in Los Angeles, and costs $299 plus a monthly wireless subscription. This is an example of the widely predicted Internet of Things (IoT), where anything with intelligence (including machines, roads and buildings) will have an online presence, generating data that could be put to uses currently unimagined. Industry watchers disagree only on how far along we are -- and which science-fiction setting best depicts what's coming. (See sidebar.)

"Anything intelligent would have an online presence," says Sam Lucero, analyst at ABI Research in Oyster Bay, N.Y.

Dave Evans, chief futurist at Cisco, agrees. He predicts 50 billion connected devices by 2020, and social networks to connect them. "In the coming years, anything that has an on-off switch will be on the network," he says. "I foresee it in just about every industry and stream of life."

The deluge has already begun.

"There are several industries where IoT is happening, and some where it is a pipe dream," says Steve Hilton at Analysis Mason, a technology consulting firm in London. It is happening in energy and utilities, automobiles and transportation, and security and surveillance. There's a "tiny bit in healthcare," he adds. If you include e-readers like Kindle, it is happening in the consumer field.

Where it is not happening today, he says, is in household white goods, such as kitchen appliances. "The vendors want them, but I don't think there'll be much of a market," Hilton says. "If it costs an extra $150, would you buy it? In this case technology is ahead of market demand."

Digital head

New York University photography professor Wafaa Bilal displays the digital camera mount he had implanted in the back of his head in December 2010. The concept of the project was to capture images objectively, without the interference of a viewfinder, according to Bilal. Images from his camera have been streamed over the Internet, but Bilal's body has had problems accepting the implant. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

Katharine Frase, vice president at IBM Research, wonders what business models could be developed if the washing machine, the thermostat and the water heater could be managed together, by either the consumer or a third party. "We see a willingness by people to share information about themselves if they are going to get something back. If there is some benefit, like lowering the power bill, from you knowing that I am taking a shower, then it might be OK."

"The investments are being made now," adds Kevin Dallas, Microsoft's manager of Windows Embedded products, though he declined to give specific examples. "We are seeing it across every industry, and we will start to see the results in the next two to three years."

Dallas foresees several possible near-future scenarios based on the IoT:

  • As a member of a loyalty program, you send your shopping list to a store. You are given an RFID tag on arrival, and networked digital display signs in the store direct you through the aisles, from item to item, to find what you need.
  • In other stores, signs size you up as you approach them on the basis of your height and clothing and then display promotions that are assumed to be appropriate to you.
  • In any store, digital signage offers promotions based on real-time events, such as sales volumes or the weather.
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