What is the Internet of Things (IoT), exactly? If you're a consumer, then the first thing that leaps to mind might be a Nest Wi-Fi thermostat, or perhaps those smart health bands that let you monitor your activity level from an app on your smartphone.
That's part of it. But if you're an engineer, you might think of the smart sensors that General Electric embeds in locomotives and wind turbines, while a city manager might be considering smart parking meters, and a hospital administrator might envision swallowable smart pill sensors that monitor how much medication you've taken or blood pressure cuffs and blood glucose monitors that can monitor patient health in the field and wirelessly stream updates into clinical systems.
The IoT is a catchall phrase, a concept that includes all of these things. "We look at the IoT as a superset, the umbrella term that covers all areas, including consumer, industrial and public sector," says Hung LeHong, vice president at research firm Gartner.
But IoT is also built on enabling technologies. At its core, a smart thing is an intelligent, physical object that's communications enabled; each device is individually addressable, often with an IP address. A smart thing typically contains a semiconductor or microcontroller, along with a sensor or actuator -- or both -- to monitor the status of an object, person or environment, says Jim Tully, vice president at Gartner. Although they don't have to be wireless, most devices use wireless communications technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Z-Wave, Zigbee or a cellular data service to connect to a cloud service and associated mobile app that let users receive status information -- and send updates or commands.
Smart IoT devices offer two-way communication on the status of an object, individual or the environment in real-time, says Michele Pelino, principal analyst at Forrester Research.
"It's more than just sensor networks," LeHong adds. "It's about being able to unlock your BMW when you lost your keys by using a mobile app," or the ability for the manufacturer to send software updates to your car wirelessly, or for people to send cooking instructions to the oven before they get home. If it's instrumented to be part of the IoT, LeHong says, you'll be able to sense it, control it and send data to it.
The consumerization of IT is driving the IoT by driving down the costs of enabling technologies such as sensors and communications services. It is also blurring the line between business applications, such as the sensors used manufacturing and medicine, and consumer applications, such as smart thermostats. The same intelligence that unlocks your car may also be streaming data back to the manufacturer, creating a big data repository that can be analyzed to predict failures and improve overall reliability and performance.
The same intelligence that unlocks your car may also be streaming data back to the manufacturer, creating a big data repository that can be analyzed to predict failures and improve overall reliability and performance.
Product-specific apps and cloud-based controls for individual smart devices, such as those that come with Wi-Fi thermostats and cloud security cameras, are slowly giving way to consolidated home automation systems that allow basic monitoring and control of every smart device on your home network, all from a single console. These systems often include a mobile app and website, a physical hub in the home that serves as a consolidation point and a third-party service that connects smart devices in the home with the mobile and Web application consoles that monitor and control them.
Home automation systems can also orchestrate how all of the intelligent things in the home react to an event by, for example, turning on lights, unlocking the front door and turning up the heat as you're driving home; or by arming the home security system, turning down the lights and thermostat, and shutting the blinds when you tell the system it's bedtime.
Eventually, home automation systems may collaborate with your local utility as well. Pacific Gas & Electric, for example, has already installed 9 million smart gas and electric meters on customers' homes. The next step, says CIO Karen Austin, will be to communicate directly with devices within what she calls the "home area network" to save energy, smooth out demand and allow the grid to run more efficiently. "The smart meters need to interact with smart thermostats and home networks so they can make informed decisions," she says. For example, if demand has peaked on a given day, "We could communicate that from the smart meter to the smart thermostat, and it could take appropriate action."
Ultimately, the combination of the IoT and analytics may lead to a world that anticipates our needs before we know them. Consider 24eight, a startup that sells smart slippers with pressure sensors in the soles. The slippers know when a person is standing and can predict the likelihood of a fall. But based on an analysis of data on how many users walk, says Tully, 24eight says that it can also predict whether a person might be in the earliest stages of Alzheimer's or is developing some other mental or physical condition that needs attention.
In the future, Tully says, most of the opportunities presented by the IoT will derive not so much from the little conveniences that smart things can offer to consumers as from what can be done by analyzing, in the aggregate, the vast volumes of data that all of these devices produce.