Appliance fiction becomes fact

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 June, 2012, 12:00am


You read the goings-on in the lives of friends and virtually unknown acquaintances on Facebook, but wouldn't you rather get status updates from your car, your bank account, or even your father's pacemaker?

Whether we should use social media platforms to link the devices in our lives is open to debate, but these are just a few of the scenarios that the 'Internet of Things' will achieve in the coming years.

'For most consumers it probably sounds like the title of a James Cameron movie where machines are taking over the world,' says Niall Murphy, founder and CEO of online product profile creator EVRYTHNG, who insists that it's merely about smarter products that are able to adapt their behaviour based on location, time of day and personal preferences.

'It's about using software to provide more service with a product in the same way that apps have increased the value people get out of their smartphones.'

Grant Notman, head of sales and marketing at Wood & Douglas, a company that manufactures wireless communications hardware, agrees: 'The Internet of Things is removing mundane repetitive tasks or creating things that just weren't possible before, enabling more people to do more rewarding tasks and leaving the machines to do the repetitive jobs.'

We have been promised 'smart' products before. The connected fridge that orders groceries, and curtains and blinds that respond to a text message are both banal if you consider what the Internet of Things can actually accomplish.

'We've gone beyond the rather trivial vision of the last decade, and on to a real, deep integration. Who knows what great new services will be put together by a future Mark Zuckerberg tinkering in a Harvard dorm,' says Dave Birch from Consult Hyperion, a company focused on digital payments.

'I think it will be quite useful to get status updates from my car telling me how much fuel is left, or when it needs a service or, for that matter, where it is,' he says.

Birch also raises the prospect of following your own bank account on Twitter, where a debit card could 'tweet' solely to the owner about what it has been up to. 'The same goes for my bicycle, my mobile phone, my central heating, and everything else.'

But isn't checking in with our stuff only going to introduce more digital clutter?

'It will help us do what we used to do, but faster, cheaper and better,' says Jean-Paul Edwards, head of media futures at media agency Manning Gottlieb OMD. He suggests that after-sales support will be revolutionised, with connected products able to file error reports and diagnostics straight to the manufacture. Cue the washing machine that can repair itself (or at least with only one visit by an engineer who has the correct parts), and a thermostat that learns when you are out to control home heating.

'The technology is complex but a claimed 20 per cent saving on energy bills is a simple idea,' says Edwards, who also envisages more personalised play via web-enabled toys, and a vast array of 'digital health' uses (such as Wi-fi-connected bathroom scales that send data to your doctor) that could boost efficiency enormously - and save money. 'These devices can be thought of as a new kind of consumer acting in the best interests of its owner,' he says.

The Internet of Things idea was born in North America but appears to be growing the fastest in Asia.

'In Asia there's the potential for more than 38 million types of devices, other than phones and laptops, to be wirelessly connected,' says Macario Namie from Jasper Wireless, including e-readers, games, health care, tracking and in-car navigation systems. Namie, who prefers the term 'machine to machine' - M2M - points to the increasing use of smart traffic management systems in Singapore and smart energy metering for new 'automated' high-rise buildings in China.

Not surprisingly, it's the smartphone that appears to be the arbiter of control in the Internet of Things era.

'The connected device, whether smartphone or tablet, is central to its adoption,' says Nigel Chadwick, founding director of Stream Communications, a mobile network operator dedicated to M2M. 'I foresee users downloading apps to these devices, each of which will control different aspects of connected life: switching on lights, controlling heating or accessing a range of new diagnostic tools. The phone becomes a multiple control and diagnostic device, the 'life remote', if you will.'

There is a potential instant turn-off. How do I know that it's my car I'm communicating with, and does opening the door and turning on the engine become a software issue?

'Data loss or fraud represents a whole minefield for the industry,' says Chadwick. 'A quick hack of a poorly secured door lock device could in theory provide free access to your premises. We need to consider where data goes, where it resides and who has access to it, and if that data is 'mission critical' then individuals and organisations will need to pay to secure it.'

Chadwick points out that the vast majority of data will prove largely irrelevant to anyone else. Some folk might already be tweeting what they had for lunch, but who is really going to care what's in your fridge?

'Doors are easy, but locks are hard,' says Birch. 'It's very easy to put my car on the internet, but much harder to make sure that it hangs out with the right friends. So how exactly do I give my car permission to befriend my wife, but not the guy next door?' At the moment there is no common authentication standard, and the prospect of hundreds of new passwords will, for most, kill the entire idea of an Internet of Things that pervades our lives.

Consult Hyperion advised the Hong Kong government on the Octopus smart card, specifically on the then new and complex technologies of chips, digital signatures, networks and biometrics. 'The idea of making your bicycle's identity as secure as yours would have seemed crazy at the time, but today these technologies are readily available and cost effective,' says Birch. 'With a bit of intelligence and co-ordination they can make the Internet of Things safe for us all.'