In January, Samsung, the world’s largest maker of consumer electronics, announced that within five years all of its products would be sold ready to be connected to the Internet. That followed its purchase in August of SmartThings, which makes a mobile application to remotely control devices in houses. Intel introduced Curie, a button-sized module that can power things like Internet-connected bags, pendants and even buttons. Other Internet giants are also scrambling to prepare for so-called smart homes: Apple announced the development of its HomeKit system to provide a platform for connected devices and Google paid $3.2 billion for Nest Labs, which makes so-called smart thermostats and smoke detectors. Already, by some estimates more than half of wireless devices connected to the Internet are ordinary items embedded with sensors, a proportion expected to grow. One of the field’s biggest challenges will be getting things to talk to each other – a homeowner may need to fire up one mobile app to turn up the heat and another to turn on home security system. An even bigger question is security — an issue vividly described in a video that a hacker titled “Weaponizing Your Coffee Pot.”
In 1982, computer science students at Carnegie-Mellon University put sensors in a Coca-Cola vending machine and connected it to an early version of the Internet so they could tell if it was empty without having to walk all the way there. The term “Internet of Things” was coined in 1999 by Kevin Ashton, the co-founder of an MIT center that helped develop the radio chips that businesses now use to track goods and materials. But for the most part, web-connected gadgets remained out of consumers’ reach until the rise of smartphones, which use a score of sensors to track everything from motion to eye movement, led to a steep drop in prices. Sensors typically connect to an at-home hub via a Wi-Fi network or connect to other devices via Bluetooth technologies.
More data, more problems. The data collected, monitored and transferred by wireless devices can include names, addresses, credit card numbers or even health information. Doors and electrical systems can provide clues into whether a house is empty. And while technology companies confidently power ahead, U.S. officials are moving more slowly, trying to fashion rules that could keep the Internet of Things from becoming a vast feeding ground for hackers who could turn devices against their owners as well as steal information. Former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney said last year that he disabled the wireless feature on his defibrillator in 2007 because he feared terrorists could use it to kill him. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission last year brought charges against the maker of web-enabled security cameras for leaving the devices vulnerable to hackers. Hardware companies are also struggling to figure out which devices mainstream consumers will be willing to pay to connect to the web. Nest says its $249 thermostat will pay for itself by lowering heating and cooling bills. But wireless diapers may have to be a lot cheaper before consumers regard them as anything more than a novelty.
The Reference Shelf
- Bloomberg TV discusses how the Internet of Things may shape the future in an interview with Thomas Lounibos, chief executive officer of technology company Soasta Inc.
- Experts weigh in on the pros and cons of smart devices in a Pew Research Report.
- A Bloomberg News story explains how smart technology is facing roadblocks as the U.S. government remains cautious about security.
- Cisco, the networking solutions giant, touts the technology in a report that projects there will be 25 billion connected devices globally within a year.
- A TEDx Talk argues the technology has benefits beyond a boost to the economy, affecting everything from health care to food to transportation.
- How does a smart device work? Google Nest can show you.