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.
Clashing sci-fi scenarios
If the Internet of Things continues its current rate of progress, three works of fiction frequently cited by the sources for this story might prove to be prophetic:
Minority Report, the 2002 movie starring Tom Cruise in which the main character is (amidst chase scenes) greeted with personalized messages from automated displays as he enters retail establishments.
Rainbows End, the 2006 novel by Vernor Vinge in which the public infrastructure and most individuals (through sensors in their clothes) are instrumented, and people can interact with the resulting augmented reality thanks to display devices built into contact lenses.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, the 1948 novel by George Orwell depicting a repressive totalitarian state in which, among other things, pervasive technology is used to keep the inhabitants under constant surveillance.
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."
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.
Your refrigerator monitors its contents and makes restocking suggestions. (Refrigerators with connectivity are already on the market, including one from Samsung, but Hilton's sense is that there is currently no market demand.)
Your car tracks where it has gone and where it is going, predicts where it will go next and has suggestions ready if you ask for the nearest gas station, using data from the cloud. (Toyota and Microsoft are already building such a service.)
Your car additionally monitors its internal functions and offers maintenance advice, as the OnStar remote diagnostics facility already does for General Motors and, now, other makers' cars.
Your car's black-box data can be submitted to your insurance company in an effort to get reduced rates, assuming that data constitutes evidence of safe driving. A number of car insurance firms are already offering usage-based policies, sometimes based on data gathered by an instrument mounted on the car, as with the Snapshot program from Progressive Casualty Insurance Company.
Your car can send you a notice if your teenager drives it over a certain speed, or through a specified "geo-fence," as can now be done with certain add-on devices.
Other sources predict hospital beds with so much instrumentation that no sensors need to be attached to the patient, as shown in this research.
"After three or four years it will go beyond retail, and after 10 years our whole lives will be different from what we can imagine now," predicts Kneko Burney, strategist at Compass Intelligence, a consulting firm in Scottsdale, Ariz. "In 10 years it will not be strange to have a cell phone earpiece embedded in your ear."
By the numbers
Steve Hilton at Analysis Mason, a technology consulting firm in London, forecasts a grand scale for the Internet of Things. Here's what he's expecting.
In the energy industry, Hilton figures there should be 22 million connected residential utility meters by the end of 2011, and the figure should grow by 50% yearly for the next 10 years. The meters, part of the "smart grid" trend, report power consumption in near real time through wireless, landline or data-over-powerline connections, allowing better management of the power grid, he explains.
In transportation, there should be 30.8 million device connections worldwide, mostly used to track the location of trucks, and growth should be 27% yearly. In security and surveillance, there should be 20.6 million connected devices, counting both residential and industrial installations, with a growth rate of 37%.
In healthcare there should be 1.5 million devices at the end of the year, with a growth rate of 20% to 25%. The devices are usually worn by a patient to monitor a chronic condition, such as a device that advises a heart disease patient when to take medicine. Healthcare is under-represented because of the amount of testing that a medical device must undergo before it can be marketed, Hilton notes.
As for transportation, a full range of tracking and maintenance monitoring instruments should soon be available in the consumer car market, he suggests. "All the major car-makers are on top of this and deciding on solutions," he says.
In China, Premier Wen Jiabao has made the Internet of Things a national goal, notes MIT Prof. Edmund W. Schuster, who works in the university's Auto ID Center. "The Chinese see it as fundamental part of a harmonious society, especially as it would make services easier to coordinate in dense cities," he says.
Additionally, the municipal government of Wuxi (also rendered Wu-Shi), a suburb of Shanghai, has announced intentions to build an IoT-based theme park. "It is expected to become a travel destination of [a] new generation for [sic] Internet users, an offline spiritual home, and an entertainment center," according to a press release from city officials.
The IoT got its start about 15 years ago with the idea of using machine-to-machine (M2M) technologies to monitor remote assets, mostly over now-defunct proprietary networks, explains Alex Brisbourne, head of KORE Telematics, an M2M wireless service provider in Atlanta.
The change to the IoT started in 2001, "when we started to see IP (Internet Protocol) offered through cellular networks," he recalls.
"Internet of Things is a slightly newer phrase that means the same thing as M2M," agrees Bill Ingle, an analyst at Beecham Research in Boston. "The carriers have gotten interested in M2M in the last two years as another source of revenue, as the voice market has started to saturate."
Lucero at ABI Research adds that that there is considerable overlap among the Internet of Things, M2M, RFID, smart meters, various sensor networks, building and industrial control systems, and home automation.
As for the necessary sensor, transmission and processing technologies, "There are no show-stoppers," says Evans. However, it would be advisable to perfect ways for the sensors to "harvest" energy from their environments to avoid reliance on batteries, he adds. The other big enabler will be the spread of IPv6, as that addressing scheme offers enough potential Internet addresses to give every atom on the face of the earth its own address, Evans notes.
"There are no technical barriers," agrees Burney. The limiting factor is the cost of the micro components, the bandwidth of the wireless networks, business strategies and the ability of humans to absorb that much information, he adds.
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.
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."
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.