As this article is being published, European politicians and heavyweight representatives of some of the biggest companies in the world have been convening in Brussels, Belgium to discuss the Internet of Things. The event, The 4th Annual Internet of Things Europe: Shaping Europe's Future Internet Policy - The road to Horizon 2020 was expected to be a significant one, attracting more senior participants than ever this year, such is the growing momentum around the topic.
The Internet (or Web) of Things is the next big wave in the Internet's development - at least as disruptive as the web itself. Using smart-tagging and advanced connectivity to digitize dumb products - from bikes and bottles to refrigerators and cars - and connect them to the Internet, will allow people and companies to interact with them in new and almost unimaginable ways. Objects will be able to talk to and control each other, and collect, receive and send information. The implications of this are enormous and wide-reaching, and were due to be further unraveled at the conference.
Rob van Kranenburg, founder of a European think-tank on the Internet of Things, is one of the event's moderators. He notes that this year, in addition to attracting CEOs, CTOs and innovation leaders from major technology and telecommunications companies, there has been a strong senior presence at an EU government level.
"This reflects the growing realization among a wide range of stakeholders that the Internet of Things will be extremely disruptive, affecting everything," van Kranenburg says. The nearest analogy is what has happened with the Internet and the browser, which over the last two decades have challenged all sorts of business and consumer norms, he adds.
This year the conference has followed a more interactive format. "There is so much intelligence represented in the audience that we wanted to harness that," van Kranenburg says.
So how does he think the Internet of Things will change the world as we know it? "To me it is an ontological shift, challenging the very essence of ‘things' and the relationship between them," van Kranenburg says. "We are in a real-time world now; there are no more constants. The trouble is there are very few tools for this real-time society."
One of the companies working to change that is EVRYTHNG, a global software company originating in the UK. Rather than wait for complex technology conundrums to be worked out, it is delivering a connected-product experience today, harnessing smartphones and simple 2D printed barcodes to give everyday items a unique digital identity and online presence.
One of its most advanced customers is Diageo, an international premium drink company headquartered in London in the UK. It has worked with EVRYTHNG to add an individual digital identity to every product it sells. When a consumer buys a bottle of whisky to give as a gift, for example, he or she is invited to create a personalized online video message which the recipient can activate by pointing their smartphone at the item's barcode.
The gimmick helps differentiate the Diageo brand; it also gives the company an unprecedented follow-on connection with its customers, where previously it would have had no visibility of what happened to its products once they left the store shelves.
The future is now
Andy Hobsbawm, co-founder of EVRYTHNG, believes his organization is one of the few to be making real money from the Internet of Things today, because it has found a way to use technologies that are already ubiquitous. "People ask how long it will be before we have cities, roads, buildings and products which support direct, embedded Internet activity and which unleash a new wave of applications and services that change the way we live - and I think we'll start to see mainstream use before the end of the decade," he says.
"But do we need to wait for that? I would say ‘No'. It's possible to theorize endlessly about what's coming, but there's something just as exciting about building real solutions now and seeing what happens," Hobsbawm says.
Diageo's early experimentation is quite serious, he adds. "The CEO mentioned the technology in his analysts' report in the summer, which is no small thing for an internationally listed business," he notes, adding that Diageo has already ‘green-lighted' further roll-outs of EVRYTHNG's software. "It's too early for them to give hard figures but their sales have increased as hoped, which is down to doing things differently."
EVRYTHNG also envisages adding personalized digital medical information to medication, and customized instruction manuals to electronic products, among other applications. "If I sell my bike, how great would it be to include route tips and maps with it," Hobsbawm enthuses. "Once an individual product has its own digital profile - a bit like its own Facebook page - there's no limit to the information you can assign to it."
Talking to the animals
Another, more advanced manifestation of networks of ‘things' is machine-to-machine (M2M) communications via SMS. In Europe, the technology is being used in agriculture to allow real-time remote monitoring of cattle by farmers.
The solution has been developed by French monitoring solutions specialist Medria Technologies in partnership with German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom. Farmers are notified automatically via text message when calving begins, or when a cow is in heat and ready for insemination.
SIM cards are housed in M2M data collection devices in the barn or field and special sensors measure the cow's vital data, relaying this to the data collection device. The device notifies the farmer immediately by SMS message. This means the farmer no longer needs to spend long nights in the barn, but can intervene promptly when a cow is about to calve - and take full advantage of the short time when a cow is in heat. The result is a higher reproduction rate for the herd, while avoiding emergencies means less stress and more profit for the farmer. The status data can be monitored online too, via an M2M GPRS data link between the monitoring devices and Medria's data center.
Around 4000 farms around Europe are equipped with Medria's M2M application today.
Self-fixing photocopiers, life-saving cars
Applications don't stop there either. Deutsche Telekom's M2M Competence Center estimates that over 100 million vending machines, vehicles, smoke alarms, and other devices are already sharing information automatically today, a figure which market analysts at Berg Insight expect to rise to 360 million by 2016. Today, photocopiers with an M2M module can order fresh toner and paper automatically, or alert technicians to a fault - even telling them which parts to bring.
The connected car is fast becoming a reality too. The European Union has specified that from as soon as 2015 all newly registered motor vehicles must be equipped with an automatic emergency call system which alerts emergency services in the event of an accident. Deutsche Telekom has been trialing the technology with BMW in Germany. It has also partnered with German motorcycle helmet designer Schuberth to introduce the same capability into its headwear.
Broader implications for life as we know it
Key to realizing the full potential of the Internet of Things will be the existence of agreed communications standards, one of the topics on the agenda at the Brussels conference. In an M2M context, Deutsche Telekom, Orange and TeliaSonera have established an alliance, the Global M2M Association (GMA), to promote M2M communication standards.
Also due to be discussed were the broader impact of the Internet of Things on society as a whole, a subject close to the heart of event moderator Rob van Kranenburg. Provided that platforms are open and data is readily shared, he sees connected products paving the way for more leased services, and a move away from ‘ownership' towards a more democratized society where resources are shared between members of a community. Read more about the theory here.
There are plenty of other issues to be ironed out too of course, including the legal implications if technology is involved in controlling cars, for example - ensuring they stay a certain distance apart, to avoid collision. "If they do crash, who is responsible," asks EVRYTHNG's Hobsbawm. "Is it the driver, the car manufacturer, the developer of the sensor, or the network provider?"
Clearly, those attending this year's conference in Brussels will have had a lot to talk about.
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