Everything you wanted to know about the Internet of Things but no idea how to ask

If it moves, ask what it’s doing. If it doesn’t, ask why it isn’t moving. Is talking to objects a sign of madness or prospect of things to come?

Among the Web’s intelligentsia there has been great anticipation of the Internet of Things. The chatter is reaching a crescendo now, and reality appears to be within touching distance.

The Internet of Things is what happens when you push the Web’s physical boundaries further out, beyond the data centres and laptops to encompass all manner of devices: a parcel, a tree, an elevator, a web cam, a humidity sensor in a wall of a building. But the Internet of Things concept is more than sensors and communications – it’s the ability to broker the information on the public Internet, leveraging the Metcalf network effect. A good introduction is from former Wired editor Kevin Kelly. Check out his talk on the Next 5000 Days of the Web.

So a quick tour of what’s a happening to make the Internet of Things so “now”:

• Big guns Cisco, Sun and SAP believe in smart objects and that they should talk in the new linga franca – IP. They have formed the IPSO Alliance and their goal is to make sure there is a common interface and protocol stack for all objects irrespective of industry they serve. They proudly proclaim that this is the beginning of the Internet of Things.

• The EU has launched a public consultation on the Internet of Things.

• The European Commission is really on the case now with IPv6. Brussels is determined that the telecom industry adopts it willingly or could threaten to mandate. The six billion potential addresses within the IPv4 would rapidly run out if every household appliance was connected to the internet. IPv6 offers the potential for 3.4×1038 objects to be connected if only we could find that many objects in the world.

• And there are extremely positive forecasts for mobile M2M communications and RFiD, the precursors to the Internet of things. Berg Insight reckons there are 14 million wireless M2M modules in use in Europe today, in applications as diverse as smart utility meters and vehicle tracking systems – each one connecting to a sensor or actuator. They are precursors in that they communicated within a closed system. The vision of the Interne of things is that you can connect directly with objects in the real world, mediated by the very public internet.

One of the drawbacks of this latest zeitgeist is the terminology. All manner of wonderful jargon is thrown around: smart objects, motes, mems, smart dust, Web 3.0, ambient intelligence, Zigbee and so on. My favourite was coined by science fiction author Bruce Sterling: spime. His idea is an object that is constantly aware of itself and its surroundings, perpetually spewing out data, published directly to the web. Its moved on since: now we have blogjects and tweetjects. These are objects that blog and twitter. If this is confusing, prepare to scratch your head even more over these Internet of Things definitions.

If you are still struggling to get your head around the idea, let Google’s Vint Cerf explain:
“Many of the things on the Internet, whether mobile or fixed, will know where they are, both geographically and logically…It will be normal for devices, when activated, to discover what other devices are in the neighborhood…If you wish, your mobile will remember where you have been and will keep track of RFID-labeled objects such as your briefcase, car keys and glasses. "Where are my glasses?" you will ask. "You were last within RFID reach of them while in the living room," your mobile or laptop will say.”

Good job the Internet of Things is not for trivial use then.

Stewart Baines
Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.