There’s an abundance of media reports and product innovation demos showing “connected refrigerators” that can email you to buy milk or clothes washers that can tweet when your clothes are dry, but I would categorize all of these as worthless, trivial, and counter-productive. These are driven by marketing departments to show that they’re hip.
The reality might be slightly less slick on a brochure, but immeasurably more valuable.
Here’s what I’m looking for in the future as EVERYTHING gets connected.
I want every electrical device in my entire home to report energy usage, so I can track their power over time and reduce my energy bill. Maybe I can even see when my old refrigerator isn’t as efficient any more and should be serviced or replaced.
I want to treat water similarly – having data on the water flow through all faucets and spigots to identify a leak.
I want the temperature in every room in my house logged and reported to my thermostat, with the ability to control the hvac vents in each room. That way, the rooms on the sunny side of the house don’t get heat but the colder ones do. I’m not saying I want to personally view this, but with the growth of Smart Thermostats, the Nest Learning Thermostat being the most well-known, having all this data and control could lead to even more advancements and savings.
I want an increase in actual connectivity – anybody who works in an office knows the struggle of finding the right cable from the projector to a computer, and the time wasted. Sending a picture from my phone to the person standing right next to me should be easier than attaching it to an email and sending. Connecting to a speaker system or sending a video to my television, all of these things should be simplified. We are still mostly reliant on cables for connecting to televisions and projectors, but for audio and files, there’s Bluetooth for some things, NFC for some things, and WiFi or LTE for the rest.
What’s it going to take to achieve this?
To get this many devices connected, the cost of connection needs to be reduced. From a developer perspective, the costs have already come down quite a bit, from over $100 a couple years ago (Arduino + WiFi shield) to $39 for a Spark Core. The next product from Spark, the Photon will be out in May for $19 each for the prototyping setup, $10 for the bare chip. This is a huge step, but given the markups on consumer products, it will still add $20 to $30 for each and every device that’s going to be connected. Start counting the number of rooms in your house, HVAC vents, electrical outlets and devices, and so on, and you realize how much of an investment this might be.
Assuming I’ve got a batch of things to connect, how do I go about getting them all online? Do I have to program each one with my home’s wireless network name and password? If I ever change the password, do I have to re-configure dozens of devices?
The added cost of a screen and buttons will make it impractical to have a setup/display on each one, so we’ll have to rely on smarter configuration, such as WiFi Direct, to allow peer-to-peer configuration schemes. But even that will require some configuration and discovery, and some user interaction (the WiFi Direct implementations are lacking some very useful features at this point!)
How do you get all these different connection-points talking to each other, the right way, and without losing too much of your privacy? When you want to see your stats or control your devices, do you have a single app on your phone, or one for each network (HVAC, electrical, etc)? In the short term, I expect to see numerous competing standards, either keeping themselves isolated or battling to become the One True Standard to Rule Them All.
There are still some significant obstacles to overcome, but certainly, the Internet of Useful Things is coming. The researchers at Gartner predict 4.9 Billion devices online in 2015 and 25 Billion by 2020. Sure, some of them will be goofy nonsensical stuff like toasters that tweet, but most of it is going to be actually useful stuff, and I’m looking forward to it!