The Internet Of Things: Between Fear And Hype

The Internet of Things (IoT) is hardly a new concept; we have been waiting for it to become reality since Kevin Ashton first proposed the concept back in 1999, but it has always seemed “just a few more years” away, like hydrogen cars or fusion power. Recently that’s all changed and connected smart devices are becoming increasingly common sights, from connected smoke alarms to personal fitness trackers and smart TVs.

Of course, as with all new developments these days the hype around how connected everything will revolutionise the world has gone hand-in-hand with doom-mongering fears of Big Brother being handed unprecedented surveillance opportunities on a plate. Like the hype, these fears have grounding in reality: not a week seems to go by without some new revelation of NSA spying or personal data being stolen from company databases; so I’m not going to argue that these fears are groundless.

Instead, I take the view that if Pandora’s Box has been opened with these technologies, we really have two choices: to either put our heads in the sand and pretend nothing has changed, or we can look at this new world with an open mind, and learn how it can help us in business. This blog is the first in a series looking at the Internet of Things, assessing how we can use it securely and productively.

What is the Internet of Things?

The Internet of Things is a concept where an Internet-style network of connected devices is extended from personal computing to any “thing”, enabling the connected item to collect, monitor and share data. For example, in the connected home these items could be smoke alarms, electricity meters, central heating systems, light bulbs and so on. This can be combined with analytics technology to predict when systems need to be active.

The potential applications for smart devices are nearly endless, as the required thought process can essentially be summarised as:

  1. “What do I want to know about this” or “what do I want to make this do?”
  2. “Do I want to tell it what to do or to make it autonomous?”
  3. “What extra sensors would it need, if any?”
  4. “How can this be presented in a useful way to my smartphone or PC?”

A friend of mine has a smart oven. It’s a Linux-based device that will automatically cook your dinner according to cooking time and temperature programs; allowing you to use preset ones, download them from the internet or write your own. It’s that time of year again when we try to remember which recipe we used for last year’s seasonal dishes, and the prospect of just being able to look it up in the memory, and make tweaks depending on how it worked before is very appealing.

It’s this sort of outlandish concept that makes the Internet of Things both extremely appealing to hype as well as doom theories. Today we might think that a cup which alerts us when our tea has cooled enough to drink is rather unnecessary, after all we can tell well enough, but I suppose our ancestors felt the same way about clocks or horseless carriages.

How can we use it in business?

As the Internet of Things matures, gains acceptance and becomes widespread I believe that every industry will be able to gain advantages from employing this technology in some form. There are certainly valid fears around the security of smart devices: whether through over the air wireless snooping, hacking the databases where information is stored to access personal data or even remotely manipulating devices to cause chaos. However there are security fears around all new technologies, including enterprise mobility and the internet in general, and these tend to be technical challenges rather than a reason to abandon the technology altogether. Unsurprisingly, Apple has launched a potentially revolutionary product in iBeacons; a way of using low energy Bluetooth for indoor navigation, but there are many more examples of ways different industries will follow.

Logistics

Let’s start with an obvious one: the logistics industry already runs along similar lines with extremely tight control over every item, using scanned barcodes to track item locations. However, with increasing connectivity the industry is likely to be revolutionised by smart containers that redistribute control from a central computer system to individual units acting as a “swarm”, which are able to route themselves through networks and automatically adapt to their environment.

Essentially, the “smart container” is able to communicate with people and machines, reporting its position, and able to automatically request transport based on its own supply chain, cargo and transportation information. This would allow the container to monitor its environment to notify if it exceeds limits of temperature or g-forces, shocks that may indicate that the container has been dropped.

This vision of autonomous containers sounds quite far-fetched today, although such systems are actually being trialled. In the near future it is more likely that we will see sensors that assist human workers in their jobs. Indoor navigation is one such technology that I believe will become very significant, as a few low cost beacons positioned around a warehouse will allow effective navigation and greatly increase efficiency. Tracked deliveries are also ripe for change, as tags could be used which register time and location via GPS, providing proof of delivery. Further, use of big data from traffic management and social navigation tools such as Waze will allow logistics companies to re-route packages en-route according to live information regarding the fastest route; or to prioritise one shipment over another to ensure all arrive exactly on time.

Retail

The retail industry will probably benefit from the Internet of Things in quite a different way to logistics; although there are certainly advantages to live stock levels, for example, the real benefits will come from customer interactions. As I discussed in my recent blogs, “How Big Data Is Transforming Mobile” and “Why I Believe The iPhone 5S Will Be A Game-Changer” the interaction between customers’ devices and in-store infrastructure will allow offers to be targeted in a far more intelligent, interactive and human way than has hitherto been possible.

The key process in retail is getting customers from seeing an advertisement to making a purchase, and the Internet of Things is positioned to help at every step. Firstly, increasing the targeted nature of adverts will make them more relevant to the customer, and as marketers get more tools they will also be able to mould the message or content of adverts to appeal to specific consumers.

With wearables this could end up like the film “Minority Report”, with advertising hoardings acting as augmented reality tags that provide tailored content displayed onto a smartphone or Google Glass. British Airways have already started playing with this concept with their recent screens in London where a child points at the aeroplane overhead and tells you which flight it is.

Remember that when adverts can be so personalised the nature of display marketing will change; and with smartphones increasingly listening to you, waiting to be activated they are also ideal sources of information on what you could be tempted to look at. Offers could also be targeted based on your history and preferences (both explicit or stated, and implicit or behavioural). Adding the ability to scan and pay for items while walking around a shop will become commonplace, as it removes the major headache of retail, the queue. At the moment there are two things holding this future back: technology and customer expectations. The technology is becoming more mature and micro-transactions via services such as Paypal gaining widespread acceptance so I believe this will change soon.

The smart fridge or smart kitchen is of course a dream that has been around since at least the 1950s but now it is becoming a possibility. I already mentioned my friend’s smart oven, and combining this with a smart fridge opens interesting possibilities. I’m sure that at some point you will have been shopping and thought, “do I have some or enough of that ingredient? What’s the expiry date on it?” The smart fridge would have this information and be able to deliver it to your smartphone while you shop, or you could even set it to automatically order more of certain items when you start to run low. Equally, the smart fridge can help us reduce waste by reminding us of expiry dates before they arrive.

While these changes are often seen as a bit scary, I also believe that they will help us get more choice and express our preferences more clearly. The ability to interact on a very personal level at a global scale will allow small specialist businesses to become more viable, as it opens up a wider customer base.

Whether this is location- or activity-based, information about customers’ interests, preferences and habits collected by connected devices have the potential to boost consumer interest and loyalty… but also to drive potential customers away if the interactions feel invasive, irrelevant or unwelcome. This is going to be a very thin line for brands to walk, and I expect that one of the first things they will need to learn is how to identify and accommodate individual customers’ feelings in this area.

Transportation

The transportation industry has similar challenges to logistics in that being able to track and manage the location of units (buses and trains rather than containers) is invaluable, but also similar to retail in that engagements with customers will be vital for attracting and keeping business, and for improving service. If we include the road network, a connected net of sensors across all transportation networks both in the infrastructure and vehicles allows a real-time view of congestion and incidents; with the potential to reduce the impact of both by dynamically re-routing traffic away from problems. Making this information (both live and historic) publically available to connected devices will also allow this process to happen automatically.

Another issue for the transportation industry is maintenance and here again the Internet of Things could become a useful tool to reduce costs and improve safety. The “black boxes” in planes already record data from a wide range of sensors, but connected sensors could be deployed on other forms of transportation. Self-locating and able to report unusual readings, such sensors could warn of slippery roads or rail track in need of maintenance, as well as identifying parts beginning to wear out, allowing them to be pre-emptively replaced as needed rather than waiting for them to fail or overhauling vehicles regardless of condition.

The Internet of Things can also be used to increase customer satisfaction by providing information about passenger habits. For example, a bus operator could see the busy periods for each route as well as where the passengers from each are coming from and going to, allowing routes and bus times to be optimised so passengers can complete their journeys faster and more reliably, as well as maximising income and bus usage.

Insurance

Similar to the transportation industry, insurance will embrace the Internet of Things to monitor insured items and reduce the gap between individual premiums and risk. We are already seeing “black box” style devices being trialled in car insurance, and the logistics innovations will no doubt be viewed very positively here too. Of course, from an insurer’s perspective the key concerns aren’t limited to the risk of damage but also to fraud, so the technologies used will be tailored to individual policies, for example using data from wearables to identify the driver of a car or the circumstances of a sports injury. The ability to track items such as in shipping insurance will also help in recovering lost or stolen items and reduce the frequency of payouts.

Law enforcement

Law enforcement and other emergency services are ideal candidates for the Internet of things, especially as wearable devices such as Google Glass. Facial recognition technology has clear implications for police especially when linked to CCTV footage, enabling officers to identify suspects with greater accuracy and reduced disruption to the wider public. Instant access to operational information and news feeds can also provide them with live information about activities in their area, helping them coordinate and respond faster to developments. Paramedics could also benefit from this technology to help identify patients and have access to their medical history. They could also be able to provide more advanced treatment at the scene by video link with an expert anywhere in the world.

While it’s hard to see through the mix of hype and fear currently surrounding the Internet of Things, the examples above show where I believe it can make a genuine change in how these industries operate. This blog was a bit of a starter to explain what the Internet of Things is and how it can really work; in the future I will be looking into the challenges of security and data integration among others in more detail.