Picture a world where tiny, intelligent devices capture information about how we live, and what we do. And communicate with each other. In our houses, cars, and factories.
Coffee-pots talk to alarm clocks. Thermostats speak with motion sensors. All choreographed to respond to our needs, solve problems - even save our lives.
Sound like Sci-Fi? It isn't.
Welcome, to the Internet of Things (IoT) - a computerised world of elements, connected to the Internet, and aggregating data in real time. It's happening, now.
"Things" (in this sense, everyday objects) have already begun to act differently.
Someone's at The Door...
A logical conclusion, if your doorbell rings. The Thing is..
With the addition of a camera, and some facial recognition software, the doorbell becomes "smart". Able to show or tell you who it is, at the door - even give you the option to speak to them, without opening it. You could pick your favourite pop tune, as a ringtone.
Doorbot is already with us, and start-up company Chui has created a connected doorbell that ships with facial detection technology.
Sprinklers, and such
With new products from Rach.io and Rainmachine, you can monitor, control and conserve water by scheduling the sprinkler system to water your lawn - all from your smartphone. An extension of this technology lets you open the garage door from your desk at work.
Given time, and a little application, it won't be unusual for your fridge to call you, when you're running low on milk, or for your house lights to come on as you drive home from the office.
Belkin have announced an app-controlled slow cooker developed with Crock-Pot. Users can turn the cooker on or off, set timers, and adjust temperatures from their smartphones with Wi-Fi or 3G/4G networks. It's available in the US for US$99. Belkin hopes to launch other connected products, like air purifiers.
Meanwhile, British Gas customers can remotely control their heating and hot water with Hive, a £199 thermostat .
The Nanny's State
French start-up Sen.se has unveiled a home network led by Sense Mother, a hub that looks like a white Russian doll. It's equipped with small adhesive sensors called Motion Cookies, which can be stuck on anything: a child's rucksack, a baby crib, a pill container.
Cookies feed back data such as whether objects have been moved or used, and local temperatures.
In Your Cups?
In June, a new product called Vessyl appeared, as the world’s first smart cup. The vessel (get it?) tells you what ingredients are in your drink, how much of each type it contains, and how much you have drunk, in a given time period.
A Brush, with...
Kolibree, a Net-enabled electric toothbrush from France, has a gyrometer and accelerometer to measure how effectively users brush their teeth. Data it gathers can be uploaded to a smartphone, via Bluetooth. An associated app tells you whether you’ve brushed for long enough, or hit the hard-to-reach areas of your mouth. It even gives you a score which you can share online - or not.
It's anticipated that brushes could soon provide consumers with information such as the best time to change the head of a toothbrush.
The Shirt, off your back
Wearables are no longer limited to smartwatches and Google Glass.
Intel is working on sensor-laden smart shirts that let you track your vital statistics: heart rate, perspiration, etc. Beyond the obvious applications for sportswear, the technology has medical potential, as well - e.g. for cardiac patients.
Powering it All
Most of us only have a limited number of power outlets (also, time and patience) to spend recharging Things. So the Internet of Things will have to rely on battery-free devices. These get their power by harvesting small amounts of energy from radio frequency sources like TV and wireless signals.
But the amount of power necessary to use a regular Wi-Fi network can be up to four times as much as most devices have been able to harvest from the air.
University of Washington engineers have designed a system using radio frequency signals as a power source - one which also reuses existing Wi-Fi infrastructure to provide Internet connectivity. The researchers developed an ultra-low power prototype with an antenna and circuitry that can talk to Wi-Fi-enabled laptops or smartphones, using negligible power.
Dubbed "Wi-Fi backscatter", the technology employs tags that can communicate with a Wi-Fi device at rates of 1 kilobit per second, with about 2 metres between devices. The plan is to extend the range to about 20m - and to have patents filed on the technology.
Not surprisingly, the University of Washington team also plans to start a company based on the Wi-Fi backscatter.
This landmark technology is just one in a rising tide of what at first seem to be very small steps, and small changes. As our objects, homes, and cities become increasingly "smart" (and interconnected), a new world of possibilities is opening up.
The coming Internet of Things will have implications for our methods of manufacturing, our data security, and of course, the way we live. So, we'll need to keep abreast of these developments.
That's the intelligent thing to do.