The all-encompassing device: Life just got easier in the kitchen. As consumers embrace IoT in their sundry gadgets, appliances that connect to the internet and allow you to interact with them, store and access data are increasing by the day Image Credit: Corbis

When was the last time you heard the words ‘electronics’ and ‘tasty’ used in the same sentence? Never? Well, a Spain-based company Libelium, which runs the virtual store, Cooking Hacks, is marrying the two by selling ‘tasty electronics’. But don’t expect shortcut food recipes or edible chips here. Instead, you will find circuit boards, sensors, do-it-yourself kits, and other bits and bytes that promise to turn your kitchen and home into a den of automated appliances and blinking light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

Wide reach

Building a smart home used to be something best left to expensive experts or nerdy cousins. However, a big wave is sweeping by — called the internet of things (IoT) — which promises to turn a non-tech savvy buyer into a tinkerer. The mantra is simple — make the IoT appliance dead easy to customise and run, add a dash of adventure, keep the costs low, and lo! — regular customers and their spouses will soon smarten up their homes with these tiny devices.

For instance, Libelium believes “if you can cook, you can get into electronics”. Reads its manifesto: “Doing electronic hacks is no more difficult than cooking when you have the right instructions and ingredients — and both give you tons of fun!”

US-based Supermechanical would agree. The company created Twine, the maker of a tiny Wi-Fi-enabled box with sensors that can be controlled from a simple app. As its marketing pitch goes, “Want to monitor things and environments remotely without a nerd degree? Get a tweet when your laundry’s done, an email when the AC breaks and your pets are at home, or a text message when you have left the garage door open. Twine is the simplest way to get the objects in your life texting, tweeting or emailing.” Similarly, US-based Electric Imp aspires to “bring the internet to your devices”. The company’s revolutionary hardware module of the same name allows users to remotely control compatible appliances via smartphones and computers.

Plus, there is a growing list of other options — such as the Ninja Block and Belkin’s WeMo switches and motion sensors that can activate an appliance when you walk past it. Indeed, the big deal for this year is IoT, and one key battleground is your home. Just the way it has become almost impossible to find a mobile phone without a camera, it will soon become an uphill task to buy plain vanilla home appliances sans smart sensors. You already have fridges from LG and others that keep track of your grocery supply, your diet, and come loaded with a health manager. However, if the smart-fridge advisory turns out to be too bland for the palate, UAE residents can balance it out by placing Red Tomato Pizza’s VIP Fridge Magnet on it — merely tap this magnet, and it will automagically (and wirelessly) order a scrumptious pizza for you!

Stepping out of the kitchen, leaving the fridge and the magnet to sort it out, you will find a dizzying array of appliances that sense, adjust and communicate wirelessly with each other — machine to machine — and with cloud support. IoT is poised to take over your kitchen, living room, bedroom and even latch onto your door. In fact, US-based Lockitron provides a solution for this, with its wireless door lock that can be controlled via a smartphone.

Principal technology

No wonder, then, that IoT was the dominant technology at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. Ben Bajarin, Principal, Creative Strategies, notes in his column on Time.com, “In years past, this idea was just an idea — something we said was coming. This year, however, was the first year when I could actually say the internet of things was on display.” He saw examples of nearly every type of electronic device — from coffee makers, ovens and fridges to cars, clocks, stereos, exercise equipment, and his personal favourite — an LED lightbulb with a wireless speaker built in. Writes Bajarin, “All of these devices were connected to the internet and allowed you to interact with them, store data, access data and more. This was the first year I could see the internet of things becoming a reality, and it is very exciting for us industry observers.”

Ericsson Labs, in its November 2012 report on IoT, famously declared that the next big thing is actually a “Trillion Small Things”. Networked microcontrollers with sensors and actuators “are about to be embedded in any tangible object or place, ready to observe and control the real world.” The lab predicts 50 billion connected devices by 2020 that will impact “all aspects of people’s lives”. It adds that IoT will be a major cornerstone of an emerging networked society.

IEEE Computer Society is even more bullish — it believes that IoT is more than just the newest buzzword, and ranks it at the numero uno position on its list of top trends for 2013. IoT “promises to be the most disruptive technological revolution since the advent of the World Wide Web. Projections indicate that up to 100 billion uniquely identifiable objects will be connected to the internet by 2020.”

Data build-up

Market intelligence firm International Data Corporation (IDC), in a December 2012 report titled The Digital Universe in 2020, predicts that every year, the digital universe will double and by 2020 would have grown by a factor of 300, when compared to what it was in 2005. Data will grow from 130 exabytes (1 exabyte = 1 quintillion bytes) to a staggering 40,000 exabytes, or 40 trillion gigabytes. That adds up to “more than 5,200 gigabytes for every man, woman, and child in 2020”. This data is not just your YouTube videos and Facebook pictures. In fact, 42 per cent of it will be machine-generated, up from 11 per cent in 2005. Says IDC, “In the future, sensors of all types (including those that may be implanted into the body) will capture vital and non-vital biometrics, track medicine effectiveness, correlate bodily activity with health, monitor potential outbreaks of viruses, etc. — all in real time.”

However, Alex Brisbourne, President and COO, KORE Telematics, warns in a recent Forbes.com article that without a strong value proposition, most of these IoT gadgets will end up as novelty items whose lustre will wear off soon. Writes Brisbourne, “There are some points of value, such as turning off a light from afar, adjusting a thermostat or checking if you left the oven on. But has society really gotten to a place where we need our toaster to tell our iPhone that our toast is ready? Are we just being lazy if forgetting to turn off the oven no longer matters?”

Meanwhile, Cisco is already looking beyond the internet of things to the internet of everything (IoE). Dave Evans, Chief Futurist, Innovations Practice Internet Business Solutions Group, Cisco, notes on his blog that the way we connect will increasingly get personal as technology advances: “As sensors and computers shrink to the size of dust particles and grains of salt, it won’t be long before people connect to the internet through their clothing and even through personal care products such as perfume and cologne.” Cisco predicts that by 2016, 1.3 zettabytes (1 zettabyte = 1,000 exabytes) of data will flow over the internet.

The IoT numbers are certainly impressive, but the IEEE Computer Society cautions that “human understanding of the underlying technologies has not kept pace. This creates a fundamental challenge to researchers, with enormous technical, socioeconomic, political, and even spiritual consequences.” As consumers embrace IoT in their toothbrushes and sundry gadgets, security and privacy issues remain to be ironed out. IoT-enabled appliances that capture and analyse information can certainly help improve your life; but, in the wrong hands, that data can have unforeseen consequences.

As Andrew Rose, Principal Analyst, Forrester Research, mused in a Wired.com column, “I am hard-pressed to find a catastrophic scenario associated with the refrigerator — other than the refrigerator spending your entire month’s pay on milk or becoming self-aware like Skynet — but the fact remains, we can’t predict how things will look. That makes regulation and legislation difficult.”