The Internet of things

May 7, 2012


If you’re reading this article online, then you're connected. You've tapped into a global network of millions of users, one that’s chock full of digital noise. That’s because the web is, really - just a giant hub of information that’s constantly evolving.

But what if the very chair that you’re slouching in right now, as you’re reading this article, was also “plugged in”? What if it was monitoring your posture, reminding you to sit up straight, warning you about changes in your body weight? What if it wasn't just measuring these things but storing them in a database of sorts and sending it to your medical aid? Welcome to the Internet of things. Scared yet? Or liberated?

People and things
People use things. And things, more and more, are being made to “talk” to each other. Just think about how connected your “average” middle class techie is these days and just how convenient it’s made things. You can download almost any film or song off a database like iTunes and then sync those downloads across multiple devices. Let’s say you’re at work and someone brings around a box of chocolates. It reminds of you of Forrest Gump. You decide it’s high time for a second viewing. So you log into iTunes on your smartphone, buy the film, and by the time you get home it’s ready and waiting on your home media centre. That’s already three linked devices: phone, computer, television.

Now multiply those connections ten times over - that’s the Internet of things. It’s about taking everyday objects and getting them to communicate.

Security always comes up in these sorts of discussions, mainly because consumers expect convenience and privacy in the same breath. In July this year, the European Commission is hosting a conference dedicated to discussing the Internet of things, debating how to digitise our lifestyles while still protecting our personal information.

A vision for the future: HomeOS
In order for it to work, the Internet of things would mean fitting “ordinary” items with a microchip and a communications antenna. Each object would need to have its own unique identification number using radio frequency identification (RFID). It’s the equivalent of an IP address, except even your bathroom scale would have one now.

The Internet of things finally answers that age-old question that haunts anyone who’s even slightly obsessive compulsive: “Did I leave the oven on?” So what if you did. Log in to your home network and remotely turn it off while you’re chatting with the girls over coffee.

This technology is closer than you might think. Microsoft is busy experimenting with HomeOS - an operating system designed for home automation. It’s already been tested in dozens of homes over the last couple of months, with prototypes that can control lights, TVs, cameras, and ceiling fans in a single database. In one experiment, the user can set rules on their Windows phone so that when he walks into a room, the lights, thermostat, and room fans automatically adjust according to his pre-set preferences. It's kind of like setting up a filter on your e-mail, except taking it to a whole new level.

The only snag? If Windows crashes that’s a whole new level of home disaster.      

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