james-vaughan
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With IoT, we are only just brainstorming - what comes next?

Two announcements caught my eye recently, and not just because they both came from French companies. The first, for comedy value alone, is ‘Belty’ — a ‘smart’ belt that can sense when its occupier is being a bit too sedentary, or even when it needs to loosen during a particularly hefty meal. While I found the idea initially intriguing (who hasn’t considered unbuckling a notch) I then realised I have one of these already — it’s based on the elastic principles of, well, elastic. The more tension that is applied, the more it releases. Crazy stuff. 

Perhaps more useful though less probable (in that it doesn’t yet exist) is ‘Cicret’, a bracelet-based projector which can shine your Android screen onto your wrist. Various reports have pointed out the more obvious weaknesses in this model, not least that it needs a perfectly sculpted forearm and ideal lighting conditions. All the same, there might still be something in it, even if your wrist is not the perfect rendering surface for your screen estate. After all, the icon-based approach was designed to make the most of a limited-size, flat display. Chances are we’d think of something else when projecting onto a more flexible, less reflective surface.

In both cases one has to ask about the contexts within which these ideas are being created. The crucible of innovation, it would appear, is an environment warm enough to have bare forearms, where people spend a lot of their time sitting around and eating. Or perhaps I am just projecting! Whatever - more important is how someone thought these use cases were sufficiently compelling to be a product idea, and that others saw them as viable enough to add them to the general buzz. 

The fact is, anyone can now pick up a few bits of technology and ‘invent’ a whole new product category. We are right in the middle of the Internet of Things brainstorming phase and, as everybody knows, there is no such thing as a bad idea in a brainstorm.

“The amazing thing is that we haven't invented anything new,” remarked Cicret founder Guillaume Pommier. “We just combined two existing technologies to create something really special.”


It is impossible to keep up with all the combinations. A few years ago I remember an article about how innovations have come from taking two disparate ideas and linking them together, such as the microwave oven. Today everything in the physical world can be equipped with sensors, interconnected and remotely controlled, making such examples legion — when I ‘predicted’ the smart plant pot a while back, I didn’t expect it to be presented at this year’s CES. As advocates of Geoffrey Moore might add to their marketing, “Unlike other smart plant pots…”

Equally clearly, it doesn’t make sense to talk in terms of an industry or market. People are trying to do so, of course. Analysts are setting out their stalls, talking about market sizes and so on. History suggests that most predictions will be wide of the mark or too specific to be useful. They continue because it is a human trait to need to show we have thought about things such as Things. Just as we tried to size the nebulous market for Cloud, or the overwhelming, though vague, tendency for Data to be Big. 

All the same, it is possible to gauge where such trends are taking us. The most important criteria are economic — the spin-off impact of Moore’s Law on price points, a.k.a. the level at which something becomes affordable. For example GPS-based pet monitors have been available for a while, albeit bulky and expensive models. Now that they are reaching tens of pounds, they make sense

Also at the ‘tens of’ mark is the cost of a multitasking compute platform, as illustrated by the Raspberry Pi. Here the threshold is about familiarity - while many could program a lower-level device such as Arduino, it may be seen as a step too far. Better to give someone a windows-icon-mouse-pointer interface, some familiar open source (therefore free as in both speech and beer, as far as developers are concerned) software, online tutorials and community support, and away they can go. 

So we are currently in a brainstorming phase, now that familiar technology has reached an accessible price. But what can we say about two years’ time? First that the costs will have dropped another order of magnitude, opening the floodgates to yet more innovation on the one hand, or techno-tat on the other. Yes, it really will become quite difficult to lose your keys, or indeed your child

In parallel, we can expect a level of consolidation. Current Internet of Things examples tend to be proprietary, closed-community or application-specific, built on open platforms and protocols but not sharing common management building blocks beyond connectivity. By management, think data management, configuration management, event management, service management, security management, dashboards and rules — the range of capabilities we need to enable the device swarm to be husbanded. 

This absence of a common management framework is not through lack of trying — numerous providers such as Thingworx and Xively are positioning themselves as offering the backbone for the smart device revolution. No doubt attention will swing to a handful of such platforms which will then be adopted wholesale by the majority, before being acquired by the major vendors and, likely, almost immediately being open-sourced. 

The first effect will be that we will all know more about ourselves, our stuff and our environments, for better or worse. The technology to determine whether an aged parent has had a fall will be misused in the accelerometer-based version of happy slapping — you heard it here first. Our brand-obsessed consumer culture will create, for our benefit, the cyber equivalent of the Jack Russell, snapping and yapping at our heels with product suggestions. 

Such knowledge brings power: the bad guys will continue to do bad things, even as the good guys get new capabilities for dealing with them. It also threatens our abilities to structure and deal with the world around us - from current fears of internet addiction we shall move to the psychological ramifications of sensory overload, even as our offspring learn to live in a world where everything is measurable. 

Should we worry? As humans, as a majority we seem to have a propensity to run with such changes. Indeed, given what we have dealt with over the past few decades, it is unlikely that another order of magnitude will make any difference. It is as if we can think logarithmically, or indeed in terms of octaves — the song will remain the same, even if it is playing at a higher frequency. In the meantime, we can only hang on, enjoy the ride and see what they think of next. 

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Jon Collins

Jon Collins is an analyst and principal advisor at Inter Orbis. He has over 25 years in experience of the tech sector, having worked as an IT manager, software consultant, project manager and training manager among other roles. Jon’s published work covers security, governance, project management but also includes books on music, including works on Rush, Mike Oldfield and Marillion. See More

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