Some IoT musings from the Guardian.
Sometimes trying to predict the digital revolution seems very much like that old cliche of waiting for a bus. You know, you spend 12 years waiting for mobile to come along and then social and cloud arrive at the same time. That perfect, ahem, storm of connectivity – combined with the rapid adoption of smartphones – is changing society and shaking up business faster than any of us can imagine.
So imagine something even more disruptive: the social, cloud and mobile connected identity of everyday objects, or the “internet of things” as it is often called. Just two years ago, the internet of things was widely framed by examples such as a washing machine telling its owner and the manufacturer when it needed a service. Or the fridge having a chat with Waitrose (other fine supermarkets are available) when you’re running low on milk.
Fast forward to today and most new cars can’t function without the help of embedded, connected computers. Take the S-class Mercedes. It has nearly as many embedded computers as an Airbus A380. But as connected and functional as these everyday objects may be, they are still inanimate, lacking a bit of identity you might say.
That is about to change – and quite rapidly if the tech lessons of the past few years are any indication. Take apps as an example, a multibillion dollar industry that didn’t exist four years ago. But more important than business turnover is the transformative effect apps have had on our lives and on the object – mainly the smartphone – they dwell on. Simply put, apps have supercharged phones by allowing them to offer social, personalised and relevant services to their owners. When we use apps on smartphones we’re telling telco and the app providers key details about us and our purchasing preferences, and those providers are able to shape products and offerings to match our individual needs.
But what about objects that aren’t smartphones? Say you’re a keen musician. What if your favourite electric guitar had an unique online identity that allowed you to connect to it using your smartphone? Not only could it tell you what type of strings to use and how to tune them but it could also recommend songs that match your playing tastes, local and global musicians online to jam with and, of course, product updates and add-ons from the guitar manufacturer.
That’s just one of the examples a new startup, Evrythng, cites when describing its vision of creating a digital identity for everyday objects and how it might transform our relationship with the products we buy. “We’re looking to solve a problem that manufacturers didn’t think there was a solution to. How do I get closer to my customers when I don’t know who most of them are?” says Andy Hobsbawm, Evrythng’s co-founder and chief marketing officer.
The social media revolution has opened new avenues for customers who crave information about the products they buy while providing manufacturers with direct relationships to those customers. Evrythng believes the product can be a key digital conduit between the customer and the company and so has started a “software as a service” business that creates what they call an active digital identity for any product or object. Each product, be it a can of beans or a power drill, can have a unique identifying tag like simple QR codes or NFC (near field communications – what your Oyster card uses, and in all smartphones made this year) tags digitally printed on to the label or packaging. When scanned or swiped the product uses your smartphone to instantly connect to the net, creating a unique profile just for you serving up personalised digital content and services to help you get the most out of it.”
Already, Evrythng is working with companies such as Diageo to create digital identities and, hence personalised online services, for customers.
At this point, it’s easy to drift into your worst Hal 2001: A Space Odyssey nightmare scenarios and envisage the creepy data map companies will soon be compiling once, say, our digitally enabled toothbrush is snooping on our daily brushing habits. But just like any technology, this retrofitted internet of things can only be as good or bad as the way we choose to use it.
So let’s imagine how objects with connected online identities can actually drive sustainability. Imagine a portfolio of household good products – your laundry detergent and your dishwater – communicating with you to give a personal record that can help reduce water and energy use. Or imagine medical devices like glucose monitors that come with dietary advice and medicines that provide online side-effect alerts and tests. Or wine and spirits bottles that provide not just terroir history and cocktail tips but also personalised healthy drinking advice.
Established peer-to-peer services like AirBnB and the US private car sharing/rental company Relay Rides already point to how connected objects can promote sustainability. In the case of Relay Rides, subscribers who need access to cars but don’t want to own a vehicle rent other people’s private cars on a journey-by-journey basis. Now spin that model forward to multiple shared ownership of a single vehicle equipped with a digital identity connected to all the owners. The vehicle becomes the hub of an online network that allows, for example, four different owners, to effectively share that one car. They can plan and monitor usage schedules, parking, service history as well as individually tailor radio stations, seat positions etc to their individual needs.
"The web of things has been coming for a long time and people have been talking about products having a presence online," notes Andy Hobsbawm. "Now you’re entering a zone where the cost per unit of tagging a unit is becoming affordable for scale and where bandwidth is continuing to fall." That zone will likely see this newest online "revolution" take its place alongside mobile, social and the cloud as a driver of technological change.
How we take advantage of that change is up to us.