After years of hype, the internet of things -- which describes the near-future in which all our devices are connected to the Internet -- is finally here. It just needs a little while to figure out how it's going to get off the ground.
Strolling past the stands at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it became clear that pretty much any item can be made to gather and store data: fitness armbands; tennis rackets; home appliances; toothbrushes; dog collars -- even a gadget that sets off a warning when the user has bad posture.
"We want to make all devices smart," says Intel head Brian Krzanich.
But, as smart as everything is getting, there's still a ways to go before all these devices learn to share this flood of information. Nor is it clear, after recent data security scandals, if all this sharing is really what consumers want.
One manufacturer of intelligent climate sensors says he can gather data from around the world.
"We can see when people burn their toast or if there’s a carbon monoxide leak," noted an employee at Nest, which makes networked smoke detectors.
Meanwhile, tech firm Sense says it has developed motion sensor technology that will tell if a pillbox has actually been opened, or just moved from place to place. That data can help to make sure medications are taken as directed.
Even if one believes that these companies are gathering this data for the benefit of their customers, there's no way to shake the fear that information-hungry governments might also want to take a peek. Hans Vestberg, head of Swedish network provider Ericsson, warns that more information is needed about how data is handled.
Standard security matters are also a concern. As CES went on, US department store Target was reeling from the discovery that hackers had stolen credit card information for 70 million of its customers. Such hacking creates concerns about new technologies.
"You don't want anyone to be able to use the wi-fi connection to take control of your brakes," notes Kurt Sievers of chip manufacturer NXP during a display of a networked car. Such concerns have prompted the introduction of extra security measures for the vehicle.
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The truly networked world remains more of a vision than anything else - at this point in time at least. This is mainly because there is no guarantee that devices from different manufacturers can share information.
"The industry shows customers videos where a digital thermometer, for example, communicates with an alarm system. But, in most cases, that wouldn't work, since most manufacturers work hard to establish their version of the technology as a market leader, says Intel manager Mike Bell.
But German electronics company Bosch is convinced this can't last forever.
"There will be standardization in less than five years," says Stefan Finkbeiner, head of Bosch subsidiary Sensortec. "The customers will demand that, because that's the only way to get value added." The company is working with other market leaders to create an industry standard.
The technology itself isn't the only area where standardization is required. If household security devices are to be built into house doors, for example, it would benefit if there was a set size that manufacturers have to adhere to.
Such standardization will be necessary if the industry hopes to exploit the technology's potential. A lot of money is at stake: Marketing research firm Gartner estimates sales of 300 billion dollars by 2020.
©2014 Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH (Hamburg, Germany)