At CES, a Search for Meaning on The Internet of Things

A few years ago it was predicted there would be 50 billion connected devices by 2020. Today, that seems like an understatement.

by Andrej Sokolow - dpa, Berlin / January 7, 2015
Columbia, Mo., wants to light and expand its dark fiber network. But will incumbent Internet service providers challenge the legality of the city's plan? Shutterstock

(TNS) Jan. 06--LAS VEGAS -- Pool thermometers. Toothbrushes. Insulin pumps. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the message is clear: everything, absolutely everything, is getting connected.

From snowboards, soccer balls and tennis rackets to kitchen scales, surveillance cameras and even dog collars, the internet of things -- everyday objects rigged with "smart" sensors -- is this year's hot tech ticket at the CES Unveiled pre-show, where throngs of start-ups and bit players present their new ideas before the main show opens Tuesday.

Only a few years ago the head of the Swedish network equipment maker Ericsson predicted there would be 50 billion connected devices by 2020. At the time, the number seemed like a wild exaggeration. Today, it looks like an understatement.

But just as CES, the world's largest consumer electronics show, is catching networking fever, Shawn DuBravac, chief economist and researcher at the CES parent Consumer Electronics Association, issued a challenge.

"Today the question is, whether this connectivity makes a difference in the physical world. That's the measure of meaningful innovation."

If not, he said, products simply won't catch on. Dozens of products have been hailed as great innovations at past editions of CES, only to flop with consumers.

DuBravac estimated that of products people actually use, only 4 per cent are networked. And the question producers need to answer is, what's gained by networking the rest?

"The use case for the remaining 96 per cent is unclear," he said.

Still, he could envision real-world uses for convention debuts like the much-mocked connected toothbrush -- imagining toothbrush data that shows dentists where patients are missing spots as they brush their teeth.

"Maybe in the future dentists are going to be data scientists," DuBravac said.

It's a vision of a brave new world. But it isn't really going to take off until data from different services are linked, and smart sensors can talk to each other, not just their owner -- a move from the internet of things to what DuBravac calls the "internet of me."

Take, for example, a movie night at home. Nowadays, a streaming service such as Netflix would suggest a film based on a user's previous views -- and that's as far as connectivity goes.

But in the future, industry experts say it could go much further. Indoor climate sensors could register six people in the room, telling the system you have visitors. The host's smart watch could recognize that she is stressed, and the internet could show the weather is cloudy -- all influencing what film Netflix recommends.

It's going to be about predicting future preferences, not analyzing the past, DuBravac said.

But linking smart devices would also mean creating a linked collection of data about individual users -- something that has long alarmed privacy advocates.

Today, the avalanche of information collected by networked devices is usually kept separate. What risks might ensue from linking that data remain to be seen.

David Rose, an American media scholar, entrepreneur and committed device networker, is convinced linking data from smart devices is a positive thing.

"People are going to embrace such services, once they experience that they improve their life."

But at the same time, even he worries about the risks of systems collecting personal data. He's concerned that insurance companies might raise rates, for example, if they learn too much about his life.

"I'm afraid that my family might be in danger because I share so much," he said -- that burglars, for example, might break into his real-world home when his online data show he's away.

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