Internet of Things graphic

IoT: Is our world getting really smart?

A number of big tech companies are clamouring to become lead architects of the Internet of Things. Here are 10 IoT zones currently under conversion from big buzz to big business.

Being ‘smart’: it’s what has marked humans out as... human. No longer, however. These days, geniuses have to share the ‘smart’ label with the cars, white goods, medical equipment, gadgets and endless other objects around us that get ever cleverer.

Of course, we are not talking about true Artificial Intelligence here; that’s still science fiction. However, everyday things are already getting pretty smart once we equip them with sensors, connectivity and computing power. Technology can now sense your presence - and monitor your vital signs while you’re sleeping, wake you up at the ideal moment of your sleep cycle, brew your coffee as soon as you’re under the shower, turn off the lights and lock your windows and doors when you leave the house, and even tune your car radio to the station that you usually listen to during breakfast.

The tech industry has promised this kind of Internet of Things (IoT) future for years; at long last we are moving from buzz to reality. At this year’s huge IFA trade show in Berlin, IoT was arguably the biggest tech trend. Here are the 10 main IoT drivers right now - as seen at IFA.

1 Smart Home

The smart home is coming, and IFA 2015 was the showcase for it, with better hardware (packed with seamless connectivity, more powerful processors, and better, smaller sensors), but also more user-friendly software (with Smart Home apps that make it easy to integrate and control your IoT ‘smarts’). Crucially, we see the emergence of IoT services that are driven by cross-industry collaboration, with IT companies working with many consumer brands, whether they work with cars, kitchen appliances or fashion.

Until now, the push into the IoT was mainly driven by smaller, more speculative companies. However, IFA seems to indicate that these are rapidly being overshadowed by industry giants, who are rushing into the market and hope to make it their own. Take South Korean electronics giant Samsung, which made the Internet of Things the main theme of its press conference, and demonstrated a range of IoT devices that are hitting the shelves now.

Among them was the company’s upgraded SmartThings platform, including a Home Watch system that can alert you in case of fire, a leaking pipe or a burglary. With the right ‘smart things’ in the home, it also monitors for carbon monoxide poisoning, and lets you control your air conditioning, heating, door locks, washing machine and more.

Japanese tech giant Panasonic also blew the IoT trumpet, repeating its mantra that “Panasonic will make your life smarter, healthier and simpler”. And ‘smart’ is not just about sensors - it can also mean smarter energy, like a Panasonic battery that could soon power your home; the battery is supposed to be a backup device, providing both stability for the electricity grid and storing power generated by solar panels on your roof.

LG, meanwhile, invited the public to embrace its Smart ThinQ Sensor, which can turn existing home appliances like fridges and washing machines into connected devices that relay information such as temperature and vibration to the SmartThinQ mobile app and send you alerts (for instance, when your laundry is done).

2 Wearables

Wearables are an integral part of the IoT, and so it’s little wonder that IFA’s visitors (around 250,000 this year) were treated to a deluge of new smartwatches, and fitness and health trackers. Motorola, Intel, Samsung, and Sony all introduced their new timepieces.

Even satnav maker TomTom got in on the wearables act - with its Spark, a running watch equipped with a heart-rate sensor and the usual collection of other fitness tracking features, GPS, a music player that doesn’t need to be connected to your smartphone, and 3GB of storage capacity.

Another running watch was showcased by Runtastic, which decided to go with an elegant timepiece instead of a fitness band. Dubbed the Moment, it boasts plenty of sensors that monitor not only your running and other activities, but also the quality of your sleep. It is claimed to be waterproof to 300ft (90m), and pairs via Bluetooth with your Android or iOS device.

Samsung, meanwhile, showed off its much-trailed Gear S2, powered by Tizen OS. The watch was arguably one of the most talked-about wearables at this year’s IFA, with a large, 1.2in (3cm), circular OLED screen and a rotating bezel to change settings easily. The Korean giant hasn’t revealed the price of the timepiece, though. Most other new smartwatches are powered by Android Wear and cost anywhere from $299 to $799.

3 Healthcare

Healthcare products may well be the Trojan horse that turn the IoT into a success story, as they meet many real - or imagined - needs, like the ‘clever’ sports shirt that tracks your health in real time or socks that monitor your every step. The most interesting aspect here isn’t the hardware offered, but the services that come with it; it’s all about making sense of the deluge of data produced by all our smart equipment.

Dutch consumer tech giant Philips unveiled a number of health-related IoT products, such as a watch that doubles up as a wearable healthcare monitor, a ‘clever’ ear thermometer, air purifiers, a mobile ultrasound machine, and tubeless blood pressure monitors that fix on your wrist or upper arm and deliver systolic and diastolic readings as well as your heart rate to the Philips health app on your smartphone (which also controls the company’s many other devices for personalised diagnostics).

Samsung unveiled a sleep monitor called SleepSense: stick it under your mattress and it will not only monitor your heart rate and quality of sleep but also turn down the heating and switch off the lights and your TV in case you happen to fall asleep while watching a movie. More importantly, the accompanying app will show you the quality of your sleep, and give you tips to sleep better. A similar device is already used by several hospitals; Samsung hopes that we will want to buy it for personal use too. 

Consumer electronics companies have good reasons for their push into healthcare. First, many societies are becoming ever more health-conscious. Across western Europe, online searches for health-related terms are soaring. At the same time, rapidly ageing societies are finding it difficult to afford personal care for senior citizens; remote healthcare and monitoring should give the elderly not only more independence, but also dramatically cut the cost of health provision - thanks to IoT-powered preventative intervention (with sensors flagging up health problems before they become a crisis) and emergency care (alerting services when a person requires urgent support).

4 Mobile devices & computers

IFA 2015 had its share of new smartphones, tablets, laptops and PCs, although some companies either pre-empted the show (Samsung, for instance, with its Note 5 and Galaxy S6 edge+) or kept their powder dry for CES in Vegas and Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next year.

There were plenty of new form factors for computers to be seen, from Toshiba’s convertible 12.5in laptop (the Satellite Radius 12) with a touchscreen that flips over to turn into a tablet-like device, to new tablets from Taiwan’s Acer and Asus, and Chinese smartphone makers like Huawei.

However, while traditional computers may be struggling to keep a role in our homes, that’s probably just because a lot of our computing power is shifting to other devices. And just as smartphones and tablets are becoming ever more important devices for media consumption, they are also set to secure their role as the ultimate IoT device. In fact, they already are IoT devices themselves - with sensors, connectivity, storage and powerful microprocessors.

5 TV as a Smart Platform

Don’t get too excited about the rise of tablets and smartphones: the television is not, if these large tech companies are to be believed, dead. In most countries the humble TV continues to represent the centre for our entertainment, even for younger generations.

What will future-proof the TV’s status in our homes, however, may not be the size or shape of its display, but its underlying smarts. The televisions shown in Berlin are powerful computers, and many can soon act as a home’s main IoT hub.

Right now, smartphones may still be the easier control centre - but that may leave just one person in control of the Smart Home. That’s why TVs may well evolve to become the main IoT hub of many homes, especially once manufacturers have improved the voice and gesture control interfaces of TVs.

Another thing is certain: today’s TV trend is to go curved and as thin as possible. LG even had one that was bendy and wafer thin, glued to the wall just like wallpaper. That’s the future, said the chief executive of LG Display Sang-Beom Han during his opening keynote at IFA.

“We are now living in an era of displays,” he said. “Through displays, we share information. Through displays, we communicate. Through displays, we look into the future and dream about it.”

6 Windows 10

For the first time Microsoft had a formal presence at IFA, and Nick Parker, Microsoft’s corporate VP for OEM hardware, used the opportunity to deliver a keynote to show off many new devices powered by the new Windows 10 platform.

While the success of Windows 10 is important to Microsoft, for the wider industry this will be a proof of concept whether one operating system can indeed work across the full technology spectrum. If Microsoft can prove that Windows 10 is indeed the operating system that can power personal computers, servers, mobile phones, tablets, and - most importantly - embedded and IoT devices, it will have a profound impact on the platform’s ecosystem of apps and services.

7 Industrialisation 4.0

IFA is often seen as a consumer show, but it has a huge B2B element. Just as in the consumer sector, much of the innovation here is also driven by the IoT, and even more so. 

This is not just about smarter manufacturing or better supply-chain management. Companies have to consider how powerful the integration of data from the enterprise and customers can be. Data gathered from personal IoT devices can provide a crucial, comprehensive underpinning of public infrastructure and enterprise services. In turn, data generated by the industrial Internet can enable key IoT services for consumers. This year, IFA scratched only the surface of what’s possible, but already the potential is obvious.

8 Cars

Unlike CES and MWC, there weren’t many car manufacturers at IFA - except they were visible everywhere. While even most of Germany’s car giants have not hired exhibition space at the trade show, they were prominent at the stands of their many partners in the electronics industry. It’s clear that the car is gradually becoming a primary user interface for the IoT - both in how it connects with smart homes and the smart city infrastructure around us.

One carmaker that was at the show - BMW - showed off new solutions for its ‘connected car’. Using apps such as the iOS-based Smart Home app from Deutsche Telekom and the Android-based Samsung SmartThings app, which both can be integrated with a BMW i3 or any other vehicle with BMW’s ConnectedDrive Services, it is possible to operate functions inside smart houses right from your car. For example, you’d be able to control your heating, check whether doors and windows are locked and whether the burglar alarm is activated - while driving miles away from home. The notifications come straight to your dashboard.

9 Service as a platform

The most important learning from IFA 2015 should be the emergence of services as key drivers of innovation. Hardware - especially in the mobile space - is becoming increasingly commoditised, with Chinese manufacturers pushing hard into the market, offering cheap and well-designed products.

The differentiator - and the value add - are services. All companies, whether consumer-facing or in the business-to-business sector, will have to watch events like IFA and CES carefully, to spot IoT trends early that might affect them. Even better, they may want to think beyond their current product range and explore what kind of IoT services their own systems could support. Moving now caters to the all-important early adopters, and provides the road test that’s necessary to make them robust and user-friendly enough for broader market roll-out.

10 Cloud Computing and Big Data

At the end of the day, the IoT isn’t really about things. As most technology companies are at pains to stress, it’s about humans - and about building technology that proactively helps us live our lives with more ease.

Having said that, the IoT is really about something else: huge volumes of data that are analysed not where the user is, but by computers in the cloud.

This Big Data analytics, powered by algorithms, machine learning and today’s immature Artificial Intelligence systems, could truly transform our world. It’s here where the real ‘smarts’ happen.

Ultimately, the devices shown at IFA are not truly ‘smart’. Instead, they are our user interfaces and first entry points into the smart world of what we now quaintly call ‘the Internet of Things’.

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