The Internet of Things

How sensors change the sharing of information

By Gabriela Ehrlich

At CES (Consumer Electronics Show) a group of experts met and shared some of the opportunities and hurdles facing the Internet of Things in the consumer space. This is a short summary of their discussion.

Wireless smart Gluco-Monitory System 2
Physical objects, such as this glucose monitoring device make use of sensors and actuators to link with each other through wireless networks (Photo:iHealth)

Information pathways are changing

Until recently information was harvested from public sources, the Internet or purchased from information suppliers. But the predictable pathways of how information is gathered, stored and shared are changing. The physical world itself is becoming an information system.

In what is called the Internet of Things, sensors and actuators embedded in physical objects from streets to blood pressure monitors are linked through wireless networks. These networks produce huge amounts of data.

Connected devices that are able to sense their environment and share that information whenever needed or useful become tools that constantly provide feedback enabling instant and on-going adjustments. Many of these systems work and communicate without the intervention of any human being.


With it manufacturing processes can be precisely and fully controlled, removing hazards that can cause damage or delays, optimizing the use of infrastructure and reducing overall cost. Farmers are able to monitor the development of their cultures at a distance and programme fully automated watering or fertilizing cycles.

…and consumer applications

But increasingly the Internet of Things permeates also our everyday lives through connected and smart devices. Here too, the aim is to increase efficiency, reduce cost but also to improve our health and well-being.

Already, pill-shaped microcameras travel through the human digestive system and send back images that provide better disease diagnostics, or help us optimize our workout to avoid injuries. Today nearly anything can be analyzed and used to develop and deliver services or products. In Japan, interactive screens capture the profile of a passer-by (i.e. young male or mature woman) and instantly deliver messages or special offers they are likely to be receptive to.

At CES a group of experts sat together to analyze the future development in this space and the hurdles and challenges that need to be overcome.

Cloud or not?

One of the first topics of discussion focused on the notion of cloud-based data information and sharing. Experts agreed that use cases must drive solutions; all agreed that the notion that everything has to be in the cloud makes no sense. The need not the tool should drive decision. In reality the consumer doesn’t care where information is processed, they want functionality that meets their expectations. Also, most consumers don’t want another service provider in their life, they don’t want to spend money on another subscription fee. Theirs are value decisions and they will drive convergence of services wherever it will make sense.

Add value or die

Today most services are delivered in silos through proprietary gateways. There is currently no technology available that is able to aggregate services from different suppliers to deliver them in a way that optimally satisfies consumer needs. All experts believed that in the next 4 to 5 years there will be increasing convergence of such services via common gateways or the cloud. Functionality together with design will drive consumer decisions and if a service or device doesn’t add value, consumers will simply not go for it.

User friendliness above all

The experts also felt strongly that the usual IT paradigm will not work in this space. Any services and devices will need to be highly consumer friendly... suppliers will need to figure out ways to keep things very simple and leave the complexity in the cloud.

Privacy, security and trust

The experts felt that the biggest problem facing the Internet of Things in the consumer space will not be the communication between devices or the collection and ability to share data but rather obtaining permission to access and use that data. The end game will be getting all this data from the consumers by earning their trust and providing sufficient incentive for them to allow a company to develop value-add services based on that data. To illustrate this one expert mentioned a study that was undertaken by a University to verify water consumption in a community. The study found that simple changes in water pressure allowed to predict daily routines and conclude on how and when water was used (i.e. baths vs showers), also providing feedback on the potential number of occupants in a given household. The local water utility heard about the study and asked to get access to that data, because it could have been very useful in predicting water consumption patterns in that community. The dilemma: who owns the data? Is the University that ran the study allowed to share private data of the tenants that were monitored? All of this is not technology driven, it is permission driven.

At the end of the day consumers will need to feel that they get a real benefit when they share their data. There is a future for so-called data anonymization companies that will agglomerate similar data removing individual user profiles.

The emergence of standards

The IEC through ISO/IEC JTC (Joint Technical Committee) 1: Information Technology, has created two SWGs (Special Working Groups) on the Management and Internet of Things. The aim is to identify market requirements and standardization gaps.

However, even though not everything is yet standardized in this space, the experts at CES felt that even if a manufacturer bet on the wrong horse, since often solutions and analytics stay the same, they can switch at a later point. They also mentioned that many appliances are already smart and connected and that such connectivity is only getting cheaper.

In reality the innovation cycle is never finished. Manufacturers will always need to try to open new revenue streams through innovative data analysis. Consumers will increasingly contribute to the creation of services and devices by providing feedback on the next functionally they want.

The total benefit will only be achieved once everything is connected and that takes stamina and long-term investment. Only those will survive who best translate consumer needs and wants.

Standards developers will need to be responsive to the market and they also need to develop solutions that will be stable in the long run.

Protecting against cyberthreats

As regards privacy and security, one expert, Marc Rogers, principal research analyst at mobile security firm Lookout, said that dealing with these "aspects of the Internet of Things is going to be one of the biggest challenges we have faced in security for a long time."

The security risks were highlighted when it was revealed that more than 750 000 malicious emails had been sent from over 100 000 smart devices, including a refrigerator, over the holiday period, according to Proofpoint Security, a Silicon Valley-based cybersecurity company.

IDC, a research firm, predicts that more than 200 billion items will be connected to the Internet by 2020. With so many connected devices the potential for cyber-attacks is huge.

Companies that produce smart devices will have to ensure these provide a good degree of protection from cybercrime for consumers. The latter will also need to take security seriously, as computer users should do.

Wireless smart Gluco-Monitory System 2 Physical objects, such as this glucose monitoring device make use of sensors and actuators to link with each other through wireless networks (Photo:iHealth)
iStock_000020193425Large New services and devices will need to be highly intuitive and consumer friendly.
9402786_m One of the biggest challenges facing the Internet of Things is obtaining permission to access and use data.