From Mary Poppins to Merlin, coming to your home soon

Or in technology terms, is the Internet of Things anything less than magic? I was explaining the concept of the Internet of Things to some friends, successful business people who only embrace technology once it’s matured and has slipped invisibly into their daily routine. Examples include ABS braking systems on a car, mobile phones, more latterly the Internet, but not as yet Google Glasses. I used the admittedly tired example of home automation and the intelligent fridge, with the recent acquisition of Nest by Google to justify the existence of a market ready for mass adoption. ‘Just like Mary Poppins then’ said my friend.

And of course it could be. Imagine voice-activated, servo-controlled cupboards and drawers in the bedroom, and how much easier it would be to tidy. On the command “Socks”, the correct drawer would slide open as if by magic. Given RFID technology on the socks, I may even be able to track the location of odd pairs in my son’s bedroom using a smartphone app. In fact with directional magnetic technology, on the command “Tidy All”, all the cupboards would flip open. Socks, shirts and shoes would fly off the floor into the opening cupboards and drawers which would then close with a satisfying thud.

We struggled for a while to understand the business case for a refrigerator that could automatically re-order food items as stocks became low, but the idea of analyzing the content of your fridge from the dashboard of your car seemed even more far-fetched. Then there was the question of what happens when one returns home after a teenage son has had friends around. This plague of locusts zoom through a kitchen and anything edible disappears in an instant. Wouldn’t it be good, if on your way home, you were alerted that your refrigerator is not only low, but entirely empty?

In fact, shouldn’t there be an app where we can predict the hoard of teenage locusts approaching? Perhaps some clustering-and-flow analysis based on the smartphone GPS data feeds, with a predictive analytic as to the likely number, their trajectory and estimated time of arrival. Not only could we have a real-time inventory of food in the kitchen from whichever far and distant point on the globe to which we’ve retreated, but the app could, based on previous plagues, predict how much bread, cheese, ham, pizza, crisps, biscuits, cakes, baked beans – you get the picture – would be required. An order could be placed in real-time with the local supermarket, with a little extra for “emergency delivery”, and the delivery van would arrive just before the crowd descends.

It’s easy at this point to make the leap of imagination to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Electrical glitches causing cupboards to open at random and spew out their contents rather than collect, and a sea of food arriving in waves due to a bug in the app, or more likely, some teenagers who have worked out how to spoof their location. Yet the interesting question here is at what point does some of this technology become sufficiently useful on a mass scale to reach the tipping point of being invisible in our everyday life.

There are many areas within the rubric of the Internet of Things where this is happening today. Transportation systems and traffic congestion for example, where stop lights, speed signs and lane configurations can be changed dynamically based on current and predicted traffic flow. Telematics systems make vehicle-to-vehicle communication possible, warning other vehicles of ice or adverse road conditions ahead. IT architectures and systems within what’s referred to as the Industrial Internet are changing pace, making possible real-time and centralized control of remote plant and manufacturing processes.

Perhaps the consumer market for wearables and home automation has some way to go, with more innovation required in order to drive apps capable of invisibility and therefore market maturity. Health monitoring applications are an obvious win, although they have been around from before the Internet of Things was coined, and have not yet emerged as a defined market. As for the intelligent fridge, I’ll keep checking the milk each morning for the time being.