Connection is the way of the future

2015-01-06 08:53

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Networking fever has broken out at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Everything from toothbrushes to cars are collecting data that’s linked to networks and databases.

Supporters say consumers will like it when they start to experience potentially beneficial services. Critics wonder how the data really will be used.

Pool thermometers. Toothbrushes. Insulin pumps. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the message is clear: everything, absolutely everything, is getting connected.

From snowboards, footballs 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 the electronics show Unveiled preshow, where throngs of start-ups and bit players present their new ideas before the main show opens today.

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 the world’s largest consumer electronics show is catching networking fever, Shawn DuBravac, chief economist and researcher at the show’s 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 the electronics show, only to flop with consumers.

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

“The use case for the remaining 96% 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 recognise 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 analysing 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 that 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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