Original Post Date: September 30, 2015

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a network of things (people, objects, animals, etc) that can share data without human to human or human to machine interactions.  A ‘thing’ in the IoT represents any object that can be assigned an IP address and can transfer data over a network.  Examples of such objects include an animal with a microchip embedded in its collar to monitor health or for easy location, a person wearing an activity tracker, a person with a medical implant that communicates health conditions to a hospital or health care professional, a ring one wears on their finger that allows them to control home appliances with physical gestures, a robot controlled by computer commands, sensors which send data to a control tower, and the list goes on.  The concept has arisen over the last several decades as the Internet has become an essential ingredient in so many aspects of life.  The first Internet appliance surfaced in the early 80’s at Carnegie Mellon University in the form of a Coke machine that programmers could access via the Internet to determine whether or not the drink they desired was currently available.  While in its early inceptions, the IoT was primarily made up of machine to machine interactions,  the introduction of mobile technologies, and more recently wearable technologies has accelerated the ways in which the Internet of Things can change the way the world works.

Most of us have been exposed to some form of wearable technology but it may be surprising to learn that in 2014, 10 million wearable devices (such as smartwatches and fitness trackers) were sold. In theory, wearable technologies take the things we already wear and use technology to make them more useful (though some of the more fashion conscious among us might take exception to someone thinking that the Google® Glass device resembles anything they were already wearing). 

Wearable technology is really just a new incarnation of smartphone technology where the smartphone (or tablet or other device) has been replaced with something that resides on your person, with the added potential that wearable technology can go places that our more ‘archaic’ mobile devices would never fit and can contain sensors that collect data wherever they go. It seems pretty clear that most widely publicized uses of wearable technology to date have been centered on personal rather than business uses, but it is somewhat staggering to think of the possibilities as this concept is applied to business, healthcare, community services or other industry applications.

Imagine for a moment you are in the hospital.  Instead of a clipboard, your doctor approaches your bed wearing her Google® Glass (or comparable) device.  She scans a bar code on your bed or on your hospital bracelet and all the information she needs to know about your condition, recent medications, whether or not you slept well, etc. is available right in front of her eyes. It might even be a case that your hospital bracelet also contains technology so it can sync with her device, eliminating even the scan of a bar code.  The typical medical chart (one potential area for introducing human error in the process) could be replaced with much more reliable forms of data sharing.  Another very interesting application of wearable technology currently being worked on in a Google® lab is a contact lens with very tiny sensors to test the glucose level of the wearer.  When (if) this research is successful, it could offer an incredible improvement in health monitoring for diabetic patients.  Surgeons have started using Google Glass as a means for recording and archiving their surgeries – both for retrospectives and to use to help train new surgeons.

Another area where wearable technologies should be hugely useful revolves around consumer endeavors.  When I go to Barnes and Noble and can’t find the book I’m looking for I first need to track down a sales associate who generally leads me to a location in the store where the terminals are located.  Once he or she has located the book and determined that it is in stock – they then lead me to the proper locations.  This process would certainly be facilitated if sales people could check a Google Glass type device or a Smartwatch to find the required information more quickly.  But this application of wearable technology is certainly not going to change the way consumer business is accomplished.  A more interesting application would be the situation where I have a Barnes and Noble app on my wearable device that keeps track of my previously purchased books and possibly my wish list.  This app is also potentially aware of books or topics that I have recently searched for on the internet.  When I enter the store, my app syncs up with the stores app and a sales person who ‘knows’ me and my interests is dispatched to guide me to the proper sections of the store.  I leave a happy customer who feels loved and understood.  In reality, this is just an extension of the capability we are already used to where websites such as Barnes and Nobles and Amazon suggest to us what purchases may be of interest to us but it highlights the kinds of things that wearable technology enables.

A further application of wearable technology for us to ponder.  Imagine a world where passports are no longer required.  Your eye, or fingerprint or palm print becomes your identification.  Further imagine that you have a wearable device that knows where you are and has been informed (by you) as to where you are going.  Information about train schedules, platforms and delays are delivered to this device guiding you to your destination.  As you walk the streets of a new city, information is made available to you as to the sites of interest you are passing along with information about a museums hours or admittance costs. When you check into your hotel in Paris, not speaking a word of French, your device (via a cool translation app you installed before your trip) will translate for you – completely smoothing the check in process. 

It’s possible that you already have a mobile device that does many of the things mentioned early, but not all.  Wearable technology is more portable than many mobile devices.  It also integrates mobile application capabilities with much better understanding of environmental conditions.  Your mobile phone may be able to determine when you are in a store and download a coupon or advise you of a sale in the store, but it’s not likely to inform a salesperson of why you are there and what help you might need.  Your mobile phone can report results from your activity tracker but it doesn’t necessarily know your heart rate, how far you walked and how well you slept last night.  Wearable technology represents the next generation of mobile technologies and should be a catalyst for the burgeoning Internet of Things.

There is of course another side to the Internet of Things and wearable technologies.  To some this notion will undoubtedly feel like the next generation application of big data to facilitate further intrusions into one’s personal space.  And indeed the IoT takes us further down the path of Big Brother watching our every move.  But remember, as with all technologies. There is always an off switch (though it may not always be easy to find).  Apps can’t collect your data without your permission and every wise consumer of internet technology owes it to themselves to understand what data is being collected and what organizations intend to do with that data.  Human’s success as ‘things’ in the Internet of Things relies on humans to use it wisely and with awareness of the implications.