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The Smart Revolution

How ordinary objects will go digital and change the way we live

In just a few decades, the way we live has been completely transformed, thanks to Internet technology. We now shop, date, work, play, and learn — all online. In an even briefer period, mobile technology has allowed us to perform these activities not only at home but also while on the go. This transformation has brought some challenges as well as conveniences, but the impact of the shift cannot be denied.

An even bigger change is on the way. In the coming years, more and more objects will be equipped with sensors that will enable them to join the digital conversation. Your toaster will communicate with the refrigerator, which will communicate with your smartphone, which will communicate with the air controls in your home, which will adjust themselves based on your habits and activities. Cars will be equipped to keep you safer, outdoor sensors will help make the air cleaner, and your baby's onesie will let you know if anything is amiss. And that's just the beginning. Some researchers predict that by 2020 there will be 50 billion connected objects—about seven times more than people on the planet.

The Smart Revolution, otherwise known as the Internet of Things (IoT) is expected to have profound impact. It will help cities (where 70 percent of the population is expected to live by 2050) function better; make education more effective; improve safety, health, and privacy; and save us money. As with all revolutions, it may not be smooth or linear, but it should be fascinating.

We've prepared this special section to help you understand what to expect from the Smart Revolution. You'll read about the brief history of the IoT, learn what types of things will become connected, explore smart trends that are already happening, and discover how energy distribution will change to accommodate these new connections.

Welcome to the Internet of Things

According to Cisco, the Internet of Things (IoT) began in 2010, when the number of things (PCs, tablets, smartphones, and other devices) connected to the Internet (12.5 billion) was larger than the number of people on the planet (6.8 billion). The IoT is defined as a collection of unique objects represented and connected virtually. This means that ordinary objects —such as refrigerators, garbage cans, and clothing—will be identified with electronic tags that will allow them to send information to other devices, enabling people to interact with the objects in helpful ways. For example, a "smart" refrigerator might send information to your smartphone about what's inside, so you can do a grocery run on the way home from work without having to go home to check what's running low.

The concept of a ubiquitously connected world isn't new. In 1926, inventor, engineer, and futurist Nikola Tesla said in an interview for Colliers magazine, "When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain." Initial use of the term "Internet of Things" in 1999 is attributed to Kevin Ashton, cofounder of the Auto-ID Labs, which conduct research on the IoT and which helped to develop the Electronic Product Code (EPC) identification system. (Other IoT tagging technologies include radio-frequency identification, near field communication, barcodes, QR codes, and digital watermarking.)

Currently, the IoT concept is being played out primarily in homes and businesses to enable individuals and companies to remotely control devices such as thermostats and lights within buildings. This ability increases convenience and decreases electric costs. However, the IoT is capable of much more. Cisco projects that by 2015 there will be 25 billion Internet-connected objects, and by 2020 there will be 50 billion, representing around seven times the number of people on the planet.

Benefits of a Connected World

The IoT will offer a wide range of benefits. Here are a few outcomes we can all look forward to:

Get Ready for Smart Everything

Your smartphone can tell you the weather, help you shop, keep you connected with family and friends, and distract you with a game of Angry Birds. That's pretty smart! But the devices we carry around are just the beginning of the smart revolution. Soon objects that we wear, drive, and use every day will be smart enough to communicate with each other to make us even more informed, connected, productive, and entertained. Here are some examples of smart objects already being developed:

Baby Onesies
Yes, you read right. Sensors built into a baby onesie can monitor a baby's respiratory rate, body temperature, heart rate, and activity level, and send the data to your or your health care provider's smartphone.

Cars
Automobiles can be equipped with devices to monitor many aspects of their operation including speed, distance from other cars, and times of day that the car is driven. This information can be used by insurance companies to offer good drivers a discount on insurance.

Clothing
Smart clothing includes a wide variety of functions such as shirts that monitor heart rate, pants that detect motion, jackets that light up, and gloves that enable you to use a touch screen without taking them off.

Coffee Cups
Manufacturers are currently working on technologies that can enable coffee cups to show different colors, numbers, or letters to indicate customer orders at coffee shops, or when the contents change temperature or need to be refilled.

Contact Lenses
Google enters yet another domain—health care—as it explores the development of contact lenses that measure glucose levels to help diabetics monitor their condition. The device operates using a tiny wireless chip and glucose sensor.

Glasses
Google Glass allows wearers to perform many of the functions found on a smartphone, including using GPS, taking photos, filming videos, sending messages, finding answers, and translating between languages.

Homes
A variety of electronic systems allow homeowners to remotely monitor and control different parts of their home including thermostats, garage doors, and water. The systems include cameras and sensors, which send information to a cloud-based interface.

Watches
Manufacturers are producing watches that run apps like a smartphone, provide only essential notifications, or perform one function such as monitoring the wearer's time in the sun. These watches have been criticized for being bulky and unattractive so newer models focus on form as well as function.

LG showcased HomeChat during the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show. Appliances equipped with HomeChat can communicate via text, using natural speech for commands and notifications. For example, you can send a text asking, "What are you doing?" to your dishwasher, and it will reply, telling you where it is in the wash cycle.

Smart Grid is Electricity Distribution 2.0

Like most things that will soon become smart, the electrical grid, otherwise known as "the Grid," already exists. The Grid is the network that delivers electricity from providers to homes and businesses. You've likely seen many components of the Grid in your community including the power lines that carry electricity, the substations that convert it, and the dams that create it.

The current U.S. Grid was originally built in the 1890s, and has been upgraded as technology has advanced. However, the technology the Grid is supporting—all our digital devices—has advanced as well, and its needs are starting to outgrow the current system.

The Smart Grid differs from the current Grid in that it allows two-way communication between electricity providers and customers to more efficiently regulate electricity transmission. Like the current Grid, the Smart Grid will consist of a number of components including controls, computers, and equipment. Parts of the Smart Grid are already in place; others will be installed in the coming years. Some of the benefits of the Smart Grid, according to SmartGrid.gov, are listed below:

Smart Homes Save Money and More

One key element of the Smart Grid will be smart homes—that is, homes that generate electricity on their own. Methods include rooftop solar systems, wind turbines, hydropower, and home fuel cell systems that produce power from natural gas. The Smart Grid will connect all these sources with controls and meters to regulate power flow. In emergencies, neighbors will be able to "borrow" power from each other if needed, until standard power sources can be restored.

The Smart Grid also includes smart appliances, which will be operable from a remote location. For example, you could turn on your air conditioning from work. These appliances will also adjust energy use based on information from the Smart Grid, such as a dishwasher that delays running a cycle until it senses that system-wide energy use is low.

Smart Trends to Watch for in the Next Five Years

The Internet of Things (IoT) and the Smart Revolution may seem like great ideas, but more like science fiction than reality. And it's true that some ideas haven't been as fully explored as others; for example, Google Glass is still in the experimental phase. Here are a few of the trends that industry experts see growing in the next one to five years:

TV
A smart TV is a TV that incorporates Internet services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video. A recent Forbes article predicted "explosive growth" in this industry in 2014.

Commerce
Physical and online commerce will merge with new technologies. For example, when you walk into a store searching for a specific item, your smartphone can search the inventory available and make recommendations based on your past preferences.

Fingerprint Security
Currently Apple is using Touch ID, a fingerprint recognition feature, in the iPhone 5s. Apple may soon integrate this technology into its other products and competing companies may do the same. Fingerprint security can be used for other purposes as well, including home security systems.

3D Printing
3D printing is the creation of a usable 3D object based on a digital model. It's similar to printing on paper, but adds layers to form various shapes. 3D printers have been widely available since around 2010, and are likely to proliferate in coming years, especially as prices continue to drop.

Education
What does the Smart Revolution look like in classrooms? For one thing, it will mean student and teacher tablets that are all interconnected so research, communication, and collaboration can happen in real time. Progress can be closely monitored, tracked, and corrected as each student moves from grade to grade.

Watches
Smart watches perform many of the same functions as smartphones, but on a smaller scale, with a miniature screen, and limited versions of apps. For example, you may be able to get text notifications, but still have to use your phone to actually send a text message. This technology is expected to evolve quickly in the next few years.

Social Gaming
Forbes also predicts that "the new gaming consoles (Xbox One and PS4) will increasingly integrate social media-like connectivity between players." These systems will also allow players to easily switch between different activities such as TV, gaming, and sports.

Car manufacturers are currently testing safety features such as vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication to help reduce traffic accidents.

Get Smart About the Smart Revolution

The unfolding of the Internet of Things (IoT) and the Smart Revolution raises many questions about how these technologies will work, the benefits and downsides, and how our lives will change. Some experts have even questioned whether the Smart Revolution will happen at all. A number of useful resources are available to help navigate these questions and prepare for the "next big thing." Here are a few to get you started:

The Internet of Things ToolKit (postscapes.com/internet-of-things-resources/)
This site provides a plethora of information and resources related to the IoT. You'll find links to books, articles, websites, blogs, white papers, and much more. Topics include general information, research, business, design, tech/DIY, issues, and philosophy. This website is a great place to start to learn more about the IoT.

A Brief History of the Internet of Things (postscapes.com/internet-of-things-history)
Check out this fascinating timeline to learn about early thinkers who envisioned the IoT and the technological innovations that made it possible. Highlights include initial Internet milestones, some of the first connected objects, and the moment at which the IoT is said to have begun.

SmartGrid.gov (smartgrid.gov/the_smart_grid)
Did you know the U.S. is in the process of modernizing its electricity transmission and distribution system? Visit this site to learn all about it. You can read about the Smart Grid, smart homes, renewable energy, and related topics. Many sections include helpful videos for a quick overview.

Forbes (forbes.com/search/?q=internet+of+things)
Explore this section of Forbes' website to get a business perspective on the IoT. Recent topics include innovations at the Consumer Electronics Show, Google's purchase of Nest (a home regulation system that operates partly based on occupant behavior), and regulation for smart devices.

TheSmarterCity (www-03.ibm.com/innovation/us/thesmartercity/index.html)
IBM develops technologies to help cities become smarter; this site provides an overview of how they work. Use the interactive graphics to browse the smart systems including education, rail, traffic, public safety, and airports. Each section includes a series of videos to walk you through the topic.

Council (theinternetofthings.eu/)
Council is an organization that follows, forecasts, and advises on the IoT. Its website lists thought-provoking articles on such topics as what the IoT is, what role humans will play, where it is in development, and how big it will be.

The term "M2M" means wired or wireless machine-to-machine communication.