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part one: internet of things

Nike Plus running shoes, shot Oct. 10, 2006.

Hopping into a new (and rather upscale) vehicle for a road trip last week, I was met with an unsettling realization: The trickiest thing about getting a feel for a new car these days isn't the handling or the responsiveness of the brakes, it's how to work its computer system.

The car had not one, but two monitors that controlled the audio-visual system, the cruise control, the odometer, the rear-facing camera that assisted with reversing. On the rear-view mirror, I could see the controls for the OnStar roadside-assistance service. It was nice to know my journey would be followed by not one, but two corporations: OnStar, in the car, and Apple, talking to the phone in my pocket.

The car, in other words, had become more than just a car. The inner workings of vehicles have long been computerized, now the user is starting to interact with the machine as a piece of consumer electronics. Nor is it just a gadget: It's a gadget that's linked to global information networks that know where it is, and can send instructions to it: OnStar, among other tricks, can talk to certain cars' internal networks, and slow them down in case of theft.

In its own way, the car has been woven into the Internet. It's just one example of how an idea that's been waiting on the sidelines for more than a decade is quickly becoming real: The Internet of Things.

First coined in 1999, the term represents the idea that Internet connectivity might spread beyond the devices we've traditionally used – computers, laptops, and now smartphones. Objects that have been more inert than interactive are starting to talk back to the Internet. Things such as cars, shoes, picture frames, books, credit cards, pieces of merchandise and whole houses would become aware of their status and surroundings, feeding information back to users about their location, contents and status.

A decade ago, the idea seemed distant. Today, the Internet of Things is starting to work its way into reality. It's not arriving as a single technology, or as a master-planned advance. In practice, the concept manifests itself in different ways, some high-tech, others surprisingly down-to-earth.

What's most important, though, is that consumers are slowly but surely getting used to this kind of behaviour. And as technologies such as near-field communications work their way into popular cellphones, the pervasive Internet is only going to get more common. To get a sense of what's going on, consider some familiar (and not-so-familiar) examples of how the Internet of Things is becoming real:

Existing networks

Now that wireless networks are ubiquitous – whether they're wi-fi or cell-tower based – objects that sense their state and independently talk back are becoming ubiquitous too. Even at the low end of the printer market – can you imagine a more pedestrian area of technology? – wi-fi-enabled devices are common. Digital picture frames use wi-fi to update themselves. The Nike+ running shoe, which contains a sensor that sends information about your running pace to your Apple iPod, is another example.

Scanned codes

The Internet of Things was originally envisioned as relying on radio-frequency ID chips (or RFID tags) implanted in objects. But QR codes, those blocky, cellphone-scannable barcodes that are so frequently seen – and about which so much has been written – are actually a primitive way of achieving the same thing. A QR code links a real thing to the information world, and every single object can have a distinct code. Today you can tell the provenance of each individual bag of coffee, based on a code inexpensively printed on each bag. In a way, the result is a "smart" coffee bag.


QR codes might prove to be a transitional technology. The new standard, which is just reaching the mass market today, is called NFC: near-field communications. An implementation of the radio-frequency tags that sparked the Internet of Things idea, NFC provides a way for a device like a smartphone to wirelessly read information from a tag on an object, just by being in close proximity to the tag. This opens up a world of possibilities for tracking inventory, and for giving consumers a painless way to learn more about a product. NFC is also being touted as a payment tool, turning smartphones into virtual wallets that can be tapped against reader devices. (We'll examine NFC more closely in a follow-up installment in this series.)

The Internet of Things isn't a monolith – there won't be a single technology that ties everything together. But businesses that understand that consumers are prepared to find data everywhere in the real world, in one form or another, will be the ones best prepared to catch them.

Oct. 31: NFC is here. What's its potential?

Special to The Globe and Mail

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