Chances are you've heard about the Internet of Things (IoT) or you will soon enough. The term carries a number of definitions. But in general, the IoT refers to uniquely identifiable objects, such as corporate assets or consumer goods, and their virtual representations in an Internet-like structure.
The idea of the IoT first became popular through the Auto-ID Center, a non-profit collaboration of private companies and academic institutions that pioneered the development of a Web-like infrastructure for tracking goods around the world through the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags carrying Electronic Product Codes.
The centre closed operations in 2003 and EPCGlobal was created to continue the effort to commercialize EPC technology, and the center's research is carried on today by Auto-ID Labs at various universities worldwide.
While RFID is often seen as a prerequisite for the IoT, the concept includes Web-enabling virtually any type of product or machinery so that data about the object can be captured and communicated.
In effect, these networked things become "smart objects" that can become part of the Internet and active participants in business processes.
Current or potential examples of the IoT include a vast array of objects: fleets of trucks, medical equipment, vending machines, construction equipment, gas and electric meters, thermostats, household appliances, advertising display signs, and many others.
How tangible is the IoT today?
"It's definitely real," says Daniel Castro, senior analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based research and educational institute. "The IoT is taking off because we have ubiquitous connectivity, low-cost sensors, and microelectronics that allow almost anything to be connected to the Internet."
The concept used to be foreign to many, "and trying to explain how 'things' could be part of the Internet took quite a bit of imagination," Castro says. "But now consumers are used to seeing this every day."
For example, Castro says, ZipCar lets people rent a car by the hour, but this is only possible because the car's usage and reservation system is tracked online.
"RedBox lets you do the same thing for DVDs," he says. "There are other examples from smart meters for electricity, to parking meters that you can pay for online, to augmented reality using mobile phones that all are starting to combine the physical with the virtual."