Connecting trees, vending machines and even cows to the internet must be a crazy idea of the future that surely won't happen, right?
Sarah Eccleston, director for enterprise networks and IoT (Internet of Things) at Cisco UK and Ireland, gave an interesting talk at the 2014 Synaxon Conference today, where she explored the impact that the Internet of Things and connected devices could have on our lives and businesses in the next few years.
There are 13 billion connected devices at the moment - from smartphones to TVs, tablets and more - but this figure is set to grow to 50 billion by 2020. We already know this is a growing sector and is receiving funding, but what tangible examples are there that can illustrate how IoT will really affect our world?
Eccleston talked about several examples - including connected cars, which will be able to tell a dealership or manufacturer where a driver has driven to that day, and when, or if another driver is in control - it can tell where they're going separately.
IoT can also be used to improve business. For example, connect a vending machine to the internet and a delivery van. The machine will know when Mars bars are getting low in the machine and will instruct the van's driver to top it up. The machine can track the amount sold per product - and identify which areas are more popular in terms of Mars bar sales.
Eccleston says in this way IoT can cut out inefficiency and help businesses boost their bottom line. Mars currently sell 91 million bars per month - with this technology they could greatly increase that number.
Then there's the health sector. Wire up a patient to the internet and it will be able to track them if they develop a complication or fall over for example, or even identify early symptoms from a serious issue such as a heart attack, and contact a connected ambulance to drive there before it has happened.
Additionally, IoT can be used to make us greener. Street lights could be connected to the internet, as could waste bins, which could send data to the local authority to help them better manage them more efficiently.
We can even connect cows, soil or trees to the internet using special sensor devices. Although these aren't currently mainstream, in the near future they very well could be. These could track data to instruct the farmer on when to harvest crops, or water the ground, or let them know when a cow is ready for milking or if it has health issues or irregular sleeping patterns, so a vet could help the cow earlier.
What about the logistics of all this? Well, companies can now analyse 1bn pieces of data in about one second. And poor internet services are not an issue, as a connected cow might only need to upload data once every ten minutes for example, so it won't require high speed internet.
One question around IoT that still remains is around ethics. What's to stop someone from hacking a health monitor or driverless car to cause serious damage? Ecclestone admits this is an area that needs looking at, and Cisco is working with organisations and the Government to ensure IoT is "used and not abused".
In terms of retail sales in stores, a retailer could track a customer's shopping patterns by connecting to their smartphone to see where they are in store, what they're looking at and how long they've been browsing. Shop staff could print out a £10 off voucher for a particular product the customer is looking at - if they buy it in the next 20 minutes or so, for example.
But what about monetising IoT? Ecclestone says we can't do this alone - an IoT ecosystem must be built, with resellers able to be the partner and sell the solution to the customer. This will be tied in to managed services. For example, home owners will be able to pay per wash in the future, instead of buying one washing machine until it breaks down, then buying another. The manufacturer will replace the washing machine as part of a service plan.
While we're probably a little way off IoT and connected devices becoming the norm, examples listed by Eccleston clearly show we're moving down a path towards Internet of Things very fast - and thinking about how your business can get involved sooner rather than later may be a smart move.