OH, 'THE INTERNET OF THINGS'. You're probably fed up with hearing about it. And that's quite possibly because the term is thrown around now more than ever by the likes of, well, everyone and anyone regardless of whether they understand what it is or not.
The phrase is muttered from the mouths of industry experts and technology company execs at every turn, described as an easy way to bundle a multitude of developments currently taking place in the technology industry - especially wearables - under a throw-away buzzword. But one thing hasn't changed: the Internet of Things, or IoT, is still pretty vague in terms of what it means, constitutes and can do.
The IoT is a convoluted and intricate network of ideas, sensors, data and devices, and it's quite possible that its hype has outgrown what it actually stands for - which in itself is rather indistinct ('Things'? Oh yes, those).
These days, people use the phrase to describe anything that is connected to the internet, and almost every technology company, from startups to the big players (think ARM, Cisco, Intel), has made it a substantial focus and part of their business strategy.
As a result, no-one really knows what the IoT is anymore, because it is just everything in a technological sense. The all-encompassing trend that is the IoT might not even be called the IoT for long; it might just be 'tech' if they don't stop bundling everything under that heading, just as e-business has morphed into business.
Nevertheless, the Internet of Things definitely isn't something we can hide from. The term itself might be vague, sweeping and perhaps overused, but at least it's documenting the general shift of the technology industry as everyone and everything takes advantage of a constant internet connection.
Research firm Juniper claimed recently that the growth of devices entering our consciousness that we now commonly refer to as the IoT are getting more popular as their growth soars. Juniper said that 17 billion more IoT devices will be deployed by 2020, a 285 percent increase on the current 38 billion.
But to what form of the IoT is this research referring? Well, it's easy to bundle IoT in the same category as wearables, another relatively new trend that people can't quite make up their mind about.
Are wearables just a quick and easy means to exploit the gimmick-fixated mass consumer industry, or will they prove a vital part of our future?
Interestingly, one thing Juniper did make clear is that this growth won't just be on the consumer side but in business sectors such as retail, agriculture, smart buildings and smart grids.
Wearables in the workplace
With the explosion of the IoT and connected devices in the consumer landscape, it has been said that it's only a matter of time before wearables become commonplace in helping us do our jobs in the office in the same way that laptops, tablets and smartphones do now.
And if this rings true, it could signal a long-term and fundamental place for the IoT in many different industries and in many different forms.
Research company Tractica has said that wearables will start popping up in enterprise and industrial settings in a big way. The firm believes that wearables, much like smartphones, will ultimately become a standard integration in the office of the future as the technology improves, the market explodes and organisations realise their potential.
"Expect growth to include devices that are part of a 'bring your own wearable', or BYOW, trend, as well as devices provided by employers as part of a corporate wellness programme," said Tractica research director Aditya Kaul.
"Smartwatches will be the largest category of workplace wearables, followed by fitness trackers and internet-connected smart glasses. Smart clothing is [also] on the horizon."
It seems that wearables could become as commonplace in the office as a smartphone, tablet or laptop, but cloud computing firm Alfresco believes that BYOW attitudes need to change in favour of infrastructure as current models won't work in the new world of wearables and will put a strain on networks.
"Employers should not just be focusing on the device, but how the device can and will be used in business," said Alfresco CTO John Newton.
"We should be looking at the infrastructure that serves, stores, manages and delivers content to these devices, as they will be the gateway to information on other devices and the point of initiation of thousands of new business processes by employees and customers alike."
Based on current use cases, wearable technology will be prevalent in many sectors. For example, internet-connected eyewear is currently being tested for use in airline customer service, car manufacturing, medical education and remote office-machine repair, among other applications.
Virgin Atlantic is a good case study here, as one of the biggest companies to champion wearable tech in its workforce for the past year or so, using Google Glass and Sony smartwatches in a pilot scheme. Concierge staff use connected devices in the firm's Upper Class Wing to assist customers with baggage tags, seat changes and flight information available instantly through the devices.
However, the application of IoT devices in the workplace still seems a little too aesthetic as opposed to practical. Are the companies deploying these high-tech gadgets doing so to look 'cool' and attract more customers, or are they actually adding benefits to their business?
There are many benefits beyond just wearables connected to the internet, especially from the data that these devices collect, according to research at Goldsmiths, University of London.
The Human Cloud at Work study by the university's Institute of Management Studies found that wearable technologies can boost employee productivity by 8.5 percent and job satisfaction by 3.5 percent, and that each employee will create upwards of 30GB of data a week from an average of three wearable devices. This device-generated raw data can be stored and analysed by employers to understand how human behaviour and environmental properties affect productivity, performance, well-being and job satisfaction.
This could lead to major rewards for organisations taking advantage of the IoT explosion as the integration of devices could signal a potential increase in productivity and thus growth of business.
Another benefit of IoT in the workplace is in human authentication, for example playing a role in accessing computers, and opening office doors and safes for increased levels of security.
"Wearables can provide a robust alternative to using passwords and Pins and can play a role in most areas of the office where authentication of a service is necessary," said Kevin Curran, senior member at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
"It works in validating the identity of users by firstly being on the person and perhaps secondly by measuring the unique physiological and behavioural characteristics of individuals and using that to affirm identity."
Health is also a way in which the IoT could add value to business through corporate wellness programmes, which could be a strong driver for the application of connected devices in the workplace.
The data that wearables can offer will only get more and more detailed and, if they are worn at work, employees will know more about their bodies and can demand that employers change the working environment to promote better health.
For example, workforce management firm Kronos currently offers its employees rewards through the deployment of wearables, including lower insurance premiums and prizes for US-based staff.
Financial and promotional boosts for demonstrating productivity at work could be next if enterprise-connected devices catch on, alongside performance improvements through the correlation of personal data from wearables, also using this to improve general health.
And there's no reason why this shouldn't happen, because there are already big industry players looking for ways to address the integration of the IoT in the corporate world.
But it's not as easy as it sounds.
Juniper's report warned that, despite the UK government recently urging retailers to embrace the IoT in a bid to improve productivity, automate supply chains and boost delivery times and stock efficiencies, companies must have the right systems in place to embrace the IoT and the data it produces. And at the moment, they don't.
The IoT's growth is being held back by the risk of conflicting standards. Intercompatibility is a big problem in IoT application at the moment, as there are conflicting standards from many different groups all doing the same thing. However, it's not to say that no-one is trying.
Huawei, for instance, announced an IoT solution recently that includes LiteOS, an operating system designed for IoT devices in the enterprise that will help to standardise ICT infrastructure to foster the development of IoT applications. Huawei claims that the OS is the 'world's lightest' operating system at just 10KB and supports zero configuration, auto-discover and auto-networking.
It will also be open to "all developers", enabling them to quickly create IoT products, and could be applied to different areas, including smart homes, wearables and connected vehicles.
There are also several industry groups trying to achieve this, the Wireless IoT Forum and the Hypercat Consortium being two of them.
The Hypercat Consortium is looking to standardise the IoT, and is focused on the UK specifically. The group comprises around 40 companies, including Intel, ARM, IBM and BT, and received a funding boost of £1.6m last year to take its resources up to £8m and push the UK IoT industry forward.
The Hypercat standard is yet to be published independently through the British Standards Institute, but the group is aiming at a system that's simple to adopt and will ensure that industry players can securely speak a common language.
"The UK has an opportunity now, through Hypercat, to be central to the IoT revolution, levelling the playing field with the ubiquitous American giants and inspiring British industry to deliver £100bn of value by 2020. Great Britain can grow back its industrial teeth," said the consortium.
The idea behind the Wireless IoT Forum is perhaps more overarching. It has been created to drive the widespread adoption of wireless wide-area networking technologies in licensed and unlicensed spectrum globally. The forum will work with key stakeholders from across the value chain to agree requirements that inform and accelerate standards for development and deployment.
It will also improve market representation for companies building on the platform, and promote and market the benefits for the complete ecosystem, including fixed and wireless network operators, infrastructure providers, app developers in utilities, government and specialist SMEs, semiconductor vendors, radio technology providers, module developers, systems integrators and vertical end users.
These efforts to address the current IoT hurdles are paying off and paving the way for growth, but we are still a long way away from anything concrete. The IoT industry is still very much in the experimental phase and looking at what it could mean for businesses as well as employees.
Common standards are emerging, but they are from different groups all fighting for their standard to become the standard. Collaboration on a national or global scale needs to happen before it can work properly.
To say how wearables will integrate into workplaces in the future can be nothing more than guess work until a robust standard is in place. This standard is needed to let the billions of connected devices work in parallel, in any business setting or outside of the workplace. µ
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