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Something Clever This Way Comes: Living with the Internet of Things

When XBOX first announced its pending release of the Kinect in 2009, they did so under the codename “Project Natal,” and a lot of people completely freaked out. Part of the panic was due to the functionality of the device — the motion-sensing, webcam-enabled peripheral for the more traditional 360 was one (large) step beyond the Wii. But mostly, it was Milo.

Milo is Project Natal’s brainchild. Or really, just child: an artificially intelligent, virtual boy with the ability to recognize people, voices, and even emotions, and the capacity to respond accordingly. Now, he hasn’t made it into our living rooms yet, but people couldn’t help but stare warily at their computers after seeing Milo. Yet, four years later, we have refrigerators that tweet and the potential to save billions of tons of carbon not just through smarter use of technology, but through technology that’s smart.

It’s called the IoT: the internet of things.

The Basics: Getting Our Devices to Communicate

The concept of IoT is certainly not a new one. Comic book artists and sci-fi enthusiasts have been dreaming of worlds saturated with intercommunicating devices for decades. We’re not quite to the point where an iPhone can comb through work emails to inherently generate reminders, but we’re on the way.

Let’s take the Kinect example a little further: the device works by using infrared technology to map out rooms, objects and people in those rooms, and the movements they make. It reacts to pre-set voice commands and can even tell which person is standing in front of it — as long as they’ve already scanned themselves into the system. In order to then take all of that information and translate it into an interactive image on a television screen, it communicates with both the game console and the TV set. And it does it in real time, with no outside interference or direction from the user. Pretty cool, right? What’s really cool about this particular technology is that it’s available to the masses, unlike Bill Gates’ mood-affected paintings. Or personal nanobots (we still want the nanobots, Science).

The Future is Now. Like, Right Now.

And just like that, it’s happening — independent engineers have already schooled Kickstarter campaigns to create connected devices like Ninja Blocks and Bitponics (the first of which can tweet you when your dog’s bowl runs dry, and the second which helps you grow, um, indoor plants). Lockitron lets you control home security from and with your phone, and the Nest 2.0 thermostat actually has the aptitude to learn your preferences and keep you from leaving the heater on when you go to work.

What this means for business is nothing short of exciting: imagine walking into a boardroom, announcing that your ten o’clock meeting will be thirty minutes late, and every attendee automatically receiving an email — from the room. Or a mobile worker requesting a webinar for your marketing department through Siri, without so much as setting a reminder. Practical yet ambitious visionaries see endless potential for internet-connected devices and what they can do for today’s working world.

Some people are already diligently preparing for this onslaught of development: in the U.K., a council has been established called The Internet of People. Their mission? Basically, to advise businesses and individuals on how to deal with the fact that soon, their toilets might know more about their spouse’s musical preferences than they do. In fact, a conservative 2011 estimate by Cisco puts the number of connected devices at 50 billion by 2020. To put that in perspective, Apple only sold about 124 million iPhones in 2012. Seven years from now is an eyeblink — the world we’ll live in a decade from now will likely be more different from today than the ‘50s were from the turn of the 20th century.

As we drive full-throttle into this exciting, sometimes unnerving next generation of intelligent designs, this is the philosophy that will continue to be, as it’s always been, innovative technology’s forte — the ability to bring cutting-edge advancement, convenience and brilliance into everyday life.

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