The Internet of Things is one of the most positively disruptive technological changes in recent history. Thanks to the functionality the IoT unlocks, individuals, companies and organizations of all kinds can gather, share and make use of data in so many new ways.
This includes the pursuit of greater productivity, improved health, new levels of convenience and higher expectations for transparency and quality. There are many more, but here’s a look at four of the most consequential IoT innovations so far.
1. Wearables Come of Age as Health Devices
The Apple Watch is neither the first nor the last word on smartwatches. However, Apple definitely threw a gauntlet in 2018 when it enabled FDA-sanctioned electrocardiogram functionality on its flagship wearable.
That was a big moment for mobile technology and the development of the Internet of Things. In a few years, we’ve gone from the release of a product that many mainstream voices dismissed as unnecessary to one that can dispense credibly actionable and even preventive medical advice.
Smartphones duplicated, imperfectly, much of the functionality of computers while still finding ways to experiment with new wireless protocols, high-powered cameras and multiply-useful sensors.
Now, smartwatches are carrying the miniaturization and mobility concepts further by providing a home for technology which, until now, didn’t make sense for any other platform.
This includes heart rate monitoring, ECGs and other types of health functionality we haven’t seen yet, in formats only beginning to take shape, such as sensors woven into textiles and much more.
2. Service Integrations Make Personal Assistants Useful
Home and lifestyle automation became a marquee feature of Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant in 2015, but it seems like we’ve only scratched the surface of the potential in this industry since then.
The Alexa Skills Kit provides a set of common tools for developers who want to integrate products and services into the Alexa platform, in the same way mobile developers build apps for specific ecosystems like iOS and Android.
The breakthrough here isn’t that Alexa can shout baking recipes at you from the other room. It’s that this is a brand-new frontier when it comes to connecting services as different as doctor’s offices and pizza delivery services to the personal assistants people already know and use.
For example, in 2019, Amazon began soliciting applications from health care services that want to build Alexa Skills that integrate directly with patient portals, prescription delivery services and appointment scheduling systems.
The last few years have seen a lot of progress in home and whole-life automation. The next few will probably see even more as we unpack the privacy and security implications of all these third-party services and IoT devices commingling in our daily lives.
3. Blockchain Proves Its Concept
In 2018, a consortium based in Australia announced a first-of-its-kind trade community system built on blockchain. It’s a joint undertaking by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), the Port of Brisbane, PwC and others.
This project is a proof of concept for combining the data mobility of the IoT with the accountability and visibility of the distributed and continually reconciled ledger provided by blockchain.
The result serves as a model for the supply chain of the future. At any given time, the world’s supply chains are maelstroms of data — including location information for shipments in progress, the outcome of inspections and authentications, details on the condition of contents and traceability details like point of origin.
It’s devices like RFID tags and temperature probes that capture data and distribute it through an organization’s IoT infrastructure to stakeholders — but it’s blockchain that completes the concept by providing practically bulletproof authentication and recording tools.
4. 5G and Telemedicine Demonstrate Their Potential
The Internet of Things is only as useful as the communication protocols it uses, which is why competition is so heated between the Zigbee, Z-Wave and Thread product families in the home automation space.
The need for dependable, resilient and lightning-fast connectivity is also the reason why the fates of the IoT and 5G are so closely entwined. The number of IoT devices deployed all over the world will likely exceed 75 billion by the end of 2025, according to some estimates.
For a variety of reasons, we can’t connect every one of those devices to Wi-Fi. To power tomorrow’s IoT, we need a new wireless standard with the speeds of Wi-Fi and the ubiquity of LTE.
CES 2019 was a showcase of huge promises by AT&T, Verizon and others to bring 5G connectivity and functionality — not just internet access, but also location awareness and asset tracking — to hospitals, stadiums, parks and other public spaces. It was also a sneak peek at which smartphones will get 5G modems first.
Probably the biggest news to break in 2019 about the IoT and 5G concerned telemedicine. The world watched as a Chinese surgeon performed a successful operation using a 5G-connected robotic surgical arm.
Thanks to theoretical speeds of 100 Mbps and 1-millisecond latency, 5G proved in 2019 that even the most delicate tasks could be accomplished remotely and with great success if we combine IoT concepts with the right technologies.