Every January, the Consumer Electronics Show, now simply known as CES, fills virtually every available space in Las Vegas with the latest and greatest new toys. This year, alongside the computers and fancy displays lurked all manner of connected gadgets, members of the "Internet of Things" (IoT).
Some made sense, and some fit into the category of "because we can," but they're all harbingers of the world of tomorrow – or maybe even of later today.
It's fun to explore the toy box, bearing in mind that many of this year's hot products will be distant memories by next CES. Remember last year's major hype around 3D TV? Forget it – this year, it's all about big screens, curved screens, and 4K or 8K super-high resolution, like the 98 inch 8K TV from LG.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, LG also displayed an 18 inch display so thin it can be rolled up. While it's nowhere near ready for production, the potential is endless. Consider, for example, a portable display system you can roll up and carry anywhere, enabling everything from client presentations to portable electronic signage. LG also suggested that it could be your digital newspaper.
One huge trend at CES was connectivity. Virtually everything has some sort of feature that needs the Internet, and often a cloud service, to function. The TVs not only look gorgeous, they include apps that connect to NetFlix, or run YouTube, or browse the web. The software they run gets updated automatically, and their connectivity gobbles bandwidth from your Internet service plan.
It's a good thing, and a bad thing. Customers who don't realize that they're consuming bandwidth while binge-watching may be faced with substantial bandwidth overage charges. Then there's the security component. These smart devices talk via household or business WiFi, and may or may not be properly secured. That opens the network to all sorts of mischief. But on the plus side, if the manufacturer has considered security, the ability to do automatic updates to device software will keep things up to date without user intervention.
The "Things" aren't all about entertainment, though. Several vendors, including Samsung and Whirlpool, exhibited connected appliances. Whirlpool's dishwasher, for example, interfaces with a Nest thermostat and can be programmed to run when energy costs are lowest. Samsung's connected fridge has a 21.5 inch 1080p touchscreen on its door, and a camera inside so you can see what's on its shelves remotely. The idea is that you can check to see what you need when you're at the supermarket.
The challenge with that, of course, is that people don't replace $5,000 appliances every year or two, as they do smaller items. Technology that is cool and exciting today will elicit yawns well before the fridge or dishwasher is past its prime, leaving users frustrated.
If a shiny new "Thing" is in the cards, it's better to look at a more disposable item such as, say, an Internet-connected toothbrush that monitors brushing patterns, alerts users if they're missing spots, and acts as an electronic stool pigeon, passing brushing records to the user's dentist. Another exhibitor displayed a kid's toothbrush that connects to a mobile device and creates games during brushing.
Also in the world of personal hygiene, the Hydrao Smart Shower head connects to an iPhone or iPad app via Bluetooth and alerts users when they've used specific amounts of water. A tiny turbine generates enough power to illuminate the coloured lights that generate the alerts, eliminating the need for batteries.
If air quality is a concern, and you have $1,000 (CDN) or so to spare, Coway AirMega air purifiers transmit air quality information to a smartphone app, and for a similar price, the slightly more frivolous Hairmax LaserBand 82 generates 90 second bursts of red laser light that supposedly stimulate hair growth.
Then there's the SCiO. It analyzes food and drink by determining how it interacts with light (via near-infrared spectroscopy) and reveals its nutritional value. It was designed to help diabetics and those with other chronic illnesses control their diets. The device itself costs $249 (US), the app is free to download, but there's a $10 (US) monthly fee to tie everything together.
If that's too sensible, consider the WiFi enabled Somabar Robotic Bartender that is even self-cleaning. That, I suppose, is one way to get cocktails right.
The Halo bio-sensing headband, to be released later this year for around $200 (US), senses muscle tension and its app then can guide the wearer through relaxation programs.
For less conspicuous wearables, there's the Caseco Bluetooth Beanie, a toque that has Bluetooth speakers built in for your listening pleasure, as well as a microphone in case you want to talk on the phone without getting your ears cold. Other companies offered smart clothing whose sensors monitor the wearer's vital signs and pass the information on, yes, to an app that stashes it in the cloud for future reference.
Or, for playtime, there's the Wilson X Connected Football that measures distance, speed, spiral efficiency (whatever that is), and catches and drops.
While, as you can see, CES focused its gadgets on the consumer, there are all sorts of practical business uses that can emerge from the technology. The turbine technology in the smart showerhead could be used to power sensors anywhere there's liquid (or maybe air) to drive it, for example.
There are also all sorts of scary repercussions, especially around security and privacy. Everyone from malicious hackers to insurance companies want data for their own reasons. Hackers who manage to grab control of a critical connected "thing" could hold your company hostage. Competitors could use stolen information to tailor their own offerings. Insurance companies could adjust their premiums based on what they discover. And employees or customers whose personal data is compromised have a legion of hungry lawyers (not to mention regulators) ready to pounce.
There's little chance we can avoid the IoT, nor should we try to – there's too much potential for improved productivity and fatter bottom lines. But while we're enjoying the fancy TVs and the connected robot bartender, we need to do some serious thinking about how to turn the contents of our toy boxes into business tools, and that includes securing them to ensure the business survives.