Despite becoming a perennial media and tradeshow topic over the past 15 years, the "networked refrigerator" never actually caught on. But ultimately it succeeded in symbolizing a relentless trend: the networking of virtually all areas of life via the Internet of Things.
"Intelligent household appliances will soon be able to operate independently, without any human input," wrote the German Zeit magazine a while ago in an article on "new appliances with embedded microchips". The epitome of this development was to be the fabled "intelligent refrigerator", which would use the Internet to place orders and replenish its contents. The "soon" in the above sentence turned out to be relative however, since the article originally appeared in March 1998 in a report on that year’s CeBIT.
But the "history" of the intelligent refrigerator is actually littered with misconceptions, since the media's constant reporting on the topic, hammering away at all the senseless technology baubles , was on target in terms of the spirit, if not the letter, of the approaching trend. For the Internet of Things has by now quietly integrated itself into our living rooms, our kitchens (sans refrigerator) and even our bathrooms, without many people even noticing it.
Whereas the networked refrigerator became a running joke and was never actually bought, the "integrated toothbrush" made a big splash at last year, where scarcely a medium failed to emphasize the aspect of integration. The toothbrush, for example, communicates via a smartphone app with the user, letting him or her know if they are exerting too much pressure while brushing.
What may sound like simple fun and games could become serious business. Imagine, for example, your health insurer pegging reimbursement for your dental implants to your toothbrush reports. This becomes really exciting once electric appliances can communicate with each other. Your digital scale for example would not only tell you your weight and body-mass index, but might also inform your intelligent refrigerator of any undue weight gains, which would cause the cooling device to cross butter off your "replenish" list. A horror scenario? Perhaps. But, applied to other areas, this level of integration could be sensible and even useful.
Take logistics, where the automatic coordination of goods and transport vehicles has become virtually indispensable. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) provides for the almost seamless monitoring of the delivery chain, without a single box needing to be opened. According to the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Engineering, this technology has enormous potential : "The use of RFID will be inevitable when the automotive industry makes the transition to real-time logistics."
By 2020 more than 50 billion things will be communicating on a global scale, predicts IT titan Cisco . This will expand the window for risks and hazards, needless to say. At the beginning of last year for instance, thousands of smart TVs, multimedia players and other seemingly harmless devices were all part of a concerted spam attack . In addition there is the issue of who has access to all the data gathered and what will happen to that data. This is because, although your tooth brushing info might be relatively benign, the malicious use of thermostat data or information on pacemakers is by no means excluded.
Recognizing trends and estimating the long-range interaction of devices is one of the key tasks facing corporations today. Because if one thing is certain, it is that the Internet of Things is becoming a reality.