Your TV knows who's sitting in front of it. Your light bulbs know when someone's in the room. Your sleep monitor knows when you're dreaming. The "Internet of Things" is invading our homes, but these connected devices face a big challenge: They all speak different digital languages. And chances are it's going to be a while before your "smart" fridge can send cooking instructions to the blender.
The sheer number of connected devices along these lines that debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month may give you the impression the Internet of Things has arrived in force, but don't be fooled.
"Around the time of CES every year people get so excited," says Tom Davenport, professor of IT and Management at Babson College and fellow at the MIT Center for Digital Business. "But people have been announcing Internet-connected refrigerators for a while now — rapid progress is not happening."
Big tech companies like Google and Apple are starting to focus on products for the connected home, joining established players in the appliance and infrastructure world like Cisco and GE — but each seems to be bringing its own ideas as to what a smart appliance should look like. And because the technology is still fairly unestablished, every company is looking out for number one.
"Companies may not care as much about over-arching standards so long as the application will meet the needs they have today," Andy Peebler, managing director of ecommerce and digital marketing firm Acquity Group, said in an email to NBC News.
The companies may all agree, for instance, that security cameras at the front door should be connected to a house's WiFi, and a homeowner should be able to access that video feed from all his or her portable devices. But then what? Will the video files be stored somewhere, and if so, on whose cloud account? How will multiple residents log in? Will the video feed be viewable on an iPhone?
The debate isn't quite as laden with techno-drama as, say, the Blu-ray versus HD-DVD conflict, but fundamental disagreements are inevitable. Samsung's CEO, BK Yoon, lamented at CES that the Internet of Things was doomed if standards aren't reached through collaboration. Jeremy Rifkin, author and expert in what's been called the emerging smart ecosystem, joined him on stage to emphasize this, and explained further in an interview with NBC News.
"If you want a system to work, it has to be completely distributed — open, transparent, so that anyone can have access," he said.
But he warned that, despite joining industry-wide groups and coalitions, companies aren't always happy with this idea: "Frankly, every company wants to create a standard and be on the top of codes and regulations."
Davenport echoed this concern. "If you look at the industry associations that have been announced, it doesn't give you comfort," says Davenport. "There are some companies that are in five or six associations, joining multiple tribes, trying to hedge their bets."
Standards can take a decade or more to hammer out, something Davenport and MIT colleague Sanjay Sarma warned about in a recent editorial for the Harvard Business Review, drawing parallels with the tortuous 15-year path to debut taken by RFID tags. "If it takes that long to develop similar standards for other processes and industries where the [Internet of Things] is relevant," they wrote, "the progress of this technology will be set back considerably."
Don't worry, though: the potential benefits of smart objects is perhaps even greater in globe-spanning industries than at home. That means big companies are going to be investing regardless of the sales of connected appliances.
"You can't think it's just going to be electronics," said Rifkin. "There will be a meeting of the minds globally that will bring in not just electronics but transport, IT, logistics, construction, all the big industries. There's no other way it's going to work."
A small start, but still a start
One thing everyone seems to agree on is that we're at a turning point. The sizes and prices of sensors, processors and batteries is getting low enough that smart appliances (and shipping containers) will finally start showing up in everyday life. But it'll be probably be your early-adopter friend, not your retired neighbor, who gets the smart flower pot or face-recognizing security camera.
"2015 will see big growth among hobbyists as the number of connected things continues to expand. It will also be the year when most of us will know someone who's controlling something in their home via this technology," Peebler said.
"The evolution of a truly over-arching operating system, or a single standard through which we can control everything, will take some time to catch on," he added, "and will likely follow a similar pattern to what we've seen during the evolution of the smartphone."
There is one secret weapon that should speed things along, though. Ubiquitous wireless Internet connections also mean a lot of the work can be done by the other big buzzword these days — the cloud.
LG and Samsung don't have to like each other for a third-party service to translate one's data to the other's format on the fly — think of it as Google Translate for smart appliances. Even that may be a while in the coming, but it's at least a glimmer of hope in the confused and complicated darkness from which the Internet of Things looks poised to emerge.