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WTF: The Internet of Things?

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Many of us are still getting used to the idea of being connected to the internet through our smartphones. But just as we're coming to accept that it may be impossible to ever truly get away from the web, a bizarre new term seems to suggest even more ways to be plugged in.

The "internet of things."

WTF is that?

It boils down to a future in which internet connections will be built into tiny devices in all manner of products — refrigerators, light bulbs, industrial equipment — allowing them to speak to each other without human control. Apps would monitor them.

Two key advancements — the spread of wireless technology and the advent of the cloud, where massive quantities of data can be stored and accessed with ease — have ushered in the era of IoT.

In fact, it's already upon us: Today, you can buy a so-called smart refrigerator that, with the help of tiny sensors, will tell you when you're low on milk or eggs. The local sporting goods store sells plenty of wearable fitness devices that measure heart rate, pace, the running-route topography and just about anything else you can think of, and uploads the info to the cloud. Smart meters, which control energy use in your home and communicate back to the utility for billing and monitoring purposes, are growing in popularity.

Wait, there's more.

Waterbury-based Keurig Green Mountain has hinted at a future in which its ubiquitous coffee machines may be connected to the internet. The bottom of the recently released Keurig 2.0 has a dataport for unspecified future uses.

The next generation of smart refrigerators won't just tell you what to put on your shopping list. They'll share that information with the grocery store, and as you pull into the store's sensor-filled parking lot, clerks will have gathered the goods for you.

At least, that's the future envisioned by South Burlington-based Logic Supply, which has been in the IoT game since before the term was coined.

While IoT consumer goods get most of the media attention, Logic Supply is focused on industrial applications.

For example, to help a mining company improve efficiency and keep better track of its inventory, Logic Supply installed computers in the mining carts, sensors on their tracks and a computer to upload all the information gleaned from those gizmos into the cloud, where it can be accessed in real time.

While most of its business is national and international, Logic Supply has worked with some Vermont companies, including Pwnie Express, which provides security products to governments and private companies.

"I think you're going to continue to see more and more commercial applications for systems and devices that are speaking to each other, reacting to what others are doing," Logic Supply content manager Darek Fanton predicted. "I don't see the downside. It's nothing but helpful. It creates efficiencies."

Last year, Cisco Systems issued a report that claimed 8.7 billion devices were connected to the internet in 2012 — and the networking equipment manufacturer predicted the number would explode to 50 billion by 2020. The financial firm Morgan Stanley countered with its own prediction: 75 billion.

The McKinsey Global Institute lists the IoT as a "disruptive technology" with an worldwide "economic impact" that could reach $6.2 trillion by 2025.

The founders of MicroGen Systems hope to secure a piece of that pie. UVM alum Robert Andosca and professor Junru Wu created the company in 2007, basing it on research they did at UVM. MicroGen Systems makes miniscule wireless devices that "scavenge" energy from vibrations, and use it to power tiny sensors, according to the university. The company is now based in Rochester, N.Y.

"The internet of things is pretty much a lot of sensors on all things, and all they're doing is detecting something, whether it's vibration, heat, humidity, some parameter or multiple parameters," Andosca said. "And all that data is transmitted to a hub, a computer, and gets uploaded on the internet, so now the whole world is connected and becomes smarter. It's really an amazing time we live in."

Of course, you might wonder, Haven't I seen all this before? Isn't this the point in the sci-fi movie where the machines realize they no longer need humans, so they take all the power we have given to them and use it to exterminate us?

Rest easy, IoT advocates say. The interconnected machines still need human input, and can only act within parameters we set.

"There's a fine line between something being a very popular buzzword, and something being terrifying," Fanton of Logic Supply said. "An intelligent machine is different than a machine that is thinking for itself. An intelligent machine, you give it parameters. It can react to what's happening, but it's not sentient. It's not making those decisions without some input from you at some point."

Well, that certainly sounds reassuring. If one day you wind up battling some homicidal machine-robot, at least there's someone local to blame.

Logic Supply is exhibiting at the Vermont Tech Jam on Friday and Saturday, October 24 and 25, at Memorial Auditorium in Burlington.
The original print version of this article was headlined "The 'Internet of Things' — What's That?"

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