What will the Internet of Things be when it grows up?

internet of things
Credit: ITworld/Steve Traynor

IoT-enabled devices can improve efficiency, reduce costs and often solve real-life issues. On the eve of CES, the chief economist of the Consumer Technology Association writes that we are entering an important phase of experimentation for Internet-enabled objects.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

It’s a question I often ask my three sons. My hope in that question is they may see the vast, and still undefined, potential that lies before them.

Today, we might pose the same question to a myriad of technologies scattered across the landscape of innovation that is before us. In a world increasingly filled with connected objects – the ever-growing Internet of Things (IoT) – there is a tremendous amount of undefined potential in front of us. How can we know which forthcoming innovations will take hold and change our lives, and which will be stepping stones to one of those life-altering must haves?

Technology advances quickly and forever changes how we live – often in unexpected ways. Look at how GPS has changed not only how we obtain driving directions, but also where we decide to eat – today we use restaurant recommendation apps that make suggestions due in part to our location. The smartphone – once used primarily to make phones calls – is now the primary reading device for a growing cohort of individuals. And a device like Amazon’s Echo, which looks like a regular audio speaker, helps me keep track of my shopping list when I speak to it.

[ Related: Best of CES 2016 in pictures: The year IoT took over ]

As IoT expands and evolves throughout what can seem like all elements of our lives, more and more devices flood the market. Last year, more than 900 companies showcased IoT-enabled technologies at CES, and that number is expected to grow significantly in 2016. In fact, given the promise and preponderance of connected devices, you could say all of CES showcases IoT technology.

[ Related: The 7 most intriguing products we can't wait to see at CES ]

We are just starting now to see the remarkable consumer benefits of IoT. The best examples of IoT-enabled devices improve efficiency, reduce costs and make better use of resources. Most importantly, they often solve issues real people like you and I actually face – in some cases long before we were able to identify the problem even existed.

IoT devices save money and make life easier

In many cases, Internet-enabled devices are solving problems that outweigh the cost of the device. In other words, buying and employing the technology is a net positive for consumers. Consider the well-known Nest Learning Thermostat. Data shows that it has saved users 10 to 12 percent on their heating bills and 15 percent on cooling expenses. That translates to average cost savings of between $131 and $145 a year, enough that the device can essentially pay for itself in less than two years. But these cost savings don’t end after this short payback period, they continue through the live of the device, saving the consumer a multiple of the initial financial outlay. 

Roughly three in 10 houses already have smart home devices, according to a survey by CNET and Coldwell Banker. And among those homeowners with connected devices, 87 percent say the technology makes their lives easier and 45 percent say that, on average, smart home technology saves them more than $1,100 a year.

“We believe that in three to five years, homebuyers will expect Smart Home technology,” says Sean Blankenship, chief marketing officer for Coldwell Banker Real Estate LLC. He says smart home technology will soon be the “new norm.” This prediction is borne out by the survey’s finding that nearly half of millennials own smart home devices and that 81 percent say they are more likely to buy a home with technology than one without it.

The possibilities of the IoT revolution

The IoT revolution will offer us opportunities and ease-of-use we could have never imagined, but suddenly find ourselves unable to live without. The majority of us have already experienced this didn’t want it/didn’t need it/must have it trajectory with innovations like the television, the VCR and its successors, GPS, smartphones and – of course – the Internet. All of these innovations were things we once lived without, until we integrated them into the fabric of our daily lives so thoroughly and completely that they have become part of our daily rituals and in large measure have forever changed how we interact with others.

With hundreds of thousands of connected objects on the market, it’s true that some will become must-haves while others will serve a purpose then disappear. Some may never grab consumer attention and others may take decades before we fully realize their potential and integrate them into our lives.

We are entering an important phase of experimentation for the Internet and Internet-enabled objects. We are seeing what’s possible. Not everything will garner wide adoption, but that’s OK. There are niche products, but there are also niche markets. These markets are well-defined. They have specific needs and users. These IoT solutions will seem unnecessary to some, but a godsend to others. 

We need to give IoT time to thrive, and identify the markets for it that make sense. Consumers will vote with their wallets. They’ll self-select into the markets that matter most to them. The Internet of Things is really about finding new places that make sense for the Internet. Let consumers decide what their next Internet will be.

Shawn DuBravac is chief economist of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)– formerly the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) – and the author of Digital Destiny: How the New Age of Data Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Communicate. Follow him on Twitter @shawndubravac.

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