Companies have embarked on a gradual but massive adoption of "Internet of things" (IoT) technology, investing in sensors to collect data, which is then wirelessly sent for further analysis or alerts, according to a survey.
IoT involves hardware, like small devices and wireless networking, as well as software, but sensors are key for extracting data from objects and the environment, said PwC in the survey, released Monday.
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"From refrigerators to parking spaces to houses, the IoT is bringing billions of things into the digital fold, which will make the IoT a multi-trillion dollar industry by 2020," PwC said in an executive summary of the survey.
Twenty percent of companies are investing in IoT sensors, up from 17 percent last year. The survey is based on responses from almost 1,500 company executives.
Fourteen percent of the respondents said sensors are of top strategic importance to their companies in the next three to five years.
The IoT concept has a wide scope, and is being applied to interesting projects. For example, AT&T researchers have developed "smart luggage" with an LTE and GPS chip that could help track bags at all times via smartphones and tablets. The city of San Jose, California, is installing a network of sensors to track traffic and air and noise pollution.
Sensors are important in providing "business intelligence" to customers, because the data gathered helps them make better, faster decisions, in areas like business processes, supply chain and customer experience. Sensors are most used in the energy and mining sector to detect carbon monoxide levels for worker safety, according to the PwC survey.
Use of sensors is also growing in power and utility companies, where smart meters measure power usage habits and report it back to companies so they can monitor usage trends and adjust power settings.
Sensors are used in cars for hands-free driving and driver safety, and in the manufacturing sector as endpoints to monitor and optimize machine usage in plants. In retail, sensors are used to collect supply chain data for predictive analytics, according to PwC.
The survey doesn't mention the retail sector's use of sensors to track customers. For example, Apple's iBeacon and Qualcomm's Gimbal hardware and software platform can be used to track customers in stores via smartphones and tablets to provide customized buying experiences.
Sensors are least used in the financial sector, where telematics can be used to transmit data related to insurance claims, PwC said.
Chip makers like Qualcomm and Intel today offer packages with a range of sensors that help locate and identify product usage. IoT connectivity standards are also being established through recently formed organizations like AllSeen Alliance, which is led by Qualcomm and Microsoft, and Open Interconnect Consortium, which is led by Intel, Samsung and Dell.