What is the Internet of things (IoT), exactly? If you're a consumer, then the first thing that leaps to mind might be a Nest Wi-Fi thermostat, or perhaps those smart health bands that let you monitor your activity level from an app on your smartphone.
That's part of it. But if you're an engineer, you might think of the smart sensors that General Electric embeds in locomotives and wind turbines, while a city manager might be considering smart parking meters, and a hospital administrator might envision swallowable smart pill sensors that monitor how much medication you've taken or blood pressure cuffs and blood glucose monitors that can monitor patient health in the field and wirelessly stream updates into clinical systems.
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The IoT is a catchall phrase, a concept that includes all of these things. "We look at the IoT as a superset, the umbrella term that covers all areas, including consumer, industrial and public sector," says Hung LeHong, vice president at research firm Gartner.
But IoT is also built on enabling technologies. At its core, a smart thing is an intelligent, physical object that's communications enabled; each device is individually addressable, often with an IP address. A smart thing typically contains a semiconductor or microcontroller, along with a sensor or actuator -- or both -- to monitor the status of an object, person or environment, says Jim Tully, vice president at Gartner. Although they don't have to be wireless, most devices use wireless communications technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Z-Wave, Zigbee or a cellular data service to connect to a cloud service and associated mobile app that let users receive status information -- and send updates or commands.
[Note: This article accompanies our slideshow The Internet of Things at home: 14 smart products that could change your life; you can get more info about these products by checking out The Internet of Things at home: 14 smart products compared.]
Smart IoT devices offer two-way communication on the status of an object, individual or the environment in real-time, says Michele Pelino, principal analyst at Forrester Research.
"It's more than just sensor networks," LeHong adds. "It's about being able to unlock your BMW when you lost your keys by using a mobile app," or the ability for the manufacturer to send software updates to your car wirelessly, or for people to send cooking instructions to the oven before they get home. If it's instrumented to be part of the IoT, LeHong says, you'll be able to sense it, control it and send data to it.