The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the most prominent tech trends to have emerged in recent years. In simple terms, it refers to the fact that while the word “internet” initially referred to the wide-scale networking of computers, today, devices of every size and shape – from cars to kitchen appliances to industrial machinery - are connected and sharing information digitally, on a global scale.
As with every aspect of our lives, the global coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly affected the way this trend is developing and impacting our lives. In a world where contact between humans is, for now, more limited, contact between devices, tools, and toys can help us to remain connected.
So, here’s my look ahead to 2021 and some of the ways we can expect to see this megatrend playing out, and playing an increasingly large role in how we live, work, and play.
Healthcare investment in IoT to skyrocket
From telemedicine to automated home help for the elderly and disabled, smart wearables, sensors, and connected devices will continue to change the way healthcare is delivered. It will also be used to minimize unnecessary contact in situations where the risk of viral contamination is particularly high, for example, care homes and infectious disease wards within hospitals.
As a great demonstration of how the ongoing pandemic has accelerated the adoption of tech-driven healthcare transformation, original estimates for the number of "virtual visits" or online appointments with healthcare providers in the US was 36 million. In reality, that number is now on course to be closer to one billion, and this trend will undoubtedly continue upwards during 2021 now that infrastructure and patient awareness of the advantages is in place.
Strong growth has also been seen in the market for devices that will allow the elderly to remain independent in their own homes for longer. This will include tools utilizing AI to detect falls or changes to regular daily routines that could alert relatives or healthcare providers that intervention could be required. Adapting to the challenges posed by Covid-19, this same technology can be used to determine if there is a rapid deterioration in the health of people who may be shielding or isolating at home, as the disease can often put people in a state where they are unable to seek help by themselves, in a matter of hours.
IoT means more productive WFH
Work-from-home is the new normal for many of us in the information economy these days due to safety concerns around large numbers of people congregating in offices and city centers. With AI-powered personal assistants like Alexa now installed in many of our homes, we can expect more applications designed to help us manage our day while working remotely. This will mean more intelligent automated scheduling and calendar tools, as well as better quality, more interactive video conferencing, and virtual meeting technology. Microsoft's Virtual Stage platform, for example, uses its Azure Kinect sensors to enable immersive, AI-powered presentations that will keep us better engaged.
When companies still require physical presence – as is the case with most manufacturing, industrial, and logistics operations – IoT means that assets can be more effectively monitored remotely, giving peace of mind that automated machinery will continue with its work, and human engineers or maintenance personnel can be alerted when their intervention is needed.
IoT in retail – safer and more efficient stores and supermarkets
Bricks ‘n’ mortar retail is a sector that has undoubtedly been hit hard by coronavirus. As we saw in the early days of this pandemic, many non-essential outlets can be temporarily shuttered with minimal disruption to our lives – thanks largely to the emergence of online retail. Stores supplying essentials like food and medicine, however, have to remain open to serve the basic needs of local populations.
Over the next year, we can expect to see a new purpose for innovative models such as Amazon's fully-automated supermarkets, that cut down on the need for non-vital human interaction as we stock our homes with food and other essentials. Automation via IoT-enabled devices will also continue to grow in the massive fulfillment centers that dispatch inventory to shops. Contact-free payment methods will also become increasingly prevalent as we progress further towards the “cashless society” that has been predicted to arrive for some time now – bringing with it its own challenges.
Other developments in retail will include the use of RFID tags to track the movement of customers around stores. As before, this will be used to make decisions over stock placement and replenishment by recording how and when customers interact with displays and products on the shelves. In light of this year's changes to society, now it will also increasingly be used to monitor social distancing and protect against the danger of overcrowding in particularly busy areas of stores, supermarkets, and shopping malls.
IoT at City Scale
The "smart city" concept has been growing in popularity over recent years, with IoT technology used to monitor traffic on road networks, use of public transport, footfall around pedestrianized areas, and usage of civic amenities such as recycling centers and refuse collection. Smart meters record the use of energy in homes and businesses, so supply can be balanced in order to meet demands during peaks and to avoid wastage where it isn't needed.
During the coming year, we can expect a surge of resources going into building digital capabilities within municipal authorities to enable them to better use new technologies that are becoming available. This will be essential when it comes to tackling the challenges of a changing society. With safety concerns around public transport, city-center offices, and recreational facilities such as leisure centers and parks, IoT technology will allow authorities and businesses to better understand patterns of usage as well as more efficiently plan safety measures and emergency response strategies.
IoT at the Edge
Finally, edge computing is another powerful trend that isn’t going to go away due to Covid. As with the other trends mentioned here, the change that it enables will become more relevant than ever, most likely leading to an increased speed of adoption and rate of innovation.
With edge computing, rather than IoT devices sending all of the data they collect to the cloud for analysis and extraction of insights, this work is carried out directly on the devices themselves. One clear advantage is massive savings in bandwidth usage and the reduced cost, both financially and environmentally, that this brings. However, just as vital in a post-Covid world will be the benefits to privacy and data stewardship. Many proactive and reactive initiatives, such as outbreak detection and contact-tracing, rely on highly personal data such as health or location data. New ways of processing and taking action on this information will leverage edge computing techniques to reduce the risk posed by sending this information backwards and forwards between personal devices and cloud servers. This could prove to be essential when it comes to building public trust in these measures – something that needs to be done if they are to be successfully deployed at scale.