Imagine your car could automatically find a parking space in a busy city or your fridge could give recipes to your smartphone based on its contents. This future is already here and called the Internet of Things.
There is no standard definition for the Internet of Things – or M2M [machine to machine] as it’s also known, but broadly the term refers to an expanding network of Web-enabled devices that automatically communicate without human intervention.
The availability of cheaper and smaller hardware means that everyday objects can become smart by inserting chips or sensors. Wearable tech is the first iteration of the Internet of Things to reach consumers and it is predicted the smart home will be the next battleground.
Gartner predicts there will be 26 billion connected objects worldwide by 2020 (not including PCs, smartphones, and tablets), while Cisco forecasts this market to have a value of $14.4 trillion in the next decade.
While it is easy to dismiss this as the latest Silicon Valley hype, there has been huge investment in this space from the tech giants, including Apple, Google, and Samsung, and other companies in other sectors, too.
A major challenge for PR pros and marketers is weighing potential benefits of this technology against inevitable privacy and security concerns that consumers may have.
Cisco ramped up communications with its global Internet of Everything campaign. The effort has included a big thought leadership push, including research, reports, and a global conference, which has "really resonated," explains Marc Musgrove, global communications director, Cisco.
"It was one of the most successful brand campaigns we have done," he adds. "This is something everyone has a point of view on and it is the industry driving this forward."
Musgrove says one of the key strategies to explaining this complex tech is using innovative examples of businesses and clients already using M2M in their operations, such as hospitals that track connected wheelchairs.
Communicating data security has been a "major focus" for Cisco, which has done a lot of work in building a secure network for M2M, says Musgrove.
"While there will never be a perfect infrastructure we have been very proactive, weeding out vulnerabilities, publishing that, and managing networks so they know what to do," he adds.
Having a well-established and trusted brand helps allay privacy and security concerns when communicating the Internet of Things, particularly in such a fragmented market, says Danielle Mann, PR manager for Intel’s Internet of Things Group.
"We don’t have a conversation without talking about security," she says. "It is not just about data and device security, but security all the way through the pipeline."
She likens this back to the early days of online commerce – many consumers were concerned about sharing personal data, but now it’s commonplace.
To overcome this challenge, Intel ensures all communications around the topic are "deliberate" and avoid "hollow news" despite the fact that the Internet of Things provides a steady "fire-hose of content," says Mann.
"Our news links back to our core tenets, shows what is here, what Intel is doing about it, and how it will benefit you," she says.
The Internet of Things will require consumers and businesses to share data like never before. The onus, therefore, will be on the companies involved to offer guidelines on how this data is being used, which boils down to "trust and value," says Rob Longert, managing partner of Day One Agency.
"Transparency is crucial – consumers need to know what they are getting into," he adds.
PR pros should also be mindful of the different attitudes to security across generations, explains Longert.
"Companies will have to earn the trust of older generations through transparency. Eventually though, they will learn these companies are trying to make people’s lives better."
Some of the more quirky connected devices in the pipeline
24eight is a startup that installs chips in babies’ diapers to alert parents when it is time for a change
GlowCap’s pill container monitors when the lid was opened and closed to help people keep track of whether they are taking their medication
Egg Minder lets users know how many eggs are left in their egg trays via their smartphones
Sensoria fitness socks have sensors that measure running distance, alerting wearers to possible injury or over-exertion