(Sleep Number)

What can your mattress tell you about how to get a better night’s sleep?  Apparently, quite a bit.

At January’s Consumer Electronics Show, maverick bedding company Sleep Number demonstrated a new product called the It bed that has built-in sensors, sending a constant stream of data and analytics to your smartphone or tablet. Over time, the adaptive technology tells you not only how long and how restfully you slept, but can recommend changes—including room temperature, bed time, and exercise—that can improve your sleep.

Smart beds are just part of an exciting new class of emerging technologies known as the “Internet of Things.” This latest wave of disruptors, in which devices talk to each other over the Internet, includes self-driving cars, intelligent homes, drone aircraft and “wearables” that track a growing list of vital signs to help you improve your health and fitness.

These may sound like science fiction, but the emergence was entirely predictable, another side-effect of the continuing smaller, faster and cheaper computing principle known as Moore’s Law. It has now become cost-effective to build in basic computing capabilities—processing, memory, and communications—into pretty much everything.

Soon, over a trillion items in commerce will be connected to the Internet, with the potential to revolutionize the supply chain of nearly every industry from manufacturing to energy to health care.  Your light bulbs will adjust their color and brightness depending on your mood and the weather.  Your car will schedule its own repairs, and let the garage know what parts it will need to have on hand.  And your medicine cabinet will remind you when it’s time to take your medication or let your doctor know if your condition changes — especially useful information for seniors hoping to stay in their homes.

How soon?  That’s the multi-billion dollar question.

In looking at a wide range of disruptive innovations that ultimately generated “Big Bang” transformations, my co-author Paul Nunes of Accenture and I found that people change their behaviors more slowly than technology makes possible. All kinds of inertia have to be overcome, especially when adoption requires replacing lots of still-functioning equipment.

Up until now, according to Professors Donna Hoffman and Tom Novak at George Washington University’s Center for the Connected Consumer, companies pitching Internet of Things products have focused on specific applications, fragmenting the overall market.  A smart refrigerator, a smart door lock, and a smart thermostat may each be worth the cost and hassle for some consumers.  But individually they don’t deliver on the promise of a connected life for everyone.

“The key to smart home marketing is to view the smart home as a complex dynamic system,” the two write in a new paper. To jump-start mass adoption,
“marketers must focus on communicating the value proposition inherent in experience; current approaches may actually be underselling the smart home.”

Jim Kohlenberger, a former White House policy advisor who now serves on the advisory board of Mobile Future, agrees.  He sees the Internet of Things as the vanguard of the Internet’s “Third Act,” driven by “trillions of transistors, billions of sensors, and the growing ubiquity of fast wireless data connections.”  The average U.S. home today has five connected devices, he says, a number that could swell to 500 by the end of the decade.

Kohlenberger himself has connected over a hundred devices in his house, including his mailbox, fireplace, garage door, and an ersatz barking dog.  But getting all of those devices to talk to each other requires a lot of custom programming.  Some of the leading products, including Amazon’s Echo and Samsung’s SmartThings, are learning to talk not just to the Internet but to each other.  But, says Kohlenberger, “we’re still at the beginning.”

Here’s a short list of some of the other challenges standing in the way of the Internet of Things revolution:

  • Interoperability – As is typical with emerging technologies, every Internet of Things vendor hopes to establish itself as the industry standard for interactions with other networks and other products. Competing industry groups have also sprouted up, hoping to eliminate incompatibilities by offering an open, neutral set of communications and data exchange rules anyone can follow. Some Internet of Things vendors are trying to build products that follow everyone’s standards, while others are leaving the problem to third party developers. The standards war will undoubtedly be resolved, but in the interim consumers are understandably hesitant to make big investments in new systems.
  • Mobility – Internet of Things devices may not need to communicate large volumes of data, but the sheer number of connected items and their need for constant interaction can’t be supported even with today’s fastest 4G LTE mobile networks. That’s one reason mobile providers and their partners are investing billions in next-generation 5G networks, which will increase network speed and capacity by orders of magnitude, optimizing performance for both the close quarters of your home and the potential range of autonomous vehicles on the road and in the air.  In the United States, both Verizon and AT&T have already announced tests of 5G technology.  But the new networks require more and different ranges of radio frequencies, which only the FCC can allocate.
  • Invisibility – Sleep Number isn’t actually the first company to offer a smart bed; they’re just the first to build the sensors right into the mattress. Earlier efforts required users to remember to wear separate devices that were uncomfortable to sleep with or extra equipment that had to be installed under an existing “dumb” mattress.  To work for all consumers, technologies that transform markets have to become invisible — just part of the scenery. So Sleep Number’s mainstreaming of the disruptive technology is a necessary condition for mass adoption.  Ironically, the more disruptive the technology is, the sooner it tends to disappear.
  • Security — Already, a few early products with inadequate protection have led to some embarrassing security breaches, including a hacker who gained control over a “smart” baby monitor to talk to the baby. The Federal Trade Commission and other regulators are already circling the emerging industry, threatening pre-emptive action.  But as Kohlenberger points out, a widely-deployed Internet of Things will generate tremendous improvements in health outcomes, traffic fatalities and home security, among others. If lawmakers overreact to the Internet of Things’ growing pains, it may unintentionally delay both the development and adoption of technology that will actually improve the safety and security of activities that today rely on fallible human operators.

As these issues are resolved, the Internet of Things is likely to experience the same kind of dramatic takeoff that followed the introduction a few years ago of smartphones that users actually enjoyed owning.  Once the value proposition and technical obstacles are overcome, if history is any guide, consumer adoption for the Internet of Things will happen on an expedited schedule.  “All technology is over anticipated in the short term and under anticipated in the long term,” as Kohlenberger puts it.  In other words, watch for the bang.