Mobile World Congress: Wear it, drive it, see through it - the ‘internet of things’ is almost here

Gideon Spanier see the potential for mobile technology on display at a trade show in Barcelona

Forget the launch of yet more smartphones and tablets. This is the year that everything is going mobile as wireless technology connects everyday objects and appliances to the web. The so-called “internet of things” has been talked about for years but finally it is going mainstream, judging by a visit to this week’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) trade fair in Barcelona.

Cars, clothing, watches, toothbrushes, doorbells, thermostats, heart monitors, vending machines, the retail shop floor – if there is a gadget or a place where it’s possible to put a mobile-connected chip, someone is doing it. Big names are involved: from Procter & Gamble, maker of Oral-B toothbrushes, to Tesla, designer of swish electric cars.

Ronan Dunne, UK chief executive of the mobile network O2, talks about “bringing technology to life”. What that means, he says, is looking at “solutions beyond connectivity” – beyond the mere fact that the mobile internet exists and thinking about how it can improve our lives in practical ways. “The pace of change in the technology sector has out-paced the behavioural pace of change,” he says.

Dramatic improvements in technology and internet bandwidth, along with a plunge in costs, mean we are on the cusp of a new mobile revolution. “The capability and requirements of the technology are going up and up and up,” said Sir Hossein Yassaie, the chief executive of the FTSE 250 firm Imagination Technologies, which designs graphic chips for Apple devices.

Imagination is creating low-powered chips that can be used inside everyday devices at low cost. Then these can connect to the web and harness what Sir Hossein calls “the massive computational capability in the cloud”.

MWC was brimming over with companies showing off such ideas – even if it is not clear how popular they will be. “Wearables” was a major trend, with China’s Huawei and South Korea’s Samsung among the companies to produce “smart” watches. Huawei’s Talkband B1 not only connects wirelessly with the phone in your pocket to offer useful information including personal fitness levels on the tiny screen, but also the “face” of the watch detaches and becomes a tiny Bluetooth-style earpiece to take a call.

Similarly, Oral B’s toothbrush connects to a phone to show how long and how gently you should brush and in which part of your mouth. A user can change the timings – for example, for a child – and it keeps a daily record.

Clothing offers more possibilities: the French tech firm Cityzen Sciences showed off a sports shirt embedded with multiple sensors that can monitor a player’s heart rate and physical positioning around the pitch or field. That means the team coach can check every player during a game in real time, as a group of basketball players demonstrated on a mini-court.

Motoring is also a huge opportunity, with more car firms than ever displaying vehicles at MWC. Tesla’s Model S sedan car has a huge, mobile-connected TV screen that measures roughly 40cm high and 25cm wide, powered by Telefonica, Spanish parent company of O2. The screen gives the driver access not only to maps and the web but also entertainment apps and detailed information about the car’s performance. It means Tesla can help to diagnose problems remotely and “push” technology updates such as a new version of the music app Spotify to the car.

Connecting the retail environment at the “point of sale” is another boom area. The Spanish company Nostrum Empresa launched a vending machine that allows a customer to buy goods using a phone app or voice command (using Google Glass connected spectacles), without having to key anything into the machine or insert cash.

Meanwhile, the US tech firm Qualcomm’s subsidiary, Vuforia, has used augmented reality so a shopper can visualise how a piece of furniture would look in their home – just by pointing a tablet at that area and clicking a button. The technology, allowing 360-degree viewing, is already used by the London furniture company made.com.

Paul Lee, the head of research for technology, media and telecoms at the consulting firm Deloitte, says it is unlikely that 2014 will be a watershed. “What I like seeing is the incremental progress,” says Mr Lee, explaining how technology can be around for many years until it makes an impact. “Suddenly it will hit an inflection point when a need is met.”

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