The world is getting ready for the next big thing or, to be exact, the Internet of Things. According to the US technology firm Gartner, over the next five years 26 billion items will contain computer chips, each wirelessly connecting inanimate devices to the internet to record every aspect of human life.
These intelligent devices already include smart kettles, vending machines, medical equipment, watches, toothbrushes, baby monitors and sports gear. Refrigerators will tell you when you need more milk and smoke detectors will text you when the battery runs out.
But in the future, even our clothes may be internet-enabled and the washing machine may let a repairman know if it needs fixing. We may even sit down on smart toilets to have our bowel movements monitored. “It's all largely driven by Moore's Law,” says Eben Upton, CEO of Raspberry Pi Trading. “It's the trend of being able to do anything when computers become cheaper and more powerful.”
As a consequence, students looking for a long-term career in this field should find an abundance of jobs when they complete their course. And what makes this sector more exciting is that the perfect job in a year or three's time may not even have been thought of today.
“I have no idea of the future,” says James Chapman, vice president of connectivity at connectivity company CSR. “Who would have thought when the internet began that people would get jobs at Google, or that the telephone would lead to call centre jobs?”
According to a study last year by microprocessor company ARM and the Economist Intelligence Unit, a lack of employee skills and knowledge was the biggest obstacle for organisations wanting to make use of the Internet of Things. Yet, Mr Chapman says, a wide base of skills are useful for the industry since it is likely that jobs will involve varied work with software, data science, sensors and batteries.
Programmers, designers and engineers will also be important. Companies making connected things will have to think not just about how the device works but the entire system on which it will run, so there will also be great scope for network experts.
Bandwidth will need to be increased and data transfer latency to the cloud would have to be reduced. There will be a greater call for security analysts as the robustness of devices connected to the internet will inevitably be questioned.
“The Internet of Things will need a broad range of engineering and software skills and when you widen things out, you're looking for people to write apps in the cloud and others to come up with new services, databases and user-interfaces,” says Mr Chapman.
CES 2014: The best gadgets from Las Vegas so far
CES 2014: The best gadgets from Las Vegas so far
With a pair of robotic toys named Bo and Yana (that's Bo playing the xylophone on the left) Play-i are hoping they can teach children how to code. Whilst there's plenty of similiar initiatives, Play-i are hoping they can reach young children, offering the mobile bots alongside a visual programming language that can be used by kids as young as 5. They fit together simple instructions (such as 'when blocked, turn right', or 'when shaken, play sound X') to teach Bo and Yana to respond to their environments, learning the blocks and mechanics of coding along the way.
The Pebble is one of the most venerable smartwatches out there but consumers have often complained that the device feels somewhat cheap and flimsy. The answer is the new Pebble Steel, an up-market model made from quality materials that comes with either a leather or steel-link strap. The e-ink interface remains identical but has now been covered with scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass. Expect increasingly attractive devices like the Steel as wearables become less of an oddity and more of a fashion statement.
Continuing to prove that drones can be fun for all as well as weapons of war, French company Parrot have released the MiniDrone - a compact version of their popular AR Drone quadrocopter. Portable enough to fit into a backpack with ease (the wheels on the side are detachable), the MiniDrone is controlled by a paired smartphone app over Bluetooth and has internal gyroscopes to keep it stable even when your hands are off the controls. Prices aren't yet known but it could be a perfect gift for the budding drone-pilot in your family.
Panasonic made its name with its high-quality TVs, but at CES it has also showed off a high-tech blowdryer with a flashy name to match. The "Nanoe" will actually wet your hair as it dries it. Pansonic claim that the device takes "mositure from your hair and in the air, and uses it to create tiny, moisture-rich particles that are small enough to penetrate the shafts of your hair".
The theme of 'everyday household object + smartphone app' is becoming an overly-familiar formula, especially when the the app in question can chivvy you into healthier habits. The Kolibree toothbrush (left) does exactly this for your dental hygiene, monitoring how long your brush and even where in the mouth you've covered. A connected app will time your daily routine and provide you with charts and data to compare with friends and family.
Whether you think the gadget in this picture looks creepy or caring will probably be a good prediction of how you'd feel about it tracking you round the house. It's the disturbingly named Mother from Sen.se, a company that specializes in connected devices. Each Mother comes with a number of senors the size of coin that can detect temperature, location and movement. They all feed info back to the Mother (which then reports to your smartphone) and can be used to record anything from how much you walk in a day to whether your plants need watering. Sen.se claims that Mother "offers the knowledge and comfort you want, when and how you want it, all while remaining discreet."
Typing on smartphones and other mobile devices is never convenient but a company named TrewGrip think they have a solution: 'rear typing'. Their eponymous gadget (left) wraps around your phone or tablet, repositioning a traditional qwerty keyboard into a vaugely steering wheel-like grip. A built in accelerometer lets you control an on-screen mouse by tiling the device around and the company promises a learning curve of 8-10 hours.
The little wheeled cylinder at the bottom of this picture might not look like much, but its makers - Orbotix - promise that the Sphero 2B is the best smartphone-connected toy on the market. Controlled by both iOS and Android handsets, the $99 device is rugged and programmable, with the makers hoping that users will learn how to think like a coder whilst they use it. Augmented reality games where the graphics pop up on mobile devices are available or you can simply engage in some traditional bumper car style fun with a pair of Spheros.
The new Aura from Withings (left) wants to help you wake up and fall asleep as gently as possible. Consisting of a soft pillow-sized pad that you slip under your sheet and a bedside lamp and speaker, the Aura monitors your sleeping patterns (including breathing and heart rates) before waking you at the right point in your sleep cycle with a gentle combination of light and sound. Coming to the UK in spring from £200, the Aura will connect to your smartphone, log your sleeping patterns and give you the best advice to catch 40 winks every night.
Curved screen displays for smartphones looks set to continue as a trend into 2014, with the LG G Flex (left) attracting plenty of attention. LG claim that the hand set (which curves from top to bottom) will better fit the contours of your face and offer users a more 'immersive' viewing experience. Whether or not it fits in your pocket quite so easily remains to be seen.
There's nothing that gets geeks more excited than the prospect of a smart oven (this wasn't even the only example from CES this year). With the new Discovery IQ Dual-Fuel (left) you get 10 different cooking modes that can be controlled remotely from your smartphone; you get cooking tutorials that you can download straight to the Android touchscreen on the hob itself; and - the clincher on the whole thing - you even get slow-closing doors.
The PrioVR (left) wants to take the idea of gamers using their body as a controller (as seem with the likes of the Kinect and the Nintendo Wii) and make it as accurate as possible with a full-body motion-capturing suit. Currently only the upper-body portion is available but the makers, Yei Technology, promise that the legs are on the way. Gamers use a pair of nunchuck controllers to move about, whilst the arm and head trackers capture where you're looking and aiming.
Steps are being taken to formalise the industry. Staffordshire University has created a three or four-year degree in partnership with Hewlett Packard that includes a study trip to China. Enrolling for 2015, the course looks at data storage and software development, maths, embedded systems, programming with C++ and smart sensor networks.
Google's Nest Labs, Samsung, ARM, Silicon Labs, Yale Security, Big Ass Fans and Freescale have also joined together under the banner Thread Group, aiming to set new standards. The Thread protocol is already being used in Nest products, including its connected thermostat and smoke and carbon-monoxide alarm.
But there should be the opportunity to go it alone too. “Services like Kickstarter can get amazing Internet of Things ideas off the ground,” says Mr Upton. “I created my first startup when I was at university, producing mobile phone games at a time when there were not many around. The Internet of Things industry is still at the stage where a lot of money can be made by individuals.”