When I want to find my nearest cafe, I search for it on Google. If I need to find my son in a busy crowd, I can send him my location via iMessage or WhatsApp. But if I want to find my slippers in my house, I’m not used to turning to technology – not yet, anyway. But such a possibility now seems imminent following the debut of the Bright BMBR Smart Jacket earlier this month at the Decoded Fashion Summit in New York. This digitally-enhanced jacket marks the entrance of apparel into the global ecosystem of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the hottest tech buzzword of 2016.
The IoT has stepped into the limelight over the past few years, but actually dates back to 1999 when British engineer Kevin Ashton first coined the phrase. It is the connection of inanimate objects to the internet, allowing them to communicate globally across platforms, networks, devices and system. It sits within the arena of computing physics that is merging the physical and digital worlds at an astonishing rate.
The BMBR Smart Jacket is one of the first consumer products to be Born Digital – in other words, made digital at the point of manufacture. In this case, the jacket is embellished with a digital label that gives it a virtual existence in the cloud. It is the result of a collaboration between Fortune 500 packaging materials leader Avery Dennison, the IoT pioneer EVRYTHNG and menswear brand Rochambeau. Fifteen limited-edition pieces, due for release next month, are woven with an NFC chip and a QR code, tucked away in a zipped pocket on the left sleeve and give the wearer exclusive VIP access in NYC when detected with a smartphone. I had the chance to catch up with Rochambeau co-founder and designer Laurence Chandler: “We wanted to imagine what the jacket would be like if it came to life. How would it live? What would it do?”
“The IoT adds another layer of identity to the brand, it brings it to life. It gives us, as a brand, another platform for content” – Laurence Chandler, designer and co-founder, Rochambeau
It is estimated that the IoT will contribute US$8tr to the global economy over the next decade. The UK government has been quick to exploit its potential, investing £40m in March to accelerate its development, including listening to the vast array of connected machines and efficiently processing the data they provide. With Big Data dominating the digital landscape and agenda, businesses that best employ data analytics and predictive tools to capitalise on the rich, diverse and immediate flow of information will leave their competitors trailing. For Rochambeau, the move was part of a broader strategy: “The IoT adds another layer of identity to the brand, it brings it to life. The jacket looks different, inspiring people to ask the wearer questions. It gives us, as a brand, another platform for content.”
IBM has been a piorneer in this field. Its supercomputer Watson proved the power of combining data processing with machine learning when it defeated champions of the quiz show Jeopardy! in 2011. The cognitive computer, named after the company’s founder Thomas J Watson, was provided with over 200 million pages of structured and unstructured data and a mechanism to learn from its mistakes, transforming it from supercomputer into superhuman. IBM has since developed IoT software across all industries with Watson, including retail, financial services and healthcare, to harness the 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created each day.
Ninety percent of the data that exists today has been created in the last two years alone, and pioneers in the FMCG sector have been quick to take advantage of it. Carling recently responded to the challenge of brand loyalty by trialling its physical Beer Button. The button, located in the refrigerator, is connected to a smartphone app and linked to the online shopping basket of any number of retailers, including Sainsbury’s and Waitrose. Similar in practice to the Amazon Dash Button, a simple push of the button delivers beer straight to your door.
Malibu and Martini have also developed innovative IoT concepts. In collaboration with agency SharpEnd, Malibu has developed a connected coconut cup to let bar staff know when glasses are empty. It is set to be ready for bars, clubs and festivals in mid-2017. Similarly, Martini has partnered with creative design agency AMVBDDO to launch the ‘Smart Cube’, a Bluetooth-powered ice cube that featured at a pop-up bar at the Italian F1 Grand Prix. Dutch drinks giant Heineken has also noted plans to start integrating the Internet of Things into its hardware, including bottles and bar taps. These innovations are designed to improve user experience, such as alleviating the issues of overcrowded bars and tampered-with drinks.
Beyond FMCG, the concept of the fully connected home is now firmly in our peripheral vision. John Lewis has established a ‘Smart Home’ zone in its Oxford Street, Leeds and Southampton stores (with plans for further roll-out) devoted to IoT gadgets across entertainment, home monitoring, heating, lighting and wellbeing. The thermostats, cameras and smoke alarms displayed are set to save us billions of kilowatt-hours of energy and enhance home security. Johnathan Marsh, John Lewis buying director for electricals and home technology, told me that “when customers see connected home devices, they’re not entirely sure whether they need it or if indeed it is right for them. Our job at John Lewis is to curate a selection of the best products on the market and bring them together in an inspiring way to support the shopping experience that creates a vision of the connected home.”
“There are no longer any barriers to connection” – Johnathan Marsh, buying director for electricals and home technology, John Lewis
The rise of consumer expectation for seamless services is relentless, with a key focus on immediacy and ease of use. The long-awaited Google Home launched this month, enabling US customers to turn the lights on, check flight details or play music with simple voice commands. Competing with the likes of Amazon Echo, the ‘personal assistant’ market is sure to be a busy one, following in the steps of digital personal assistants such as Siri, Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. Like Johnathan says, “there are no longer any barriers to connection.”
The Internet of Things is rapidly gaining momentum: IT research and advisory consultancy Gartner predicts 20.8 billion connected devices by 2020 worldwide. It’s amazing that I can now believe in a future where I can ask my slippers to book my next pedicure. We’re beginning to envisage an entire society of consumer goods that is #BornDigital. The Internet of Things is quickly being replaced by the Internet of Everything, set to engulf us all!