When I tell people I work for an IoT or Internet of Things software company, the most common response is “what?”

“IoT” feels much less mainstream than other tech buzzwords, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR).

But why?

In my opinion, the promise of the Internet of Things- to connect everything in the physical world through wired and wireless networks- is as transformational as the potential of AI and VR.

The answers as to why the term IoT has yet to go mainstream are complex. IoT, AI and VR have very different origin stories and histories. Popular culture references to IoT are vast but rarely explicitly named. The term IoT may simply need a rebranding to something snappier.

To develop the next generation of IoT devices and systems, we need to inspire people to join the industry. Making IoT or a similar term a part of everyday vernacular is an important step to achieve this goal.

In this post, I’ll explore the popularity of all three terms in various cultural contexts, go over the history of the terms, and consult Temboo’s Head of Marketing, Jessica Califano, for suggestions on if and how IoT should be re-branded. Let’s dive in!

Who’s Winning the Popularity Contest?

If we can agree IoT is a less mainstream concept than AI and VR, just how much less popular is it?

Analyzing Google search engine data is a easy first step to pulse buzzworthiness over time. Below is the comparative volume of searches for the terms “IoT”, “AI” and “VR” over the past 5 years. As you can see, the number of searches for “AI” and “VR” is dramatically higher than the number of searches for “IoT.”

It’s interesting to note that the search team “IoT” increased in popularity between 2014-2016, but has flatlined since.

It’s possible that industry-specific terms for IoT, such as “smart home” and “smart city” diluted “IoT”‘s search volume. The results suggest that the term “smart home” is still gaining popularity. However, its search volume alone cannot account for IoT’s lag behind AI and VR.

In addition to Google searches, films are another great way to gauge the relative popularity of a concept. To do this, I checked the CMU Movie Summary Corpus, established by David Bamman, Brendan O’Connor, and Noah Smith at Carnegie Mellon University.

The team extracted 42,306 movie plot summaries from Wikipedia in 2012. Neither “Internet of Things” or “IoT” appear in any of the 40,000 plus movie plot summaries. However, virtual reality and artificial intelligence make many appearances.

So, obviously IoT is a significantly less popular term than AI and VR. Next up, I researched the origin stories of the three terms for clues as to why.

How Communities Unite Around Terminology

There are elements of underlying concepts behind IoT, AI and VR that stretch back over the past 100 years. However IoT, AI and VR were coined as terms within the last several decades. The origin stories of the terms AI, IoT, and VR hold clues as to why IoT is lagging in popularity.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

robot playing the piano

In an interview with AI Magazine, John McCarthy, who coined the term “artificial intelligence” described his frustration at with the lack of research into the possibility of computers possessing intelligence in the 1950s.

In 1950, English mathematician, Alan Turing, published his seminal paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence“. In the paper, Turing proposes a method to evaluate whether machines can think, aka the “Turing Test.”

However, computers’ $200,000 price tag meant few computers were available for research at that time. Plus, computers had only recently gained the requisite features for artificial intelligence, such as the ability to store commands.

McCarthy helped organize the Dartmouth Summer Research Project of 1956. The months-long summit intended to be a space for researchers to agree on a general theory for artificial intelligence.

The conference proposal stated, “The study is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.” While a collaborative research community failed to materialize that summer, the field steadily grew.

Rockwell Anoyha documented the growth of artificial intelligence with the timeline below.

Courtesy of Rockwell Anoyha.

The Internet of Things (IoT)

Internet connected lawnmowers

In September of 1985, thought leaders, legislators, and concerned citizens assembled in Washington D.C. for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Legislative Conference.

At the conference, Peter T. Lewis, co-founder of a local cellular telephone company, reportedly gave a speech about the “Internet of Things.” U.S. regulators had approved commercial cellular service just three years prior, transforming our ability to send data wirelessly.

The term reportedly resurfaced fourteen years later. Kevin Ashton, who worked in supply chain management at Proctor & Gamble, pitched senior management on putting RFID tags on every product. He titled his presentation “The Internet of Things” and helped implement RFID technology at Proctor & Gamble, and enterprises everywhere.

According to research by IoT Analytics, between 1999-2009, the term was used sparingly. Their article “Why the Internet of Things is called Internet of Things: Definition, history, disambiguation,” cites the adoption of the term IoT by the Chinese government in 2010, Gartner in 2011, and popular tech magazines, such as WIRED, in 2012.

Google search data from 2004-present confirms there was little online chatter about IoT until 2013.

Virtual Reality (VR)

girl with VR headset

“I don’t like ‘virtual’ either; too tech-y but so far I have not been able to come up with anything better.”

This quote is from a 1992 interview with Jaron Lanier, published in WIRED magazine. Lanier is credited with coining the term virtual reality in 1987 to describe technology that uses computerized clothing that synthesizes shared reality.

HowStuffWorks reports Lanier worked in New Mexico State University’s Math Department where he became passionate about finding a simple way to express mathematical language. He developed a visual programming language, but there was no computer screen large enough to display his outputs.

Lanier went on to create VPL Research to develop a headset and glove alternative, which drew much more interest than his programing language. VPL Research pioneered VR commercialization, although their first set of goggles and gloves came with hefty price tags, ranging from $9,000-$49,000. At the end of the 1980’s, Lanier believed it would take 5 years for VR to go mainstream.

Fast forward to today, and VR is a mainstream term without a mainstream following. The cost of VR equipment is dramatically lower than it was back in the 80s. For example, the Oculus Go launched this year with a $199 price tag. However VR remains a more celebrated idea than a widely adopted technology.

Conclusion

The term “AI” has been used for the past 60 years within academia and popular culture. Its long history helps explain why it is more popular than the terms IoT and VR.

Since VR was coined just shortly after IoT, it should follow that they are nearly equal in popularity. But that has not happened.

Whereas a community of researchers, corporations and government agencies quickly coalesced around VR after it was coined, the same did not happen for IoT.

There’s a gap of over 25 years between 1985, when IoT was coined, and 2010 when the Chinese government included IoT in its 5-year growth plan. For now, it seems the self-identifying IoT community is still in an early adoption phase.

Does IoT Need a Re-brand?

There are few better people to ask this question than Jessica Califano, Temboo’s Head of Marketing. Jessica stays on top of language trends in the IoT industry and has a lot of thoughts on why the term hasn’t hit the mainstream quite yet.

Below is a condensed version of my interview where I asked for her opinion on whether IoT is a buzzworthy term.

Why hasn’t the term “internet of things” become popular?

The internet has become so ingrained in our lives that it’s secondary to think about the internet being a part of our physical world. Consider the term “smartphones.” Now we just call them phones because, of course, phones are connected to the internet.

Another problem is that there are very few consumer IoT devices that are making a big impact in people’s lives. Smart phones changed the game – but most people don’t think of phones when they think about the Internet of Things.

Smart thermostats, security systems, and watches are all relatively popular and well known. But have they had a major impact on the everyday consumer? Possibly, but that is yet to be seen. More and more people are becoming concerned with privacy and how companies are using their data both in the physical world and the digital world.

At the same time, you can find Twitter accounts dedicated to making fun of dumb IoT devices that do not add a lot of value, like a smart toaster. So, what are the IoT devices that will make people care?

Finally, the media tends to throw the word “smart” in front of any internet connected physical object. If people don’t see or hear the term IoT in the media, it’s likely that they won’t use it on their own, which stalls adoption of the phrase in the cultural lexicon.

Does the term “internet of things” do a good job of capturing the concept it describes?

In a way it does. However, “things” is such a generic term and I think that’s where people get lost. A majority of people don’t know what the “internet of things” is, but they’ve probably used an IoT product at some point in their lives.

This is manifesting as a trend of breaking down “things” into subsets that are more understandable. In the manufacturing industry, people started using the term Industry 4.0 in 2011. In the healthcare industry, people refer to the Internet of Medical Things or telehealth. The “internet of things” is so broad that adding a qualifier can make the concept more tangible.

What are alternate terms that might be better than IoT?

I think “cyber-physical systems” also does a good job at capturing the concept of IoT. However, it does sound more technical and doesn’t necessarily convey the same meaning as IoT.

“Smart (insert name of thing here)” is another alternative. The problem with that is that it doesn’t convey the full context of the network of things connected to the internet and often is grouped with other emerging technologies like blockchain.

The internet is a vast, worldwide system and the Internet of Things is on track to be a large part of that. In the end, the best term is probably just IoT. Or “computerization of objects” (just kidding).

A Conversation Starter

Language is important. We need to have the right words to have meaningful conversations as technology creators and as a greater society about the future of an internet connected world.

Whether the term is “internet of things,” “smart objects,” “cyber-physical systems” or something new, let’s invite more people to the discussion.

If you want to talk more about your ideas for IoT, email us at hey@temboo.com.

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Posted by:Sarah McMillian, Product Outreach

Sarah is on the Product Outreach team at Temboo. Using her background in mechanical engineering, she helps manufacturers and other types of businesses do more with IoT. Sarah keeps podcasts on tech + society in heavy rotation, and has worked in four continents.