Babies not yet able to read, to seniors, and all ages in between, are using a ubiquitous technology that perhaps 30 years ago, hadn’t even pierced one’s consciousness. That technology is, of course, the internet, and all of the myriad ways we rely on it: communication, social networking, commerce and education, to name a few.

Likewise, industrial plants are looking to internet-enabled technologies to gain access to greater insights and more control over thermal processes. Such technologies allow remote monitoring, collaboration among plants and with technical experts, collection of key performance indicators, process data analysis and trending, and process data archiving.

While the leading-edge of internet-enabled technologies offers exciting advances for process plants, I can’t help but wonder: What might be next? Researchers on all fronts are developing exciting technologies that offer huge promise.

A team at the University of Washington has figured out how to give a piece of paper sensing capabilities that let it respond to gesture commands and connect to the digital world. The technology uses off-the-shelf radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags that function without batteries yet each tag offers offer a unique identification point to the system. A reader placed in the same room as the RFID-tagged paper can detect the tags and any touches or gestures in relation to them. For instance, when a hand waves, touches, swipes or covers a tag, thereby disrupting the signal path between the tag and the reader, algorithms interpret the change as a specific command. According to the research team’s lead author, Hanchuan Li, the tags can be turned into multi-gesture sensors. The tags also can track object velocity and use that data to enable specific responses.

Other teams are looking at ways to eliminate the need for or to extend WiFi capabilities. At Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII), the human body’s natural electrical conductivity is being exploited to detect what is touched. Based on feedback using one’s own electrical conductivity, the technique could detect whether a person is touching an electrical or electromechanical device and, based on the distinctive electromagnetic noise emitted by such devices, automatically identify the object, say the researchers.

At Stanford University, research continues to develop an ultra-low-energy wireless radio — a self-sufficient WiFi system that enables data transmission using just micro-watts of energy. The team, led by Sachin Katti, notes that to become reality, the Internet of Things will require such radios to pass commands to and from the network and a myriad of devices. Both the Stanford University wireless radio and research at University of Washington rely on backscatter, whereby WiFi signals are reflected back into the atmosphere. The team at the University of Washington is building upon previous research that showed how low-powered devices such as temperature sensors or wearable technology could run without batteries or cords by harnessing energy from existing radio, TV and wireless signals in the air.

Finally, the National Science Foundation is exploring future architectures for the internet to account for and accommodate the explosive growth of devices that we will seek to add to the Internet of Things. The team, which includes Dipankar “Ray” Raychaudhuri, a professor at Rutgers University, is exploring a shift from the current internet protocol (an address-based routing technology) to name-based routing. NSF is exploring whether such an architecture, alone or in concert with other protocols, would allow networks to better handle the exponentially increasing traffic on the internet.

“The traffic that comes from mobile devices into the internet has been increasing exponentially. It used to be 10 percent five years ago — now it’s over 50 percent,” says Raychaudhuri.

“As a result, mobile wireless capacity is beginning to run out,” he says. “That’s why cellular operators have to give you data limits. When you try to use a mobile phone and you’re downloading a web page, it stalls unexpectedly at times, and you have to wait for the signal to improve. Also, there are all kinds of holes in the security system that need to be fixed.”

It’s safe to assume that not all of these technologies in development will become widely used. At the same time, some will become as ubiquitous as voice-controlled intelligent personal assistant services and WiFi-enabled vehicles. Just imagine what you could do at your plant if you could just ask Alexa.