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“EPCOT will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are emerging from the forefront of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed. It will always be showcasing and testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems.” – Walter Elias Disney

Welcoming some 11 million visitors per year, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow – better known to Mouseketeers everywhere as “EPCOT” – is home to one of the most recognizable buildings on the planet: Spaceship Earth. Spaceship Earth captures the spirit of innovation, whisking riders away on a gentle journey through time that depicts the story of human interconnection from the dawn of recorded time to the world of tomorrow. However, it’s those last few minutes of the ride that are the most remarkable, as they paint a picture of what that tomorrow could be, given the giant technological leaps mankind continues to make.

The idea of a utopian Jetsons-style future that includes hover trains, flying cars, and self-cleaning houses might’ve once been considered a bit on the wacky side – not surprising given Walt’s penchant for turning whimsy into reality. However, his vision actually serves as a perfect window into the not-so-distant future thanks to the rise of the “Internet of Things” (IoT).

To forestall drifting into Rise of the Machines territory, it’s probably a good idea to start with a quick definition of the IoT…beyond the catchphrase of the year, that is. The IoT is a system of various devices connected by the Internet that are able to talk to one another and make decisions collectively, thereby creating a “smart” environment.

Probably the best way to explain the IoT though, is with an example. ReadWrite’s Brian Proffitt offers up a great explanation of how the IoT works using the example of a smart living room with three Internet-connected devices – a thermostat, lamp, and blinds. As ‘net-connected devices, they’ll do what you want, when you want them to. Pretty neat, right?

The IoT takes this functionality to the next level – these three devices will be able to work effectively together to make optimal decisions based on collected information, for example, your personal daily habits, and environmental changes. The IoT moves these devices from being reactive to being proactive, enabling them to solve problems and make decisions as needed, creating a smart environment.

We’re not there yet with the Internet of Things, but this new market is predicted to grow – and grow quickly. Projections now suggest that we’ll see more than 29.5 billion devices by 2020 thanks to a vanguard of technology, like Google Glass, smart appliances, and battery-free wireless sensors that are paving the way. As the IoT advances, there are still major hurdles that need to be overcome, such as compatibility, storage, and security. With a myriad of different vendors all peddling smart devices, developing a common language will be critical. And for it to truly reach its full potential, the IoT needs devices to be compatible. And then there’s the data problem – all of these devices will capture and generate huge amounts of data. Storing and securing this information are important factors for consideration as the IoT moves forward.

If there’s any question as to why it’s important to understand the coming Internet of Things, just look at how technology has dramatically changed the way we work, live, and play. By looking ahead at what’s coming, the world can prepare for disruptive innovation and decide how to best adopt (and adapt to) these new technologies.

We might not yet have hover trains, flying cars, or self-cleaning houses, but the IoT will put us a whole lot closer. Walt would be proud.

Thanks to Laurie Stewart for contributing to this blog post.