What do Google (GOOG), Intel (INTC), IBM (IBM), Cisco (CSCO), GE (GE), Qualcomm (QCOM) and hundreds of smaller companies have in common? They’re all scrambling to take the lead in the biggest business opportunity in the history of technology: the Internet of Things. It’s so big, in fact, that just about every company has its own name for it.

GE recently coined the term Industrial Internet. IBM has thousands of programs underway in its Smarter Planet category. And, at his Consumer Electronics Show keynote, Cisco chief executive John Chambers said the Internet of Everything (his term) will be a staggering $19 trillion opportunity (that’s trillion with a “t”). He also said “It will be bigger than anything that’s ever been done in high tech.”

To be fair, Chambers was citing the cumulative economic impact by 2020. Regardless, the trend is so far reaching it’s even too big to be called the next big thing. So the question is, what exactly is the Internet of Things and what does it mean to you? Well, the big picture is pretty straightforward. Basically, it’s science fiction come to life.

Everything will be smart, networked, and automated, and I mean everything. Not just devices like phones and watches but home and industrial machines and everyday objects like doors and clothing. They’ll all have embedded sensors that communicate information to other smart “things” over wireless and wired networks.

And the best part: everything will happen without human intervention. For example, plants and agricultural crops will water themselves when they need it … not when they don’t.

Smart cars and highways will not only find the fastest way for you to get to where you’re going, they’ll help you get there safely by sensing potential accidents, break failure, even tire blowouts before they happen.

Networked smart meters will guide you to free parking spaces as you approach and, your favorite Italian restaurant will tell your car or phone how long you’ll have to wait for an open table.

Hospital operating rooms will sense unacceptable levels of bacteria on a surgeon and emergency rooms will be able to locate and route doctors and equipment in real-time.

Smart homes and businesses will make themselves energy efficient and safe. Smart kitchens will keep a database of supply levels and let you know when you’re low on milk and bread or order your groceries automatically.

You’ll even be able to preheat your oven on your way home or have it message you and the kids when dinner is ready. If that sounds too futuristic, I assure you, it’s not. This week at CES, Dacor introduced a smart oven that can do all that and more. 

In fact, smart wireless sensor networks have already been deployed in all sorts of industrial applications, not to mention a laundry list of newly or soon-to-be launched consumer products:  

We’re already improving our energy efficiency with intelligent power grids, self-managed office buildings and industrial plants, and smart meters. And GE is using big data and software analytics to predict industrial equipment failure before it happens and reduce downtime.

Nest Labs’ Tony Fadell recently revealed that his company’s Learning Thermostat is already in “almost 1% of U.S. homes” after launching just two years ago. The former Apple iPod developer also said that tens of thousands of Nest’s new Protect smoke and carbon monoxide detectors have come online in its first two weeks on sale.

Remember the Tricorder that Dr. “Bones” McCoy used to scan people with on the original Star Trek show? At CES, Silicon Valley-based Scanadu demonstrated Scout, a real life scanner that can conduct a physical exam and read all your vital signs in 10 seconds. The product is currently awaiting FDA approval.

San Francisco-based startup August has taken tens of thousands of preorders for a Smart Lock it expects to launch in the spring. The device, which comes with a smartphone app, enables completely programmable keyless access to your home. It allows short or long-term access for specific individuals and keeps a log.

And Intel has a technology platform called Edison; a tiny circuit board that uses the semiconductor giant’s newly introduced Quark processor to enable manufacturers to build computing and wireless communications into garments and other objects.

Which reminds me of a time, years ago, when an early innovator in the Internet of Things space was trying to explain to me just how far reaching this concept was, and said, “You know how socks have a funny way of disappearing? Not anymore.”

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, former senior executive, columnist and author of the upcoming book, “Real Leaders Don’t Follow." Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting where he advises executives and business leaders on strategic matters. Contact Tobak.