Machine to machine (M2M) communication, from automobile monitoring systems to card-swiping dongles to Web-connected home appliances, something many people have been excited about for years, is finally hitting mainstream markets in a big way. But connected devices could be surpassed in importance by passive tracking of connected objects, due to cost and scaling constraints.

Mark Roberti, founding editor of the publication RFID Journal, writes in an editorial this month that while M2M communication has great potential, the “real value” for sensor technology lies in machine-to-object communication. The costs associated with requiring machine devices to actively transmit data about their status back to another machine (power, broadcast, etc.) will likely limit the deployment of that type of communication to contexts where fluctuations in data are extremely valuable in-and-of themselves. Using low-cost transponders to passively monitor changes in the status of objects will become far more common and important, Roberti argues.

In order to illustrate his point, Roberti offers the example of a company that would monitor the amount of liquid in a container. You could put a wireless sensor in the container that would send a message back to a server periodically with information about how much liquid was inside, but that would be expensive. (If you came here to read about Facebook and Twitter, bear with us. “Liquid in a container” is relevant and points toward a very exciting future.)

He continues:

Such a vision raises questions of consumer privacy, data ownership, silos vs effective cross-company development platforms, corporate vs consumer power and much more.

“On the other hand, a firm could put passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) transponders inside a container at various levels. Since the liquid would interfere with the ability to read the tags, a company could determine liquid levels by ascertaining which tags can and can not be read…you can’t put a Wi-Fi transmitter or a cell phone on every box of Tide detergent, bag of Granny Smith apples or Van Heusen shirt. Low-cost RFID tags will, one day, be put on all of these things, enabling M2O communication.”

Leading wireless industry analyst Chetan Sharma detailed a similar vision to us in an interview earlier this year. (How 50 Billion Connected Devices Could Transform Brand Marketing & Everyday Life.) Sharma talked with us about cereal boxes with sensors inside them. Manufacturers could monitor those sensors to know when to prompt you to order more cereal (online, cutting out retail middlemen altogether) and to offer social, nutrition and communication features online or on your mobile device regarding your favorite brand of breakfast food.

Roberti says this will be a defining opportunity for the rest of the century.

“This change – enabling computers to see and understand what is happening in the real world – is enormous. Most people have yet to grasp it, seeing RFID as a more expensive alternative to bar codes. They don’t comprehend that when computers can automatically collect information regarding what is happening in the world, new insights and business strategies then become possible. And the companies that leverage these capabilities most effectively will be the big winners in the century ahead.”

Such a vision raises questions of consumer privacy, data ownership, silos vs. effective cross-company development platforms, corporate vs. consumer power and much more.

For now, though, let’s simply consider that machine-to-object communication may, according to one very informed perspective, be the biggest game in town above and beyond social data and machine-to-machine communication in the fast-approaching data-centric future.

Perhaps it’s time to start thinking about your machine-to-object strategy.

marshall kirkpatrick