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Turn On the Kitchen Lights, HAL. I'm Sorry, Dave, I Can't Do That ...

December 03, 2013

Connectivity via Wi-Fi

A solar-powered camera with Spark's Core could be used as a home-security camera, accessed from the user’s app. Photographer: Spark Core via Bloomberg

The simple act of turning off the lights had become a hassle at Andrew Schmitt's high-tech condo. The 36-year-old had installed a bunch of Internet-connected devices that were supposed to make his habitat more automated and efficient.

Instead, if he wanted to hit the lights or turn on the music, he had to search for his iPhone or iPad each time and fumble through different apps tied to various parts of his system: the motion detector, GE outlets and switches, Philips light bulbs and Sonos speakers.

"Looking back at it, it was very difficult, but I don't think I knew how difficult it was," said Schmitt, who lives in Traverse City, Michigan. "I couldn't press a button and, say, turn on the radio and dim the lights."

Welcome to the world of connected devices, where everything from Internet-enabled thermostats for the home to smart meters for small businesses hold the promise of making our lives easier.

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  • But for consumers such as Schmitt, this constellation of so-called (and odd-sounding) Internet of Things -- objects big and small that can be controlled remotely, monitored continuously and even learn to run on their own -- has felt more like a tangled web. That's because a growing number of businesses are pushing to be at the forefront of this shift, which has led to a hodgepodge of products that work fine independently but often not together.

    In response, startups such as Revolv, Spark, Electric Imp and Physical Graph, the company behind SmartThings, as well as big players including ATT, ADT, Staples and Vivint are now offering ways to help unify everything. Think of it as a universal remote, except instead of it being limited to your living room electronics, it's for the entire connected home or office.

    Like any new technology, convincing the mainstream market that the latest thing isn't just for computer nerds remains the challenge, especially if using them becomes the knotty mess that they're supposed to cure.

    A recent survey by research firm IDC found that fewer than 2 percent of consumers use systems for remotely monitoring smoke or fire at their home; changing heating or air-conditioning settings; or closing and opening doors. That's a small number when you consider that about 30 percent of Americans said they do want these functionalities.

    "The real evolution going forward is to integrate a lot of these different sensors and devices," said Jeremy Warren, a vice president at Vivint, which provides smart-home services to 800,000 users. "Most people would be very happy if they had the equivalent of a smart butler in the house."

    By the end of 2020, IDC expects there to be 212 billion products -- from rice cookers to cars -- connected to the Web globally. Related technology and services are forecast to generate $8.9 trillion in worldwide revenue by that time, up from $4.8 trillion last year. So expect the drumbeat of marketing for connected devices, variously called the Internet of Things or M2M (machine-to-machine) technology to only get louder.

    In many ways, the connected home is already here, just not in the way everyone initially envisioned. Instead of big appliances, consumers have flocked to light bulbs and other devices in the home that few expected would get the digital treatment.

    "People expected stoves and dishwashers and refrigerators," said Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics. "Instead it's the heating system, the video camera, the door."

    The reason? Consumers found the latter more useful. Still, that's not stopping companies and entrepreneurs from pitching a variety of unconventional gadgets, including the Qbox Wi-Fi connected barbecue smoker; WigWag, which can connect any object and help a plant send you a tweet when it's thirsty; and PetBot, which lets you feed and interact with your pet while at work.

    A big factor in the plethora of products coming out is the price of Wi-Fi chips, which has dropped by at least half over the last five years. That has made it cheaper to produce devices that can connect to a home's Internet service. By 2015, some 725 million households globally will have Wi-Fi access points, according to researcher IHS.

    "Eventually, everything will be connected," said Cyril Ebersweiler, venture partner at SOSventures. "The question is through what. As an investor, you want to bet on the platform, not necessarily the products."

    Even Nest, the most well-known player in the connected home, is moving in this direction. Its new $129 smoke detector, which alerts users when the battery is low via a mobile app, communicates with its popular thermostat, which allows consumers to control the temperature when they're away. Next year, the company will release software that lets makers of other devices connect to the Nest gadgets as well.

    "All these products should start talking to each other," said Maxime Veron, Nest's director of product marketing.

    When Zach Supalla, CEO of Spark, initially sought money on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter for a gadget that connected a light bulb to the Web, he discovered there were too many similar products also vying for attention. After raising only about half of his funding goal, he decided to change direction.

    Spark's new product is a package of hardware and software that lets developers connect all their gadgets to a common service so they can talk with each other. For example, a connected alarm clock can command the lights and radio to turn on at 6 a.m. to wake you up.

    Spark set a goal of raising $10,000 on Kickstarter. Instead, it drew $567,968. The nine-person startup began shipping its first 7,000 orders for the $39 product (it's cheaper when you order more) in late November.

    "This time around, we really scratched an itch," Supalla said.

    While startups such as Spark and Revolv offer products and services for the DIY crowd, Staples provides a bit more hand-holding. In mid-November, some stores began showcasing Staples Connect -- a $99 hub that can connect more than 100 pre-certified devices for the home or office. For example, small business owners can be alerted to the presence of smoke, water or people at the office or store during the after-hours with its product.

    Meanwhile, telecommunication companies, cable services and home-security providers are offering connected systems for a monthly fee. In April, ATT started Digital Life, which combines a security service with customizable home-automation features. So if a camera outside your house detects a movement at 2 a.m., it can snap a picture and send you an alert with a text message.

    "Your home is ultimately going to take care of you," said Glenn Lurie, president of emerging enterprises and partnerships at ATT. "This is about making the customer's life better and more simplistic and safer."

    Next year, ATT plans to include cars in its connected devices ecosystem, so it can tell your house to unlock the door and open the garage as you arrive, Lurie said. The company will also roll out ways for caregivers keep to tabs on elderly parents who might be at home.

    As for Schmitt, he continues to add different devices to his connected condo in Michigan. He recently bought two Nest Labs thermostats. His answer to the mishmash of gadgets has been to use a $299 device from Revolv that links everything together. As for his lights, they now come on automatically.

    "You definitely have the wow factor," he said. "My parents were in town, and they asked, 'How did that happen?'"


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