The Internet of Things promises to fix most of the annoyances of the 21st century homeowner. Broken appliance? Sensors will diagnose what’s wrong, report it to the manufacturer, and quickly dispatch a repairman with the necessary part. Intelligent light bulbs will make your home look inhabited while you’re away. And if your pipes should freeze and then burst, a device in your basement will alert you by smartphone before you’ve got a swimming pool.
Is 2015 finally the year that the long-heralded potential of a house full of connected devices starts to materialize? At this week’s always optimistic Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, keynote addresses and panels of experts will make that case. And funding sites like Kickstarter are full of proposed projects, many from local entrepreneurs, that aim to add sensors and connectivity to all kinds of household objects, allowing you to monitor and control them with a smartphone.
In the 1980s and 1990s, academics and researchers began to connect things like toasters and vending machines to the Internet, to demonstrate that you could control them over the network or view their status — like whether there was any Diet Coke left. Late in the ’90s, Kevin Ashton, a Procter & Gamble executive who came to MIT to start a research center, may have been the first to use the phrase “Internet of Things,” to discuss the idea of objects gathering and relaying information on their own, without help from humans. Another MIT researcher, Neil Gershenfeld, wrote a seminal book titled, “When Things Start to Think.”
But Internet of Things technologies have showed up slowly in the homes of consumers, mainly among the gadget obsessed or price insensitive. Last January, though, Google shelled out $3.2 billion to acquire Nest, a maker of “learning thermostats” that observe your comings and goings and adjust the temperature accordingly — or let you adjust it via smartphone.
That Google acquisition may have been the true starting gun of this race. Within a few months, big retailers like Staples and Home Depot began stocking products like smart locks and Wi-Fi -connected security cameras, on their shelves. By December, I was having lunch with a video game executive in downtown Boston who pulled out his iPhone and showed me a live view of his living room in Foxborough. The price for that device, the Dropcam: $149.
“Products are starting to be useful and affordable, so people can finally consider buying them,” says Philip DesAutels of Waltham. DesAutels is senior director of IoT (that’s Internet of Things) for the Linux Foundation, the open-source software consortium. He swears by the $199 SkyBell smart doorbell, which lets him use his iPhone to see who is at the door and communicate without leaving his home office on the second floor.