Business

Scott Kirsner | Innovation Economy

2015: Year of the Thing

Chris Philpot for The Boston Globe

The Internet of Things promises to eradicate 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.

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A Cambridge startup called BeON Home, for instance, raised just over $100,000 last month for those smart light bulbs to discourage burglars.

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.”

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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.

Kwikset makes a wirelessly controlled deadbolt called Kevo ($199) that allows you to give digital keys to those you want to let in, even if you’re not home. A $149 Mr. Coffee machine lets you use an app to set or modify the brewing schedule. Water Hero, from a Cambridge startup, can switch off your home’s water supply if it detects a major leak; it will start selling this year at about $199.

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“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.

Early adopters are giving valuable feedback on items like devices that are managed through smartphone apps.

Swirl via Associated Press

Early adopters are giving valuable feedback on items like devices that are managed through smartphone apps.

It isn’t hard to find early-adopter types like DesAutels who have installed several devices. They are a good source of feedback on the limitations and frustrations of the smart home. Sometimes, says Andover entrepreneur Les Yetton, “my Nest thermostat learns things I don’t want it to learn, like during a vacation week, when your behavior changes and you’re doing things differently.” A week spent sleeping late, for instance, can result in cold mornings once it’s time to return to work.

Setting devices up can be a headache, and so can ensuring that they remain hooked up to the W-Fi network. Adam Sigel of Brookline says that his Internet-connected bathroom scale — it can share your weight loss or lack thereof on Facebook as an incentive to stick to your diet — has to be reconnected every few weeks.

Entrepreneur Cory Von Wallenstein says that not everything works exactly as you would hope. When he installed heated gutters and a snow sensor at his Bedford, N.H., home, he found “it only applied the heat when it was actively snowing, which isn’t when ice dams are a problem.” Instead, he put in a switch that lets him turn on the heaters with his smartphone. But now, he finds juggling several different iPhone apps for various home devices a headache.

The solution may be a “hub” that connects numerous devices, and allows them to be controlled with a single app. Framingham-based Staples, for instance, sells the $79 Connect hub, which it says can control more than 150 different devices, including thermostats, door locks, and smoke detectors. But in these early days — with big players like Apple, Samsung, and Google all jockeying for prime position in the future home — not every device you purchase will work with every hub.

But once devices are connected to a hub, says Staples vice president Brian Coupland, consumers discover interesting new possibilities. One Connect user attached a sensor to his garage door, and set it up to send him an alert at 9 p.m. if his kids had left the door open; that ended the problem of raccoons ransacking the garage. Solving actual problems like that will help Internet of Things technology find its way into more homes.

With the costs of contract manufacturing coming down, and an eager audience of “backers” willing to put their money behind new ideas on funding sites like Kickstarter, we are seeing an explosion of creativity in the realm of connected devices. That means 2015 will see a lot of trial and error — some of which could lead to hit connected products.

Maybe it isn’t the Egg Minder, a $49 gadget that can report on how many eggs remain in your fridge, but it could be the Bluesmart, a $280 suitcase that can weigh itself before you get to the airport, and be locked and unlocked with a phone.

David Stephenson, a consultant in Medfield who focuses on connected technology, says that “the barriers to entry are so low to creating new devices that I suspect we’ll be surprised by some great stuff that’s going to come out of left field.”

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner and on betaboston.com.
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