LAS VEGAS — As usual, Internet service is lousy here at the Consumer Electronics Show. It got so bad that visitors to the LG Electronics display were asked to turn off the Wi-Fi on their cellphones so LG’s refrigerator could have a friendly chat with a nearby stove.
Grilled chicken was on the menu. The fridge confirmed that it had all the necessary ingredients inside, then signalled the oven to start warming up. I could have watched TV while it was heating — the oven can flash a message on the screen when it reaches the correct temperature.
These LG smart appliances use computer chips and Wi-Fi wireless data technology to form a data network that lets the user control just about everything they do. And not just from the living room sofa. With a smartphone app, you can turn on the bedroom lights or turn off the dryer from anywhere in the world.
My first reaction: Who needs it? But a day or two at CES is changing my mind. Here I’ve seen dozens of companies scrambling to create new kinds of data networks that will link just about every device in our lives.
“The Internet of things,” they call it: a world of machine-to-machine communications, where washing machines and door locks, furnaces and fridges talk to one another, and, occasionally, to us. Geeks have spoken of it for years, but the Internet of things now may be finally coming into its own.
LG hasn’t announced the price of its latest brainy refrigerator, but last year’s less capable model cost $3,500. And a complete suite of the company’s smart machines — the range, washer, dryer, and compatible TV — would easily run you $10,000 or so. But companies are fitting brains into a host of affordable products, such as door locks, light switches, video cameras, thermostats, and window shades.
ADT Corp. has been pushing a line of smart-home security products called Pulse. At this year’s show, ADT showed off a new partnership with South Korea’s Samsung Corp. Buy one of Samsung’s smart TV sets and you’ll find an app that lets you control your home’s ADT Pulse systems. You can lock doors or view images from a wireless security camera using the TV remote control. Pulse costs as little as $149 for an entry-level setup, and users can add more features depending on their budget and level of paranoia.
ADT also announced a move into health care, partnering with Ideal Life, a Canadian maker of medical monitors. A customer can buy a Pulse system for an aging father, and get instant digital alerts if he may be in trouble. For example, a motion detector can detect whether he gets out of bed in the morning, and send a message to the customer’s smartphone if he doesn’t.
I admire these smart devices, but wish they were smarter. If you own a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth device, you know it will work with all other such devices. But today’s smart-home gadgets often feature proprietary software that won’t work with other brands. An LG washer won’t talk to a Samsung TV, for instance. ADT’s devices use a wireless standard called Z-Wave, but many other companies have embraced a rival standard called Zigbee. Still other products use good old Wi-Fi. Smart-home gear needs a universal set of standards, and none is in sight.
Enter home improvement retailer Lowe’s. Last summer, the company introduced Iris, a system with a wireless hub that connects with smart devices from a variety of manufacturers. The Iris system, which carries a starting price of $179, works with Zigbee, Z-Wave, and Wi-Fi devices. Consumers can buy an electronic lock from Yale Security Inc. or Schlage Lock Co., or a thermostat from Honeywell International Inc., and be confident that it will work.
Lowe’s has certified about two dozen products as Iris-compatible, and plans to add more. The company doesn’t make electronic gadgets, it just sells them, and so Lowe’s has every incentive to ensure they work well together.
Networked home products will keep getting better. For instance, LG plans an app that will let you scan your grocery receipts with a smartphone camera. The data is relayed to the fridge so it knows whether you remembered to buy milk.
And so the machines take another load off our minds, leaving us free to earn money to buy still more smart machines. I don’t suppose they’re doing it on purpose, but ask me again in a few years.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Watha.