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Hiawatha Bray | Tech Lab

CES takes connectivity to another level

LAS VEGAS — The next big thing at this year’s International CES is, well, everything.

About 20,000 products will debut at the world’s leading consumer tech trade show, which gets underway Tuesday. Probably none of them will have the market-changing impact of high-definition TV or tablet computers. But a great many of these shiny new gadgets at the massive Consumer Electronics Show — with its 160,000 attendees and 3,600 exhibitors — are rooted in the premise that anything with a battery or a power cord should also have an Internet address.

It’s a concept called The Internet of Things, based on the idea of connecting nearly every manmade device to the global data network. It’s been a staple of CES hype for years, but the buzz seems to be resonating differently this time out, as if even the most jaded industry-watchers are morphing into true believers.

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J.P. Gownder, an analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, described this year’s CES as “a coming-out party” for the Internet of Things.

“It kind of crystallizes this moment that says we as an industry believe that this isn’t theoretical anymore,” he said.

Children’s watches by HereO are equipped with GPS so that parents can always locate their offspring.
Children’s watches by HereO are equipped with GPS so that parents can always locate their offspring.(Britta Pedersen/EPA)

Shawn DuBravac, chief economist of the Consumer Electronics Association, which sponsors the show, said that “all of the building blocks are now in place” to link our phones, TVs, appliances, cars, and even homes. That is mainly because computers, storage sensors, and wireless network connections have all become cheap enough to add networked intelligence to practically anything, he said.

“The question is no longer is it technologically possible,” DuBravac said. “The question today is whether it’s technologically meaningful. Is it useful?”

In some cases, the answer is a decisive yes.

Consider the success of Nest Labs, the Palo Alto, Calif., creator of an intelligent, Internet-connected home thermostat. Since its launch in 2011, Nest has sold over a million of its pricey — about $250 — thermostats. The mass-market success proved the Internet of Things was not just for geeks.

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“I think that the Nest was a big stepping-stone” toward the Internet of Things, said Roger Kay, the president of Endpoint Technologies Associates in Wayland. “It was simple, it was elegant . . . something people could actually find a use for.”

When Google Inc. bought Nest last year for $3.2 billion, it amounted to an official declaration that the Internet of Things was for real.

Another boost has come from Apple Inc. Its iOS 8 software for the iPhone and iPad includes HealthKit, an interface designed to interact with intelligent health and fitness devices, and HomeKit, which connects with smart home appliances like the Nest thermostat. By adding these features to the most popular line of smartphones in the United States, Apple has made it easier to develop intelligent, networked devices that will appeal to millions of consumers.

SDI Technologies Inc., of Rahway, N.J., is racing to cash in on the growing demand. On Monday, the company unveiled a smart electric switch that interfaces with HomeKit, enabling a user to remotely control lights or other electric devices through an iPhone.

The iHome switch works with Apple’s Siri voice-control technology, so you can switch off the living room lights just by saying so. The iHome switch is due to go on sale by midyear.

Countless other CES vendors are showing off new Internet-capable devices in Vegas this year. For instance, Whirlpool has a new washer-and-dryer combo that speaks to the Nest thermostat. With its motion-sensing technology, the Nest knows when nobody is home. It tells the dryer, which then switches to a lower-temperature setting. The clothes dry more slowly to save energy because no one is in a hurry to put them on.

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But here is the really smart part: The user does not have to program this behavior; the dryer and thermostat work it out for themselves.

But is there something slightly sinister about our gadgets knowing so much about our comings and goings, our habits and rituals? Are the machines invading our privacy? Besides, with so many companies making Internet of Things devices, there is no guarantee that they will play nicely together.

It’s bad enough when a smoke detector malfunctions; imagine your thermostat mistakenly ordering the dryer to scorch those expensive designer jeans.

Or worse, imagine a hacker gaining access to the Nest thermostat’s record of when you leave your home every day. That would make it a lot easier to burglarize your house.

CEA’s DuBravac said that it’s time to start asking such questions in earnest — before the rapidly accelerating technology becomes ubiquitous.

“I don’t think that our destiny is yet defined,” he said.

“Our destiny is yet before us, and we can control it. We’re deciding it today.”


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com.