Too many remotes? The internet of things can solve it

Look around. Can you see the internet of things? The beginning stages of the network of connected devices and services that can help us track our fitness goals, manage our home automation and improve factory performance is all around us; we just have to knit things together. We also have to start tracking how many devices we’re connecting to the internet, especially those that we don’t interact with directly, like we do laptops or smartphones.

If the core theme of our internet of things meetup in San Francisco was how we define the topic, then the big question of our Boulder, Colo. meetup on Wednesday night was, “where is the internet of things?” THE 80-to-90 people at the home of TechStars (our host for the evening) weren’t interested in abstract ideas about avatars or services versus hardware; they wanted the stories from on the ground.

For example, Mike Soucie, a cofounder of Mobiplug, laid out his company’s vision for the connected home, showing how you could connect your existing devices using the Mobiplug hub. He was asked about privacy; namely, when we put all this information from our Philips’ Hue light bulbs to our door locks on our phone, what happens if the phone goes missing? Or someone snoops on our home Wi-Fi network? Soucie acknowledged that these are concerns, but didn’t really answer the question, stating that people already keep a lot of information on their phones today.

But he did help people stop thinking about the internet of things as some brand-new concept, pointing out this it is an extension of inventions like the printing press that helped drive the spread of information, and thus innovation. In many cases, where we are today is similar, only the information is coming at us much faster — and we have cheap computing to do something with it.

Mike Rosenblatt, CEO of Atoms Express.
Mike Rosenblatt, CEO of Atoms Express.

The historical perspective was popular with Michael Rosenblatt, who is the CEO of Atoms Express, a connected toy company. He traced the internet of things back to a connected stock ticker from the late 1800s and pointed out that companies exist who still do variations on that today (click through). His presentation dovetailed nicely with Soucie’s. From both I took away three characteristics consumers will likely care most about when purchasing connected products:

Unification: As Rosenblatt said, “At home I have a bunch of remotes and now I have a bunch of apps.” This is almost the founding statement of Mobiplug as well. No one wants to open six apps to turn down the lights, start a movie, lock the doors and settle in for a movie night.

Wrap your software in great hardware : This is pretty self-explanatory, but even if the internet of things will center around services and software, you will lure consumers with the hardware itself. So make it attractive and resilient.

Device awareness (network topologies) will matter : This one is nerdy, but important. A true internet of things won’t just react to you (or your smartphone) it should be able to react to other devices around it. Network protocols and figuring out how to program networks will be crucial in bringing more autonomy to the internet of things (at that point we can rename it Skynet).

Matt Bolton of SparkFun.
Matt Bolton of SparkFun.

While Soucie and Rosenblatt covered where we have been and where they hope the industry goes, another speaker, Matt Bolton of SparkFun, offered a complementary presentation that showcased how the internet of things owes a debt to the Maker movement. The availability of electronics projects like those sold by SparkFun are often a gateway drug for the entrepreneurs who end up starting IoT companies.

The culture around hacking together hardware leads people to contemplate how the experience can be improved — and since many of these projects involved an element of connectivity, people start looking at how to bridge the digital and physical worlds in ways that more and more people could participate in. Out of projects like that you get startups like SmartThings, Electric Imp, and others.

Bolton’s points about the challenges faced by SparkFun as an open hardware manufacturer — he estimates his company has 12 weeks before someone clones their designs — also echoes an unfortunate truth about the speed at which alternatives to hardware can enter the market. That’s why services and software will be so crucial for startups building the internet of things.