Weird IoT Candidates of Late: More Solutions Seeking a Problem?
Sometimes — heck, we’ll go as far as oftentimes — technology solves a problem and improves the quality of our lives, by, say, automating mundane tasks, or keeping our loved ones, and our stuff, safe. But just as often, inventing high-tech solutions to deal with everyday issues just makes life more complicated. For example:
Rubato: The clock that intentionally tells you the wrong time
If you’re having a hard time concentrating, perhaps distorting your sense of time will help! Rubato is a wall clock that is controlled using a smartphone app, which does something called “Smart Time Manipulation” – essentially speeding up time while you’re getting started on a task, and then slowing down once you’re in the zone, until it catches up with normal time again – giving you “more” time to be productive. To us, this represents another questionable application of the word “smart,” for starters. It’s sort of like a more complicated version of setting your watch 10 minutes fast so you have a shot at actually leaving on time, and is probably equally likely to attract just as much procrastination as before. The best thing about this clock is the name: Rubato, in musical terminology, is Italian for “stolen time.” It comes in two versions, Poco (small) and Molto (large).
Smart Duvet: A self-made bed (starting at $464)
This is an interesting one: Smart Duvet is basically a glorified air mattress that goes inside your duvet cover. A smartphone-connected pump fills it with air, magically spreading out your duvet and “making” the bed. This is done on a schedule that you set, or whenever you hit the “make bed” button on the mobile app. If this seems like a good idea to you, consider a few caveats: The Smart Duvet won’t fluff your pillows for you. It can’t grab a top sheet or blankets, so unless you sleep under just a duvet, you’ll be climbing into a short-sheeted bed every night. It also appears you’ll be sleeping under a duvet filled with air instead of down – so you should probably turn up the thermostat. And of course, you’ll want to center your duvet on the bed so it doesn’t end up askew (or on the floor) when the Smart Duvet inflates – while you’re at it, just give it an extra tug and save yourself the 500 bucks. Really. Also, you probably should not purchase the Smart Duvet if you own a cat, dog, or other pet prone to routinely disobeying the house rule that is “no cats/dogs on the bed!” On the other hand, if paired with a smart camera, the combo could make for some fresh YouTube material of startled, flying cats and dogs….
CHiP: The Keurig of cookies ($129 plus dough … pun intended…)
Every so often we see a product that makes us weep for the future of the human race. This one qualifies. CHiP is a “smart cookie oven” that bakes “cookie pods,” which are available via subscription. You can use the smartphone app to make your cookies chewy or crispy, and then you’ll be notified when they’re ready to eat. Each cookie costs between $0.88 and $2.25, depending on whether you choose “Classic,” “Select,” or “Premium” – the latter includes mouth-watering flavors like Red Velvet Beetroot White Chocolate. (Beetroot?)
In case you’re wondering, you can also use your own dough in CHiP, and even program the machine to remember the settings for your favorite family recipe. But the company recommends using cookie pods for the best cookie experience, including “virtually no clean-up.” Just put CHiP next to your recliner and you’ll never have to get up again!
Dog Parker: A climate-controlled, Internet-connected place to park your dog.
The Dog Parker is an interesting subscription service being tested in Brooklyn, where business owners can get a leg up (heh, heh) on the competition by going beyond the friendly water bowl on the ground by the door. The Dog Parker is a climate-controlled, Bluetooth-connected, members-only doghouse. Once you sign up for the $25/year membership, you can view available Dog Parkers in your vicinity using the smartphone app (and reserve one up to 15 minutes in advance). Once you slide your membership card and park your pooch, you can use the mobile app to monitor the cameras inside the Dog Parker to make sure your dog isn’t going berserk. On that note: Dog Parker recommends kennel training your dog for best results (no kidding).
Once you collect your dog, a UV light comes on to sanitize the Dog Parker for the next occupant. But we all know that some things can’t be fixed by UV light – so what happens if somebody soils the Dog Parker? According to the company, a cleaning crew makes the rounds every evening to scrub out all the Dog Parkers, and can also be summoned using the app if you find an odiferous surprise waiting when you open the door. (Or you could just suck it up and use the poop bags tied onto Rover’s leash.) Which brings us to some lingering questions: How long will you and Fido wait for the cleaning crew to show up? What if there’s a glitch and the Dog Parker runs a UV sanitize cycle on your dog? Does it have a Squirrel Filter? And whatever happened to putting him in your purse?
Stay tuned: Next time, an update on some of the technology that IS making our lives easier.
Cream of the Kickstarter Crop: Fall 2016
Every few weeks, I like to browse through the technology projects on Kickstarter – often a treasure trove of IoT ideas, from brilliant to head-scratching. Today, we bring you some of the most compelling ideas currently on Kickstarter (stay tuned for a roundup of projects on the “Hmm, that’s… interesting” end of the spectrum).
Dot – Contextual Smartphone Notifications
First up is Dot, described as a “physical push notification.” Don’t worry if you find that description confusing, so did we. In a nutshell, you stick Dots ($20 for one, $55 for a pack of three) around your house in locations where you typically do certain tasks with your phone. You can then set up each Dot to launch specific apps or actions based on your proximity (using GPS). For example: When you enter your car, a Dot on the dashboard can automatically launch whatever apps you like to use for navigation and music on your phone. You can also leave text messages for other people on Dots – so a Dot near the trash can text your kid a reminder to take out the garbage as he walks by (I’ll leave it to the parents to say whether this will actually work).
Dots also have a color-changing LED light that can be used as an indicator, much like the way we use Philips Hue light bulbs in the lab. Like the Hue bulbs, Dots will be integrated with IFTTT and able to connect with a wide variety of smart home gadgets. One of the more curious use cases on the Kickstarter page is sticking a Dot outside a roommate’s door so that it lights up when they’re inside, sort of like a church confessional, or, the IoT version of the old “if there’s a necktie on the doorknob” trick. So. This idea is creepy on a number of different levels – but we can think of plenty of potential applications that are not as likely to alienate the people sharing your living space. Worried about a dodgy hot water heater or rain seeping into a leaky basement? You can connect a SmartThings water sensor to IFTTT, and set the Dot to show one color for a-ok and another if you need to grab your waders. In my house, a Dot would most definitely be set up to act as a subtle temperature display for the connected greenhouse outside, showing different colors for different temperature ranges. With 6 days left on its Kickstarter campaign, Dot has raised just under $100,000, almost 5 times its goal of $20,000.
Sgnl – A Finger Phone for Real Life
Another project, Sgnl, aims to make the imaginary finger-phone a reality. Sgnl consists of a standard-sized watch band that connects to your phone using Bluetooth and contains a Body Conduction Unit (BCU) that turns the voice of the person on the other end of the “line” into a vibration. (No really!) This vibration travels through your fingertip into your ear, while an algorithm selectively amplifies the voice on the other end of the line so you can hear the call clearly through your finger, even in a noisy room. A microphone on the watch band allows you to talk back, all while your phone stays safely stashed away in your purse or pocket. Sgnl bands are compatible with both with smart and classic watches.
We’re intrigued by this idea, if only for the amusement of watching people stick their fingers in their ears while talking into their wrists. So are a lot of other people – its Kickstarter campaign has already blown well past its $50,000 goal, sitting at just under $813,000 with 22 days left to go. But as with all crowdfunded gadgets, there’s no guarantee that the product will ever see the light of day. As all “makers” know, coming up with an idea is one thing. Getting it through production and working perfectly as advertised is another.
It’s worth noting that Sgnl’s maker, Innomdle Labs, is a startup spun off of Samsung’s secretive C-Labs — this could be viewed as a good sign or a bad sign, depending on the state of the current prototype. It could be that Sgnl is well on the way to meet its expected ship date of February 2017, or it could be this crowdsourcing campaign was created to support additional R&D on a product that’s not quite working as expected. Until then, it probably can’t hurt to send Sgnl a little Benny Hill energy on the matter.
Stepp – Real-time Running Feedback
On the fitness wearables front, Stepp is a product from a company called VST Technology (not to be confused with Virtual Studio Technology) that claims to help you run better, including a few more metrics than the smart insoles we’ve covered in the past. Stepp integrates 3 sensors (two on your shoes and another on your hip), measuring things like swing speed of your legs and impact force on your knees and ankles. The idea is to paint a more informed picture of how you’re aligning your body as you run, picking up on subtle signs of fatigue before you risk injury. (Like there’s anything “subtle” about how running fatigue feels…)
Stepp also offers real-time coaching through its smartphone app, so it can cut into your music with advice for improving your form as you run. (according to the FAQ, audio alerts will be configurable so you can turn off annoying unwanted advice. No word, either, on whether celebrity and/or customized voices are an option. If that’s an option, Stepp, we’ll take the Jimmy Fallon, please.) At a retail price of $199, Stepp may to be a better alternative to the more-than-$200 it’d cost you later at your sports medicine practitioner/massage therapist/chiropractor. Anyway, the countdown is on here — with 22 days left to, Stepp is a little over half way to its goal of $70,000. We’ll be keeping an eye on this one.
Fathom One – Affordable Underwater Drone
It was only a matter of time before the drone craze went underwater, and Fathom One is the first plausibly affordable amphibious drone to launch on Kickstarter. At under $600, it costs about half as much as other underwater drones on the market.) Fathom One films in 1080p resolution and includes built-in high intensity LEDs; its casing is built to withstand pressures to under 150 feet. Wireless piloting and live streaming video are accomplished via a WiFi buoy, connected to the drone with a long extendible cable (which we presume would also be handy for fishing your drone out of the drink if something goes awry).
With 13 days still to go, Fathom One is already $30,000 over its $150,000 goal. If the response to this campaign is any indication, our social media feeds will soon be brimming with underwater drone videos. Feature suggestion: Add some cloud connectivity, Fathom One. Contact the people at Shark Week, so we can all take the hit from Señor Great White, from the comfort of our terrestrial locations.
Check back soon for our curated selection of crowdsourced clunkers – those Kickstarter campaigns that seemed like a good idea at the time….
Software, Sandboxes, and the Back Office
Sandbox. Another everyday noun stepping out in different stripes, especially amongst Software People.
Here it is as a verb, from a recent batch of notes: “When you’re sandboxing, you’re allowing people to fail without killing anything.”
And as an adjective: “It’s more of a sandbox-y thing than a bag of tools.”
On the surface, the notion of a “software sandbox” is perhaps obvious. It’s a place where developers can try out their code, using the same raw resources as a production environment, but without causing anything in production to break.
Why the sandbox is of increasing importance in broadband technology circles is perhaps less obvious. To get the head around it, point toward open source software, as a staple in the transition to all-IP (Internet Protocol) everything.
Let’s say we all agree that a) it’s a software world anymore. And that b) next-gen competitors who grew up on broadband just move faster. Lastly, that OTT competitors move faster, in part because they live on open source software, and make it easy for developers to try stuff out.
In other words, they sandbox.
Let’s further say we agree with the one about “if you can’t beat’em, join’em.”
So far, in the realm of what we used to call “cable,” most sandboxing happens at the interactions of “old” and “new,” also known as “now” and “next,” and especially with back office stuff. For instance, maybe you want to experiment with how people navigate video. One option: Build some kind of software-based emulator, so that developers can work within a semi-real environment.
Another option: Create a sandbox that links developers into the live elements of the back office that really do link to video navigation — the billing system, the conditional access/encryption components, the provisioning experience, as three of several examples. Developers can develop away, without damaging anything happening live, in the back office.
As for whether the software sandbox ever encounters gifts akin to what cats leave in sandboxes? In practice, developers usually get their own sandboxes, electronically cordoned off from anybody else writing code. Which is good, because there’s not any actual sand.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
The World of OpenStack
OpenStack. In computing, and especially distributed computing, it’s a staple, in conversation and in workflow. People tend to elevator-pitch it as “an open operating system for the cloud,” “Linux on steroids,” and “a framework based around open source software.”
As one software aficionado put it: “It’s a bunch of scripts (translation: instructions) that help create clouds and virtual machines to deploy file systems and storage and a bunch of other stuff.”
Getting clearer? Here’s more. It started in July of 2010 as a collaborative project between NASA and Rackspace, with a goal of making it easier to use regular, off-the-shelf computing hardware to handle public and private cloud activities.
Last month, Time Warner Cable posted a tech blog titled “One Year Later: Setting Up OpenStack at TWC,” penned by its lead “stacker,” Matt Haines (real title: VP, Cloud Engineering and Ops.) In it, he describes how his agile team “designed and deployed an enterprise-grade cloud,” using OpenStack, in its two national data centers.
Comcast began its OpenStack cloud work three years ago, in 2012, to support its X1 rollout — navigation first, then apps, and now video (it’s what’s behind “cloud DVR.”)
Both providers settled on OpenStack as an alternative to buying proprietary set-tops, control components, and servers from the same company. Troubleshooting gets easier, they submit. Rolling out new services, features and bug-fixes gets (way, way) faster.
It’s worth pointing out here that the long-held industrial fears about open anything are rapidly melting away. No longer are concerns about mad coders “doing harm to the network” a definitive reason to not take an open source route.
More, the tech mantra today is one of “disrupt, or be disrupted.”
The vendor community, always in a weird spot when their customers decide to lean toward “build” vs. “buy,” is following suit. Cisco, during the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, heavily emphasized its investment in, and development of, Openstack-based components for multichannel video providers.
It follows that OpenStack is behind all the tech talk about “transparency,” and the tales about how this-or-that was about to go kaflooey, but because they had visibility into the software (which always comes in “stacks”), they fixed it (in hours, not months), averting disaster. Anecdotes like this abound in OpenStack speak.
Everything about OpenStack is open, even how papers are vetted for its annual conferences, which attract around 5,000 attendees, twice a year, for five days. (The “stackers” met in Atlanta and Paris last year.) For the Paris confab, in November, 1,100 papers were submitted for consideration (by contrast, cable’s tech events typically attract around 300 papers, vetted by committee.) The entire OpenStack community voted on who spoke.
As “open” stuff goes, OpenStack is decidedly one to know. They meet again in Vancouver, from May 18-22; on any given day, regional groups host meet-ups all over the world. Time to get your stack on.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
The World of webRTC
Here’s a way to let the imagination run wild: Think about your stuff that’s equipped with a web browser.
Now imagine being able to talk to people, using that stuff.
That’s the allure of webRTC, where the “RTC” stands for “real time communications.” It’s a technology that grew out of the World Wide Web consortium (which goes by “W3C”) to support browser-to-browser applications, like voice and video calling, with no need to download anything. Click to communicate.
We’ve already seen people talking into their smart watches. We’ll see many more such Dick Tracy maneuvers when Apple’s smartwatch emerges, in March. (Overheard during the recent Consumer Electronics Show were whispered demo comments like “I don’t think your watch heard you.”)
Also at CES, AT&T became the first American carrier to announce an API (Application Program Interface) for its webRTC plans. Why would a developer want to write code for AT&T, vs. for any garden-variety browser that can do it? Presumably to be able to call to the numbers within the public switched telephone network (PSTN) — in other words, the traditional “black phones” connected to the original wired phone network.
Last week, the browser Firefox announced “Hello,” a plug-in that, once plugged in, enables webRTC-based calling. Also last week, up in Canada, ECN Capital launched an online investment program for private markets, based on webRTC.
Last year, at The Cable Show, Comcast showed a way to “live stream” video from wherever you are, to other Xfinity customers. You’re at the wedding, but Gramma couldn’t go, so you hold up your phone and stream it to her big screen. They called it “Share.” It, too, is anchored in webRTC.
Use cases show up everywhere: You’re browsing places on AirBnB. The host happens to be home, and amenable to “showing you around,” live, with video.
You’re on a customer care call, at your desk. You need to leave. Switch the call to your phone, tablet, watch — that’s webRTC.
As of now, there’s not a straight line between webRTC and the Internet of Things — the IOT is a sensor story, now. But the browser can’t be far behind. And when that happens, so opens a whole new way to call people, with your voice or your whole face, from whatever the device is.
So far, I can’t quite imagine taking a call from the fridge. But years ago, when digital was just starting, I used to say that anything that helps people to communicate better, is a winner. At the time, I used the example of being able to “talk” with my nieces about a particular live TV show — even though they live far away.
This is that. And like everything else based on IP (Internet Protocol), webRTC is coming. Whether you choose to use it is up to you.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
While Visions of Wearables Danced In Their Heads
For those of us headed to the annual Consumer Electronics Show, which happens a scant four days after the New Year, the holiday season necessarily includes shaking the network to get a deeper look at what’s planned.
You won’t be surprised at the outlook, but here goes.
First: UltraHD/4K is the new 3D, which had been the new HD, before the marketplace thud that hastened it out the door. The refrain this year, albeit not necessarily from the CE side: There’s more to better pictures and sound than “just” the television set.
This year, watch for UHD lingo studded with impressively nerdy terms like “high dynamic range,” “color gamut,” and “bit interleave depth.”
All explain additional ways in which innovation is happening throughout the rest of the video ecosystem — think cameras, production gear, and the technologies of storytelling. If you go, you’ll see it in the way colors look. Blacks look downright velvety, reds look royal, greens mossy. The picture overall is brighter. Much brighter.
(Talk to any hardcore video engineer — HDR and what’s happening with color and brightness is as “wow” as when standard definition video went high def.)
Second: Wearables, coupled with a new-ish term — “cognitive computing” — described as “mobile devices that anticipate your actions based on who you are, who you’re with, and make decisions for you.” (Great…)
While it’s rare that the dazzle and pop of CES fare is directly relevant to this industry, wearables and cognitive computing do open a plausible stream of thought: What decisions could be made for us, that improve our media-centric life?
Note that it’s likely we’ll see more “smart clothing” this year. Already we’ve seen a blazer, designed for tourists in New York and Paris, and equipped with LED lights on the sleeves, and buzzers in the shoulder pads. The thinking: Stop looking at the blue dot on the screen! Your right arm will blink and buzz when you need to turn right.
Again. CES is CES.
Third: Smart homes, smart cars, driverless cars, smart things — sensors will sustain in show floor glitz. Entire pavilions will be cordoned off to showcase the Internet of Things, always a source of weird and interesting gadgetry, but rarely directly relevant to whatever it is we’re calling the cable industry these days.
Regardless, there’s nothing quite like the Consumer Electronics Show. This will be my 15th consecutive year as (tres dorky) guide for CTAM’s tours, and while I generally dread it on the front end, I’m always glad about how it went, it at the end.
We’ll keep the highlights coming.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
IFTTT: A Nifty Framework for the Internet of Things
A while back, we started playing with an Internet of Things (IoT) framework called IFTTT – it rhymes with “gift,” and it stands for “IF This Then That.” IFTTT is free to use, and works with an increasing number of apps and gadgets to let you create sets of triggers and actions, known in the IFTTT vernacular as “recipes.”
Happy to report that what started as typical lab fiddling quickly evolved into something we use on a daily basis. Here are a few examples:
As I type this, I just got a text message from IFTTT notifying me that a package I’m eagerly awaiting is on the truck for delivery. I’ll get another one shortly after it’s dropped on my doorstep. I set up a recipe using “Boxoh Package Tracking,” where I paste in any tracking number – UPS, FedEx, USPS, DHL – and it texts me any time there’s a status change for that tracking number. I could have just as easily set it up to send me an email, update my Google calendar with the scheduled delivery date, blink my lights, or a bunch of other actions.
IFTTT also came in handy as Colorado’s warmer-than-average fall suddenly took a dive into record-breaking low temperatures this week. With my tomatoes still hanging on, I scheduled email alerts telling me to cover the plants when the temperature was forecast to drop below freezing the following night (it’s been arctic-cold for the last few, so, the tomato alert is now moot.)
Now that we’re tumbling into subzero temperatures, we can tell IFTTT alert us when it’s cold enough to worry about pipes freezing, as it did last night.
IFTTT is also good at finding and compiling useful information. It works with Craigslist, so if you search for something and then paste the search URL into IFTTT, it will alert you every time there’s a new ad that matches your search terms. Just for fun, I tried setting it up to email me whenever someone posted an ad for a free rooster (it sure didn’t take long to flood my inbox with that one.)
If you’re using a Fitbit or Jawbone fitness tracker, you can have IFTTT automatically put your sleep and exercise data into a Google Docs spreadsheet for you. Or it’ll save it to Evernote, or just text you congratulations if you meet your distance goal for the week, or manage to sleep a full 8 hours.
And if you use Square to take payments for your business, you can have IFTTT send all that data to a spreadsheet for you too.
IFTTT works with a bunch of connected gadgets, including the Philips Hue bulbs (which have some other applications of their own, but that’s another post). A lamp on my desk glows purple whenever I get a new email from Leslie, and it turns yellow if someone tags a photo of me on Facebook. This makes for a great, fairly unobtrusive notification system when I’m swamped and not checking my inbox frequently, but still want to know right away if there’s an important email or a potentially embarrassing photo. On a related note, I’d like to have a few words with the person who started #tbt (for the blissfully unaware, this stands for Throwback Thursday, and it involves old photos of your awkward high school self suddenly appearing on Facebook for all your acquaintances to see).
IFTTT also lets you publish the “recipes” you’ve created, so there are piles of premade recipes to browse for any given trigger — and some pretty interesting ideas in the mix. For example, one mother put SmartThings door sensors on the liquor cabinet and set IFTTT to call her cell phone if that cabinet opened when the teenagers were home alone. For frequent travelers, another user set all the Hue bulbs in his house to start playing a color loop to let his family know when he touched back down on home soil (using the Life360 app).
Another one we haven’t seen but seems imminently useful: You’re hearing impaired, and you live in the tornado belt. The bulb turns red whenever the Emergency Alert System broadcasts a tornado alert.
Clearly there are more potential use cases for IFTTT than we have space to write about, so you can check out more recipes here.
And as much as we like the framework, there are a few things we’d like to see change (and given the recent mentions of a paid service, hopefully these will be addressed soon.) While the simple IF This Then That clause has its merits, we should really have the option to create some more detailed recipes – i.e. IF This AND This (but only when it’s raining outside), Then That.
Or, in Leslie’s case, to set the Craig’s List trigger to only send her information about the kind of car she wants, when it is a manual transmission — automatics need not apply.
More importantly, most triggers run on 15-minute schedules, so you won’t typically receive notifications immediately – there is a delay of anywhere from 5 seconds to 15 minutes. When you’re just getting an alert about a package delivery, this is not a big deal. But if you set up a phone alert for your Nest smoke detector, your house might already be toast by the time you get the call about the fire.
Limitations aside, IFTTT makes for some fun tinkering that has the potential to do some really useful things. Chances are, this will only get better as more apps and devices hook in to the framework. And if there’s a premium version with better functionality in the works, count us in.
Tony Werner: Comcast & Bandwidth, Part 1
Comcast CTO Tony Werner explains the company’s work to harvest analog spectrum by rolling out the DTA, or “digital terminal adapter.” Challenges: Avoiding feature-creep. Benefits: More room for linear HD and other advanced services.
Video courtesy Multichannel News.