Somebody Please Apply CALM to OTT Video Before I Jump Out of My Skin
How many times has this happened to you: You’re streaming video to your TV, using an OTT device (like a Roku or Chromecast), over a network app that you’ve authenticated with your cable or satellite subscription. It’s been a long day, and you begin to drift off – then BAM! you’re yanked back into consciousness by a commercial that is approximately 400 times louder than whatever show you were watching, before your heart leapt out of your chest and ran away.
If you’ve ever wondered why the commercials on OTT video are often so over-the-top loud compared to the commercials on TV, as it turns out, you maybe HAVE seen this movie before. Because variable loudness on broadcast commercials has been “a thing” for more than a decade. Here’s the background:
Back in 2010, we saw the first legislation aimed at too-loud commercials (which arguably have been the bane of viewers since the beginning of TV). It all started when Representative Anna Eshoo (D-Calif) asked her brother to turn down the TV after a loud commercial interrupted a family dinner. In true brother fashion, he told her to just make a law against loud commercials (seeing as she was the legislator and all).
So she did, and on September 29, 2010, the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act was unanimously passed in the Senate.
The CALM Act requires broadcasters and MVPDs (Multichannel Video Programming Distributors) to ensure that the average audio of TV advertisements isn’t louder than the program itself. The FCC began enforcing the CALM Act on December 13, 2012, encouraging viewers to call and complain about loud commercials that violate the rules.
By equalizing the average volume between content and commercials, the CALM Act aims to prevent advertisers from rupturing your eardrums in an attempt to get your attention. Though it creates an extra layer of complexity for MVPDs, this is a very good thing for the viewing experience (and isn’t that what matters?).
This is all accomplished using the A/85 Recommended Practice: Techniques for Establishing and Maintaining Audio Loudness for Digital Television set forth by the ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee).
But this new solution wasn’t without pushback from unscrupulous advertisers. After the CALM act took effect, some advertisers started using silence or very quiet audio to offset extra-loud passages, so on June 4, 2014 ATSC amended the algorithm to close that electronic loophole. The current algorithm uses “gating” to exclude silent or extremely quiet parts of commercials when calculating the average volume.
As a result, commercials on TV today aren’t as obnoxiously loud as they used to be. If only we could say the same for streaming video!
Unfortunately, the CALM act only applies to broadcast television – it does not extend to content that is distributed over the Internet (even if that content is tied to a cable or satellite subscription). Currently there is no proposed legislation, and no end in sight, for the ultra-loud commercials that interrupt our streaming background noise.
This is an issue that begs to be revisited, because of the steady shift towards online viewing since the CALM act took effect in 2012. Nowadays, just about every cable network makes their content available through a website and an app, and payTV subscribers are viewing more of their TV content over-the-top – but the viewer experience is still marred by earsplitting advertisements. Subscribers of SlingTV started complaining about loud commercials back when the streaming service started back in 2015, and back then SlingTV acknowledged it as a “known issue” that was actively being addressed. Two years later the commercials are louder than ever.
We have to wonder what kind of conversion rates these obnoxious advertisements are getting. Presumably there is a payoff, or advertisers wouldn’t go to so much trouble to crank up the audio on their commercials. But surely we aren’t the only ones that scramble for the mute button, then roll ours eyes and add the offending brand to a mental list, titled Stuff I’ll Never Buy Because of Terrible Ads.
The Sad Saga of the Coolest Cooler
Here’s an update on the “Coolest Cooler,” one of the top-funded Kickstarter projects of all time. In case you missed it, the Coolest Cooler was a Bluetooth-connected cooler with a built-in blender and charging ports, which debuted on Kickstarter in 2014 for around $200. This connected cooler was a runaway success, attracting 62,642 backers, and overshooting its fundraising goal of $50,000 by more than $13 million.
Unfortunately, the campaign creator, Ryan Grepper, evidently didn’t do a great job of researching production costs for larger quantities, and certainly didn’t anticipate such an enthusiastic response to the Kickstarter campaign. Coolest Cooler cost significantly more to make and ship than backers paid for it, so the company (Coolest, LLC) lost money on every cooler it shipped to a Kickstarter backer.
That’s when the company halted shipments of the coolers to Kickstarter backers, and instead started selling the Coolest Cooler through Amazon and other retailers for $400 — double the Kickstarter price tag — while also trying to get another $15M in funding. Understandably, more than half of the early backers are both frustrated, and still waiting for their orders to be filled, almost three years after the expected ship date.
The Coolest Cooler made headlines again recently when its Grepper reached a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice. Under the terms of that agreement, backers who complained to the DOJ before April 15, 2017 will receive their coolers by October 13, 2017, and everyone else will get their coolers “as Coolest LLC amasses sufficient funds from sales to afford the manufacture and shipping costs.”
This is rough for everyone involved – the naïve inventor who didn’t anticipate the actual costs, and the early backers who supported the campaign and are still waiting for their coolers.
And it’s only made worse by the passive-aggressive (emphasis on the passive) statement from the founder, Ryan Grepper, following the settlement agreement:
“The backstory, in case you had not heard, some Backers felt we were promising a shipping window, and when that didn’t happen, complaints were filed against us with the Oregon DOJ. Others felt there must be financial shenanigans going on, which were just conspiracy theories, as we were clear through the entire process that the cost of the Coolest ended up more than what we asked or collected per Backers. Still, no one wants to feel taken advantaged so more complaints were filed and, unfortunately, this really hurt all remaining backers because it put us at a virtual standstill.”
It really begs the question: How is one supposed to enjoy a nice beach picnic with the Coolest Cooler, if you actually get one, after getting the runaround from this guy for years? Wouldn’t you just want to take a baseball bat to the damn thing?
“I really want to throw this cooler off a cliff but I’ll just drown my sorrows instead”
Backing any hardware product on a crowdsourcing website carries risk – sometimes the “working prototype” is all just video editing, and backers end up paying for development costs instead of the product that was advertised as being ready for production. Typically, this turns into a situation where unforeseen challenges extend the timeline indefinitely, and backers never receive the product they paid for – otherwise known as “vaporware.”
And sometimes, as was the case with the Coolest Cooler, there is actually a real product — but the introductory price is set so low that when demand goes through the roof, the company finds itself unable to support production. This is the saddest situation of all.
Lest you’ve managed to sidestep this awkward situation, yet still are market for a cool cooler, consider Leslie’s advice: Forget the Coolest Cooler. Get a Yeti! Extremely well made, great customer service, built for endurance, no silly dithering over prices.
Juicero: Squeezing every last dime out of a bad idea
In case you haven’t heard about Juicero yet, consider yourself lucky. This Wi-Fi connected juicer (which is essentially a Keurig machine for juice) has been making the headlines again lately, after investors began complaining that they were misled by the founder.
Basically, Juicero is a countertop device that squeezes juice from a packet into a glass. It operates on a razor-and-blade business model — only you get gouged for the razor AND the blades, and the blades only have a shelf life of 6 days.
In an interview with Recode last fall, the company’s founder, Doug Evans, told the story of Juicero. Evans was one of the founding partners of Organic Avenue, a cold-pressed juice company – until 2012, when a partner bought out most of the equity and, in his words, told him to “go take a walk.”
Doug Evans, the veggie visionary behind Juicero.
In telling the story of how he came up with Juicero, Evans goes so far as to call himself the Steve Jobs of juice — “I’m going to do what Steve did. I’m going to take the mainframe computer and create a personal computer, I’m going to take a mainframe juice press and I’m going to create a personal juice press.”
Here’s how Juicero is supposed to work:
Juicero ships out packets of “chopped fresh fruits and vegetables” to its customers on a subscription basis, where subscribers get a refrigerated delivery of packets once a week. The packets need to stay below 41 degrees, so they must be refrigerated at all times (but can’t be stored in the freezer, as that can “compromise flavor and nutrient density.”)
These packets fit inside a $400 (originally priced at $700) device that sits on your counter. The Juicero then scans a chip embedded in the packet to make sure it’s not expired (the machine refuses to press packets after they hit the expiration date – but fear not! The Juicero app will send you notifications every time you have a pack about to expire.)
Once you put a pack in the machine, it squeezes your fresh juice with 3 to 4 tons of pressure (enough to lift two Teslas!) And dispenses it into your glass (this process takes about two minutes). Each packet costs $5-7, and packets contain anywhere from 3 to 8 ounces worth of juice, depending on the flavor. Juicero is currently available in 17 states.
According to the founder, it takes a lot of specialized technology to press juice out of Juicero packets. As he described it to Recode, “there are 400 custom parts in here… there’s a scanner; there’s a microprocessor; there’s a wireless chip, wireless antenna.”
Here’s how it actually works:
Funny story, some of Juicero’s backers discovered that the packets could be squeezed just as well by human hands. A reporter from Bloomberg performed a test, which found that although the Juicero press yielded a half ounce more juice, squeezing the packets by hand was 30 seconds faster. Either the reporter from Bloomberg is freakishly strong, or Juicero’s claim about 3-4 tons of pressure is a load of pulp. It also seems that rather than freshly chopped berries and greens (as the marketing implies), Juicero bags contain something more akin to liquefied slime. Naturally, Juicero’s response to the revelation that its packets can be squeezed by hand was to require you to show proof that you own the machine before allowing you to buy packets.
Now investors are (understandably) frustrated, after being promised a machine capable of squeezing large chunks of fruits and vegetables. And you might ask, who actually invested in this product? Unbelievably, Juicero secured around $120 million dollars, with hefty buy-in from companies including Alphabet (Google), Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Campbell’s Soups.
Why Juicero is a terrible idea
Now that the “3-4 tons of force” claim has been debunked, we’ve learned that this bulky and pricey machine pretty much does the equivalent of opening a juice bottle. Only it will refuse to work if your juice is a minute past the expiration date (good thing you can use your hands!).
Speaking of food safety, we also wonder about the contamination issues that often crop up in our industrial food system — what happens if Juicero gets a batch of contaminated spinach? What happens if the packets get delayed in transit and the ice pack melts? And if Juicero goes out of business now that the jig is up, and they stop selling packets, what in the world are you going to do with that monstrous machine?
IFTTT IT Works, Don’t Mess With It (Update)
A couple years ago, we wrote about IFTTT (If This Then That), a glue service that connects smart home devices and web services. In a nutshell, IFTTT gives services and devices a way to talk to one another, and then allows you to write simple scenarios (or “applets”) using a “trigger” from one service and an “action” from another. For example, changing the light color (action) when your weather station detects rain (trigger.)
We’ve been using IFTTT on a near-daily basis since 2014 – and over the course of these past few years, the IFTTT experience has changed quite a bit. So we thought it was time for an update of our own (and maybe a small rant).
Big changes to the business model
It’s been our longtime hope that IFTTT would bring more features to its users through a paid subscription plan. Yes, we would happily shell out $10 a month to be able to set up synchronized alerts (for example making lights turn red AND calling my phone if the greenhouse is overheating — currently the only way to accomplish this is to set up multiple instances of the same trigger).
Back in 2014, that seemed like a sure thing. IFTTT’s founder, Linden Tibbets, even came right out and said that they were looking towards charging consumers for a premium service in the coming months. He also mentioned opportunities “on the channel side” — which turned out to be the direction IFTTT took.
Alas, we never did get the premium subscription we hoped to see. Instead, in February 2016 IFTTT launched a $199/month subscription plan for its service partners. IFTTT also allows applets to run directly from those partner apps now, so users can access a curated selection of applets without ever downloading the IFTTT app.
And our hope for synchronized actions? IFTTT can do that now, but only partners have that ability, not consumers. So now BMW has its own applet that makes Garageio open the garage door, turns up the Nest thermostat, and turns on the Philips Hue lights when the car pulls in the driveway – but there’s no way for the user to use different hardware or customize the applet. For consumers wanting to do more with IFTTT, there is another option – the “Maker” channel, released in June 2015. This channel lets users create applets using any device or service that can make or receive a web request. For example, I was able to get IFTTT pulling the data from my Dexcom continuous glucose monitor, and then I set up various alerts for low and high glucose thresholds – calling my phone, turning on lights, putting a notification on the Comcast X1 box, etc.
However, the Maker channel still doesn’t allow multiple actions per applet; I had to create separate applets for every trigger/alert combination – which, in addition to being a pain, makes for a long list of applets that need to be updated if you decide to make changes.
So how’s that partner subscription working out?
In the early days, services were added to IFTTT for free, often with no development work on their part – IFTTT just connected to apps and devices with open APIs.
Now that IFTTT is asking services to pay for its platform, some have been vocal about their support for the new IFTTT while others were cut off for refusing to shell out the cash. The founder of social bookmarking service Pinboard even wrote a blog post about why he chose not to sign on, citing “squirrely terms of service” and that IFTTT “wanted him to do their job for them, for free.” Of course, in that same blog post he also compared IFTTT to a sewer pipe, so read into that what you will.
Interestingly enough, there are several key partners that are NOT paying to be part of IFTTT’s platform (Philips Hue for example) – and IFTTT is keeping mum on how many of its approximately 360 partners actually subscribe. (Our napkin-math says that even if ALL of them signed on, they’d be making about $621K/year. We’re not financial geniuses, but that nonetheless seems a bit low for an ongoing concern.)
When asked in an interview with Fast Company whether Philips was willing to pay for the platform, George Yanni (Head of Connected Technology) was noncommittal at best. He mentioned that he “wasn’t sure how the process would go,” and that Philips has enjoyed a “long, very successful partnership with IFTTT, where we’ve both gotten a lot of value and publicity out of it, so we’ll just have to discuss with them to see how best we do that going forward.” Sounds to us like IFTTT might have a problem getting its most popular services to pony up.
While it remains to be seen whether IFTTT’s new business model is actually paying off, we can say with some certainty that the user experience is going downhill. Which brings us to a quick summary of the gripes we have with IFTTT:
1. Too many name changes to keep track
Since 2012, IFTTT has renamed itself more than a gangster on the lam. Over the past 5 years, we’ve seen the terminology evolve from “tasks and add-ins” to “recipes and ingredients” to “applets and services.”
There was also an awkward, short-lived phase in 2015 where IFTTT changed its name to “IF” and released a trio of companion apps – “DO Button” “DO Camera” and “DO Note.” The idea behind these apps was a button widget that you could set to do something in another app – for example, to automatically send a text to let your spouse know you’re leaving the office, or to make your phone ring in the event you need to excuse yourself from an awkward conversation. IFTTT soon reversed course again (perhaps realizing that maybe people didn’t want to download 4 separate apps -!) and re-rolled the DO functionality into the main app (which is back to being called IFTTT now.)
2. The process isn’t as easy as it used to be
When setting up triggers and actions, IFTTT used to have shortcuts to your favorite services, which made it easy to create new recipes – oops! — applets. That top spot has since been replaced with “popular” services, followed by a long list of all available services.
This is almost certainly designed to encourage more discovery, but that backfires when the list is so cluttered that it’s easier to use the search box than scroll to what you need.
A few of the many services you’ll scroll through to find what you actually need
3. Midnight rides and other glitches
It seems like IFTTT is generally less reliable since migrating to its new platform, possibly because it’s a challenge for service partners to keep up with changes to the API. There was one week in January where many of the applets we set up stopped responding to triggers altogether. Likewise, the Automatic car adapter initially worked quite well with IFTTT (we like to use it for logging business miles, or to be notified that the car just left the grocery store, so it’s too late to add anything to the list.)
Currently, IFTTT and Automatic are hit or miss – sometimes alerts happen promptly, and sometimes they get stuck and come sailing over the transom several hours later. (This is much like Leslie’s now-rogue doorbell-cam, which now rings more than a half hour AFTER being triggered.) Waking up at 2 a.m. to a notification that my car is halfway across town is an eye-roller, yet I’m always compelled to go make sure it’s still in the driveway.
4. We still can’t help but use it
Despite being irritated at the direction IFTTT is going, I still use it every day. In fact, it saved me a lot of pain just this morning, when I awoke at 3:30 a.m. to a phone call from a robotic voice somewhere in the Silicon Valley, warning me that my seedlings were about to freeze. Unbeknownst to me, the circuit powering the greenhouse heater tripped, and the temperature inside the greenhouse was steadily dropping while I slept. If not for the alerts I set up, I surely would have woken to a greenhouse full of frozen tomatoes and peppers. It saved our seedlings last year too. So despite the frustrations, we’ll keep living with IFTTT (at least until something better comes along).
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.