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).
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….
The Connected Greenhouse
If you’ve read this blog before, it’s possible that you picked up on my interest in rigging up a whole garden with connected hose splitters and smart plant sensors – but until all those connected garden bits are cheaper to manufacture, that dream is somewhat cost-prohibitive (especially considering all the different plant varieties growing on our little ¾ acre urban farm).
However, this year the early springtime garden routine got much easier, thanks to a little IoT enabling. As part of the process of growing food from seed, I typically spend an inordinate amount of time every year trying to keep tomato and pepper seedlings alive until they can be planted in the ground. This year, an IFTTT-enabled (IF This Then That, also known simply as IF) greenhouse came to the rescue.
It started with a weekend of cursing at (and constructing) a kit greenhouse at the edge of the vegetable garden. Then, a Netatmo weather station, a WeMo switch, and a small waterproof heater completed the setup.
I set up IF recipes to control the WeMo switch in response to the greenhouse temperature, eliminating the need to turn the heater off and on every morning and night. Next, a barrage of IF alerts to notify us in case something in the system failed (more on this later).
Of course, the night we got all of this up and running, one of Colorado’s Famous Late Spring Blizzards rolled in, dropping almost two feet of slushy snow and knocking out our power for the entire next day. The Netatmo base station just sat there useless with its plug in the wall, while the battery-powered module in the greenhouse kept flinging out its data for nobody to see.
This brings me to an important point. If only the Netatmo base station had a battery backup, or if the Netatmo app had the capability of communicating directly with the module in our greenhouse, all that happened next could have been avoided.
Instead, the first few hours without power were mainly spent hand-wringing, trying to calculate how fast the temperature might be falling in the greenhouse, and wondering aloud about all the horrible ways a seedling rescue mission in a blizzard might backfire. Hours later, with no word from the power crews and the outside temperatures falling fast, my sister and I ventured out into the blinding horizontal snow to retrieve our seedlings. Side note, Leslie was lucky enough to be “stranded” in Hawaii on this particular day (good things happen to good people).
As soon as I opened the greenhouse door, warm air whooshed out. The plants probably would have been fine for several more hours, but the Netatmo module couldn’t tell us that. In the end, most of the seedlings survived the storm – but it would have been a lot easier had we been able to connect to the greenhouse module directly from the Netatmo app during the blackout.
Once the power came back on, the connected greenhouse quickly proved its worth. I set up a bunch of IFTTT recipes to help monitor conditions in the greenhouse and warn us if the temperature got too hot or cold, for example by changing the color of the Philips Hue lights or sending texts.
Another of my favorite new IFTTT recipes connects with Comcast Labs and displays an alert on the TV screen when the greenhouse temperature gets too high. This saved the day one sunny spring morning, when I became distracted by a breaking news report on my way out to open up the greenhouse.
So in summary, IFTTT is a useful tool in the garden as well as the home, and it’s a wonder that any seedlings ever survived in my care without it.
We first dabbled with IFTTT back in 2014, and we’re still finding new ways to use the platform as it integrates with more apps and devices. And we’ve got plenty more favorites to share from our box of IFTTT recipes – so stay tuned!
CES: Kooky Stuff Roundup!
The Consumer Electronics Show, which sprawls a sensory overload across two million square feet (that’s 35 football fields) this week in Las Vegas, can be a useful forecaster of the kinds of stuff we’ll (someday) bring into our lives and homes.
It can also be an electronic petri dish of the spectacularly weird. Connected forks, to scold you when you’re eating too much, or too fast. Brainwave-sensing headbands, to tell you when you’re in a bad mood. Sensors, to monitor everything from sun exposure to canine/feline psychology.
Consider this a curated assembly of the kooky at this year’s CES — starting with the combo LED light bulb and JBL Bluetooth speaker, from Sengled. Each $60 bulb screws into an ordinary lamp, then plays stereo sound from two built-in, three-watt speakers. A companion app controls the streaming while regulating the lighting.
Too busy to work out? Maybe you need the “tiny gym in your pocket,” called “WellShell,” from TAO Wellness. It’s a plastic, squeezable thing, about the size of a (computer) mouse, but more swoopy. Its purpose: To give you an isometric workout, no matter where you are. (A marketing video shows a woman on a plane, squeezing the thing with both hands, as it blurts out “Flex! Flex! Flex!”)
Inside each WellShell: A pressure sensor, accelerometer, heart rate sensor, GPS tracker, and gyroscope. No pricing yet; a tag of between $200-$300 is expected.
Yoo hoo, runners: Are your socks smart enough? New from Sensoria (tagline: “the garment is the computer!”), the socks use “novel textile sensors” to detect activity type and impact force. Data transmits through a “featherweight, detachable anklet,” over BlueTooth, to a companion app.
To trick out your smooth moves, Austin Powers-style, there’s the $270 Logbar ring. Slip it on, learn a few gestures, boom! The (decidedly chunky) ring turns on the TV, checks the weather, turns on the lights, uploads a photo, and so on. Great if you don’t mind looking like you’re plucking imaginary flies out of the air. One catch: The app has to be on and active for the ring to work.
Speaking of chunky: New this year is a big, plastic, waterproof bracelet, called “Child Angel.” With its built-in GPS, your kids will never lose you again!
Tired of scraping the gunk off your grill? This one’s for you: The Grillbot. Like a Roomba, for your grill! Each 30 minute cleaning cycle uses three “powerful electric motors” to de-gunk your BBQ. Comes in four colors for $130.
Lastly: H+ Technologies calls its invention “Magic Box.” We call it holographic TV, baby! Perfect for a CES. Invented by Masters graduates of the Centre for Digital Media, the Magic Box converts 2D content into holographic 3D, displayed inside the box. Bonus: You can use it to charge your phone and tablet, too.
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.
An OTT Lab Update
By Leslie Ellis
Given that Halloween punctuates the end of this week, it seemed timely to share some changes happening in my small-but-lively over-the-top video lab.
Background: The list of technologies, industries and companies that will “kill the cable industry!” is long and established. First there was microwave (a technology), then telcos and satellite (industries), then companies — name any of the OTT constituents. Spooky!
Until the OTT chapter, however, it was cost-prohibitive to conduct any kind of local experiment to vet the would-be cable-killers. A microwave antenna farm doesn’t exactly fit in a back bedroom, not to mention the coverage footprints of the subsequent competitors.
That’s why, a few years ago, it suddenly made sense (economically and space-wise) to see for myself: What about this growing army of video streamers is better or worse for video content consumption?
The lab hit its peak in 2012, with a gadget array so wide, the windowsill could barely hold the associated remote controls.
At the end of last year, however, it started to seem like “game over.” Google finally found its way (after countless iterations of “GoogleTV”) with Chromecast, at an astounding low price point – $35. Between it, Roku, and Apple TV, plus the virtualizing of video streaming into TVs and other hardware gadgets, it started to get dull.
(After that, Amazon’s Fire TV came out — too late, but not too little. It remains my personal favorite of the hardware streamers.)
So, this year, we made a deliberate shift in another direction: The Internet of Things. Between myself and my lab goddess, Sara Dirkse, we’re gradually gearing up to watch the IOT trajectory, across two specific parameters. One is “stuff that’s actually useful.” The other is “that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Here’s the short list of both, so far. Actually useful: Front-door webcams, to see who’s at the door no matter where you are; beds that conquer snoring partners without the need for pointy elbows; sensors that over-ride the irrigation system on rainy days.
On the oddest things we’ve ever seen list: The “selfie sombrero,” a ghastly, hot pink bonnet equipped with a tablet holder hanging from its enormous brim. A connected toilet, which quickly got hacked, enabling anyone to flush, open and close the lid, and activate the bidet. A virtual reality apparatus (“airVR”), which essentially straps your tablet to your face. And, my personal favorite, a “smart wig,” apparently useful for times when you want to advance a PowerPoint presentation by tugging on its (ghastly) sideburns.
That’s the Halloween lab update. Boo! We’ll keep the lists growing.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
The IoP (Internet of Plants)
As an avid gardener, few things fill me with as much joy as the baskets of produce starting to come in from the yard this time of year. Or, in Leslie’s case, to see her massive wildflower jungle come into bloom on a schedule that makes sure her honeybees are rolling in nectar and pollen from the earliest in Spring (croci), to the latest in Fall (sedum.)
Gadgets are right up there, for both of us, though. And lucky for us, the Internet of Things (IoT) is sending runners into the garden everywhere we look.
For the past couple years, we’ve been ogling plant sensors like Parrot’s Flower Power ($60) – a little WiFi-enabled twig that uses a database to determine whether your plants are getting enough moisture, sunlight, etc. and then sends text notifications to let you know that the raspberries are thirsty and the shade plants are getting too much sun.
These sensors are novel, and might well be a very useful tool for the new (wealthy! – see $60 apiece) gardener trying to figure out what conditions each plant needs to thrive. But I can tell when my tomatoes aren’t happy; I don’t need a text to remind me that they need water. What I do need is something that will take the guesswork out of my watering schedule and ensure that every plant gets exactly what it needs. I find watering to be the most difficult and frustrating part of my garden; even with soakers on an automatic timer there’s a lot of wasted water and time spent manually fine-tuning the watering schedule. For instance, shutting off valves between soakers every other day to ensure that the raspberries get enough water and the tomatoes don’t get too much (and then forgetting to turn the tomatoes back on until they start pouting). I need a system that will automatically water each plant in response to what’s happening in the skies and below the soil.
Fortunately, garden gadgets are heading in exactly that direction. Another system, PlantLink ($79 for the system; $35 for each additional sensor), provides fewer metrics than Flower Power but works with optional smart valves ($65 each) for automatic irrigation control , adjusting the watering schedule on the fly in response to the current conditions and each plant’s specific needs.
If lawns are your thing, there are also a handful of other companies offering connected sprinkler systems (Rachio, GreenIQ) that offer smartphone control, and which also change your watering schedule in response to the weather.
But lately our eyes are on Edyn, a smart garden system that just achieved 300% of its Kickstarter goal (expected to start shipping in Spring 2015). Edyn’s smart garden system ($150 for each sensor/valve combo) consists of soil sensors and water valves designed by Yves Behar’s fuseproject – designers of FanTV (the sleek little set-top box coming soon to Time Warner Cable subscribers) and our beloved Jambox speaker.
Edyn combines the best features of the other garden gadgets – smart sensors that track moisture and nutrients in the soil and sun exposure, coupled with information from weather, plant, and soil science databases. Edyn uses these factors to adapt the watering schedule for each of your plant varieties, and smart valves automatically open or close in response to the real-time water needs of your garden (or the touch of a button on your smartphone). The system also sends you text messages to let you know that the tomatoes need fertilizer, or that it skipped watering today because it’s about to rain, etc.
While I don’t really like the part about being inundated by text messages (hopefully there’s a way to change alert settings), the premise of Edyn is really exciting stuff for any hobby gardener or small-scale farmer. If I can leave the watering to the cloud(s), my time can be spent on more satisfying work, like harvesting tomatoes and pulling bindweed.
Which brings me to a final question: How long until we see a pattern-matching robot that will seek out and destroy weeds and common pests, like a Roomba for the garden? Sign us up for that Kickstarter.
From OTT to IOT
Just as our focus in the lab is expanding from OTT-only to include gadgets outside the living room, so are many of the majors in the OTT world busily branching out into the Internet of Things (IOT). Let’s have a look.
For the past few years, the leadup to every Apple announcement always includes plenty of hype about Apple TV – a hardware update to the streaming player is always predicted, but never shows up.
That held true at Apple’s recent World Wide Developers Conference (handily abbreviated “the WWDC”), where there was once again no new TV-related hardware. Instead, a number of new developments on the IOT front:
Along with iOS 8 Apple is releasing HomeKit, software that runs on an iPhone or iPad and controls lights, security cameras, thermostats, garage doors – pretty standard connected home stuff. Apple has a certification program for hardware partners, and is already working with a bunch of companies, including TI, Honeywell, and Marvell.
HomeKit hardware partners
HomeKit will be controlled by Siri, so you can say something like “Siri, get ready for bed” and it will dim the lights for you. I don’t have much hope for that at this point, but maybe Siri will get a lot better with iOS 8. Speaking as someone who spent several minutes this morning trying in vain to get Siri to understand an address and give me directions, I sure hope so.
Perhaps more exciting: Apple is developing a framework called HealthKit in partnership with the Mayo Clinic and Nike, which pulls in data from 3rd-party apps to keep tabs on health metrics, over time, and allows clinicians to easily access information from your health apps. We don’t have much information yet, and clearly there are a lot of questions to be answered about security, but it’s exciting to see big companies getting involved in modernizing healthcare (more on that in a future post.)
In April, Samsung released the “Gear Fit,” a smartwatch with a pedometer baked in, to lukewarm reviews – apparently Samsung’s custom software leaves quite a bit to be desired.
Then, on May 28, Samsung announced the Simband — a wearable prototype that measures key vital signs like heart rate, heart rate regularity, skin temperature, oxygen levels and carbon dioxide levels – impressive, but not an actual product, yet.
Samsung also introduced SAMI (Samsung Architecture for Multimodal Applications), an open software platform for wearables and sensor technology. We like the potential of an open platform, and the health applications are potentially exciting, but we’re not sure Samsung will be the one to ultimately succeed (our own experiences with their devices could be a post all on their own.)
Back in March, Google announced its Android Wear initiative, extending its Android operating system to cover wearables (early arrivals to the market include smart watches from Motorola and LG; Samsung’s early Gear smartwatches used Android Wear as well). The Android Wear SDK is currently in Developer Preview, to be officially launched later this year.
And in other areas of the home, there are persistent rumors of Google subsidiary Nest (the gorgeous, automated thermostat) buying Dropcam, makers of the $150 WiFi security camera. What, you don’t want Google recording the goings-on in your home? They’re already reading our email, after all…
With all these gadgets and sensors in our homes and on our bodies, security is obviously a big concern — and there are currently some gaping holes that need to be filled. We’ll keep a close eye on what each of these massive companies does (or doesn’t do) to protect our data, in addition to how well the products actually work.
Read This Quickly, While We Humans Still Dominate The Internet
By now you’ve heard the hullaballoo around “machine to machine” computing, abbreviated “M2M.” And “the Internet of Things,” or IOT. And “the Internet of Everything,” or “IOE.”
Each characterizes how we’re attaching sensors and controllers to our physical stuff, for access and manipulation from somewhere else: Webcam-watching what’s going on at home. Lowering the heat from work, because you forgot to do it before you walked out the door.
The human math of this “connected everything” world is about to get interesting – or scary, depending on your outlook. Think about it: Seven billion people on the planet. About a third of us (according to an article in United Airline’s in-flight magazine last week) are equipped to use the Internet. That’s about 2.3 billion of us.
Here’s the question: At what point are more sensor-equipped things connecting to the Internet than people? My best guess at an answer: Soon. Maybe even very soon.
Let’s start by eliminating the computing things that connect to the Internet: PCs, laptops, tablets, mobile devices. The “thing” part of the IOT generally means something not originally intended to communicate with anything. Doors. Windows. Furnaces. Dog collars. Coffee machines.
The people who track M2M, IOT and the IOE (Cisco, Machina Research, Zigbee, others) say that already, about 2 billion (non-compute) things are taking regular sips of Internet, to send and receive information about their status.
Two billion devices, 2.3 billion people. See what I mean?
Then factor in efforts like Google Loon, which seeks to connect the unconnected parts of the planet, using balloons. Here’s a description directly from Google:
“Project Loon floats balloons in the stratosphere, twice as high as airplanes and weather. They’re carried around the Earth by winds, and can be steered by rising or descending … people connect to the balloon network using a special Internet antenna, connected to a building.”
Google Loon could keep humans slightly ahead of machines, when it comes to Internet connectivity. But we’re still in a unique sliver of time, right here, right now, where we humans are still the majority.
As someone who studies bandwidth trends, I can’t help but wonder what M2M, IOT, and the IOE will do to the quality and availability of our (human) Internet connectivity. Picture it: All of our digital bits, running like a river, in one direction or the other, over the Big Internet.
On top of that, billions of chatty machines, taking a sip here, a sip there. In RF (radio frequency) terms, it seems kind of like “shot noise” – little spikes of electric charges. Billions of them. In the river analogy, showers of pebbles, relentlessly hitting the flow.
This is where the distinction that is the “managed” network comes into play, of course. The “Big Internet” is unmanaged. Service provider networks are, by design, managed.
So we’ve got that going for us…
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.