Imagine a network of ordinary, physical objects equipped with sensors and actuators that have the capacity to observe and collect information about their environments and then share that data with each other—and any other device or person connected to the Internet. The image you have in mind is the concept of the Internet of Things. Now, let’s think of how data gathered by these connected objects can be analyzed and used to improve our household environments.
Equipped with sensors and Internet connectivity, these objects communicate with other objects within their network and perform based on their collective knowledge. The Nest Learning Thermostat is probably the most well-known example of a connected object that can learn from monitoring the climate preferences of a home and set itself accordingly at different times during the day. Nurun partnered with Nest to create a website that brings the company's ethos to life while explaining their new-to-the-world product.
In recent years, many startup companies and crowdfunded projects have resulted in the creation of simple hardware that has made the Internet of Things more accessible. From wifi-enabled smart appliances to electronic devices that can interact with mobile devices, these connected objects can help us get a better understanding of our environment by collecting and sharing data that is often invisible to the naked eye.
Wifi enabled sensor hubs like Twine and Knut can monitor temperature, vibration and orientation. These simple, connected boxes will react when, for instance, a washing machine has overflowed and needs to be shut down or when a Christmas tree is too dry and the lights need to be turned off.
Card-like solutions, such as the Electric Imp, make it even easier to connect objects to the Internet. Similar to an SD card in shape and size, the Electric Imp includes a processor and a wifi antenna that enables each card to be connected to the home network. Users can program the Imp cards through a drag-and-drop graphical interface in order to control each appliance individually and remotely. Imp cards come in different sizes to accommodate a range of devices. The company is in talks with manufacturers to create appliances that would be available to consumers Imp-ready.
Connecting Common Objects
We are accustomed to the idea that the Internet has become ubiquitous in our homes and in objects that already contain electronic circuits. However, this idea hasn’t spread to other things that we find in our homes such as furniture, floors and doors—at least not yet. By transforming household objects beyond pure utility and finding ways to connect them to each other and the Internet, we can uncover new opportunities to capture ambient information that can be analyzed and used to make decisions that can positively affect our daily lives.
As technology progresses, common objects such as lamps, kitchen counters and utensils can be used to monitor our surroundings while remaining fully integrated into our environments. The idea is to connect objects that we don’t think of as hi-tech gadgets.
We refer to these types of objects as “ambient displays” because of their ability to let us perceive information at-a-glance. These connected objects are built to be self-contained in the sense that they don’t absolutely need to interact with a smartphone or another device to communicate the data that they are collecting and analyzing. Such devices are usually small or discrete, and they communicate the information in a subtle and private manner by using changes in temperature, color, movement, vibration or change of shape.
An interesting example of ambient display is the HAPIfork—pronounced happy fork—a smart fork designed to help with digestion and weight control by tracking our eating habits. The fork can measure the duration of a meal, the number of “fork servings” per minute and the length of intervals between each fork serving. It shares this information with us by sending vibrations through its handle when we are eating too fast.
These kinds of objects are made with simple technologies and in a variety of styles to match our tastes and fit the environment in which they’re used. In comparison to Twine and Knut devices described above, which are geared toward hobbyists and gadget enthusiasts, we can expect to find an object like the HAPIfork in department stores like Target or Walmart or even in small boutique shops that carry designer articles.
Adding Intelligence to Everything
In addition to sensor-based hubs and card-like gadgets, and in the same vein as ambient displays, we have also started to witness the development of new systems that are being built to add intelligence to objects we already own.
A universal system like SmartThings is designed to monitor, control and automate virtually anything that we find in our homes. By giving us access to a set of apps that interact with sensors, the system allows us control and monitor doors, windows, lights, fans, air conditioners, heaters, sprinklers, and more. The other original aspect of this cloud-based software is that it’s an open platform that lets communities of developers think of other useful ways to apply the system to consumer objects.
In a similar way, but with an even more unusual approach, the creators of MaKey MaKey have described their products as an invention kit for everyone. By connecting a few alligator clips to a small circuit board that is hooked up to a computer, the kit allows users to turn virtually anything into a connected object. From fruits that perform like a computer keyboard or mouse to a flight of stairs that is transformed into a piano, the possibilities are endless.
Plants, coins, silverware and even food can be used to create connected objects. Students were even able to use the MaKey MaKey kit to make gamepads out of layers of Play-Doh.
By allowing us to turn virtually anything into a connected object, these universal systems will allow us to uncover new opportunities and make everything we own that much more useful. However, the creators of SmartThings and MaKey MaKey need to get more developers on board before consumers start to take their systems seriously. More traditional products that are focused on a single function—like The Nest Learning Thermostat—are currently getting more attention from consumers.
Despite the fact that we haven’t reached a point where there is a dominant platform or a single approach that encompasses the creation of every kind of connected objects, there is already a common vision that seems to dominate the concept of the Internet of Things. The common goal is to connect appliances to each other, to the Internet and to their owners to improve our daily lives.