2013: The Internet of Things, delivered via smartphone

This post was also published in VentureBeat.

Virtually every electronic device has now gained a smartphone controlled equivalent over the past year. The well known products in this category, such as the Nest thermostat and Sonos music system, have now been joined with smartphone controlled light bulbs, door locks, refrigerators, security systems, home theater remote controls, game consoles, weight scales, and even vacuum cleaners. Services such as teleconference systems that used to be controlled just by touch tones are now controllable by smartphones. There are even smart device powered telepresence robots.

Historically, these types of devices had unintuitive control panels, small, hidden buttons, and other such complex interfaces. The smartphone ecosystem makes is easy for manufacturers to deliver mobile apps as control systems, and for users to intuitively control devices by using a familiar interface.

The tech underneath it all

This device revolution has been powered by a new generation of cheap, embedded controllers, where full web-enabled systems can be cheaply embedded into a device. Consumer versions such as Arduino and the Rasberry Pi have kicked off a generation of controllable devices that even include do it yourself smartphone controlled power strips.

One quagmire that many users run into is that it can be hard to add a device to a home network and then connect a smartphone to the device. It can sometimes takes a while for a smartphone to find and log into a home Wi-Fi network. Sonos solves this problem by broadcasting over your network and letting users push a button to pair devices together. New peer-to-peer wireless protocols such as Wi-Fi Direct are attempting to address this problem in a more seamless manner.

There is a definite threat that hackers can gain control of a home network, and thereby control all of the devices in a home, so it is important that users secure their WiFi with a password and a high level of encryption.

This new era of control by smartphones is actually quite cheaper than legacy electronic controls. For example, both a legacy “smarthome” lightswitch and an overstock 7” Android tablet each cost $70. iPads are far cheaper and more usable than state-of-the-art systems such as Crestron.

Touchscreens are not applicable to every dedicated device. My personal experience waiting for clerks to use iPad enabled point of sale terminals has not been positive. For whatever reason, it seems to take about twice as long for items to be entered and a receipt printed than with old-school push button registers.

Where is this going next?

A very interesting facet of this next generation of devices is their ability to add ambient awareness to devices. Just like the Nest thermostat learns your comings and goings and the FitBit monitors your activity level, all of these devices will be soon be able to monitor their surroundings and fetch information like the current weather for their location.

Google Now is currently providing this for Android users. Hobbyists have had a boon tinkering with the Xbox Kinect to add ambient awareness to their projects, and this type of technology is likely to be embedded in numerous devices in the near future.

Another area that may soon feel the impact of smartphone interfaces is vehicles. There have been quite a few attempts at vehicle touch interfaces, with a large level of investment, from manufacturers including Ford with its MyTouch panel, Tesla with its huge 17” panel and Audi’s Multimedia Interface. While these interfaces are functional, they are not familiar to users that expect iOS and Android style touch interfaces.

In the near future, vehicle manufacturers will likely be pairing up more with software vendors, much like Ford partnered with Microsoft for its Sync voice recognition system. Imagine a day when you can add the iOS or Android control panel as an option when purchasing a vehicle.

It is likely that every room of a home will have a 4” or 7” smart device mounted as a control panel for lights, music, and more. Soon, “flipping a light switch” will sound as archaic as “dialing a telephone”.