Our IoT predictions and my family’s thoughts on smart homes

Once again it’s time for the holiday episode of the Internet of Things Podcast, where Kevin and I gather weeks ahead of the show’s air date to predict what we think will happen next year. We kick it off with our disappointments from 2017. From there we shared our predictions for 2018 and ended with our big questions for the industry wondering what havoc GDPR regulations will wreck and if we’ll get a new security model that works for IoT. Just like last year and the year before, the guest portion of the show features my family, sharing what they liked and didn’t like about our smart home this year. I hope you enjoy.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

IoT for renters: 7 devices to make your home smarter

You can add a lot more than smart outlets to your rental unit.

I get a lot of plaintive requests for articles that cover IoT for renters, so I’m pulling together a list for those who aren’t lucky enough to be able to tear up their walls or remove their locks in the quest for a fully automated and smart home. By the way, the locks are a really important safety features for landlords, especially in apartment complexes, so truly, don’t mess with them. But here are several gadgets that you can buy if you’d like to add a little automation and fun to your life.

Canary: The Canary is a $ 169 all-in-one security system that offers a camera, a siren and a bunch of sensors. I’ve long recommend it as a good gift for students going away to college or those getting their first apartment. Instead of placing a bunch of sensors everywhere, you just pop this device in the main room and it performs remarkably well when it comes to hearing strange noises that might indicate a break in and even detecting increases in humidity that could help identify a big leak. There are plenty of other security systems out there, but I like the bang for your buck that Canary offers thanks to using inference rather than a bunch of sensors. It also supports optional indoor/outdoor cameras for those who want to build on the base system.

Philips Hue bulbs: There are several light bulbs out there that offer remote on/off and integrations with the main voice and smart home platforms currently available, but I have a soft spot for Philips Hue. For renters, these bulbs can link to a smart speaker to provide voice control, and Philips also offers a pricey, but simple way to control the bulbs from a light switch and using a motion detection sensor. The biggest caveats to these bulbs are that they cost a lot (color bulbs cost $ 50 and whites $ 15) and that whenever you lose power they will turn on at full brightness when the power comes back on. If you want something a bit cheaper check out the Sengled bulbs, although they won’t work with Apple’s HomeKit platform.

Amazon Echo Plus: If you are reading this, I will assume you are just starting out with a smart home. If so, the $ 150 Amazon Echo Plus is an excellent device to pave the way to basic smartness without requiring a lot of extra gear because this device is also a hub. The smart speaker offers all of the talents of Alexa with an additional ZigBee radio that lets it talk to light bulbs, sensors and connected locks. You can’t add locks to your rented abode, but you could add an ZigBee-based light bulb. This means Philips Hue, GE bulbs and others. And because smart home device companies have been working to add Alexa Skills like mad, pretty much any other connected device you buy can work with Alexa too.

Google Home: I know I just spent a paragraph extolling the virtues of the Amazon Echo, but if you don’t mind a few smart device hubs, the Google Home is a smarter device that’s currently much cheaper at $ 79 than the Echo or Echo Plus. Google’s Hardware doesn’t speak to as many connected home devices but it’s far better at answering spoken inquiries. I rely on Google to answer tough questions such as “Can I store mangoes in the fridge?” Google also lets me call people from the Home and makes it look like it’s coming from my phone number.

Switchmate: For those in a small apartment who want to replace their light switches with something smart, Switchmate is the way to go. Because smart bulbs require a light switch to stay turned on all the time, they tend to get messed up if you live with other people or have a housecleaner. Light switches are generally better, but require you to mess with electricity and replace things built into the walls. Landlords hate that. But these $ 40-to-$ 50 light switches snap over your regular light switches (toggle or rocker style) and can remotely control your lights using a Bluetooth command from your phone. Note, that because these use Bluetooth, they will only work when your phone is in Bluetooth range. So no turning off the lights from across town.

Logitech Harmony hub: I have dozens of connected devices that I can control with my voice, but my favorite might be the entertainment center, because it keeps me from having to explain to parents or a sitter the proper order of operations to get my TV to talk to the stereo system and for everything to talk to the Roku. Instead we tell Google Home or Alexa to turn on television (or turn on Netflix) and it works. Yes, we still have to use the Roku remote, but for $ 100 I really appreciate how easy this device has made my life. Perhaps my favorite is I can tell Alexa to fire up the TV while I am still getting my popcorn ready and by the time I’m ready to sit down, everything is warmed up and connected.

Smart outlets: There are so many connected outlets on the market, that’s it’s tough to pick just one. The most popular are the TP-Link and Belkin’s WeMo outlets that are able to fit two to an outlet, thus allowing you full use of the plug. They run about $ 30 to $ 40 depending on sales. The downside is that while both of these outlets are made by reputable companies, neither of these companies is particularly fast when it comes to patching security flaws. I tend to prefer WeMo over TP-Link but both have their issues with security. That being said, a smart outlet is nice for anyone who wants to control a lamp with her voice or in some cases set a device like a coffeepot or curling iron on a timer. During the holidays I have a shortage of connected outlets because I use them for holiday lighting needs. In the summer I use one with a tabletop fan to blow cool air when the outside temperature gets above a certain point. If your apartment doesn’t have AC that’s a pretty handy trick.

All in, these devices would run you well under $ 1,000 to trick out your rental, and can make your life a bit easier, safer and more fun. Happy to hear what other products you guys like.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

Let’s talk about containers at the edge

Alexandros Marinos, CEO and founder of Resin.io

If the internet of things is to scale to millions of devices and embrace millions of different use cases it’s going to need developers. And to broaden the number of developers who can program edge devices, the tech industry needs to make platforms and languages that are easier to use. Resin.io is one company that hopes to make that possible.

Resin.io is building software that it hopes will provide that leap for developers. It hopes to move from fragmented and complex IoT programming frameworks and languages to tools that developers can use to manage and deploy software on what could be millions of connected devices.

Resin’s leap was building a form of a Docker container on ARM-based silicon used by many connected devices. Containers allow a developer to build a self-contained version of an app or service and then replicate it across many different servers. Or in the case of IoT, light bulbs or microprocessors.

Containers help with the problem of scale, allowing IT staff to treat an application as a resource that can be managed and deployed in any sort of infrastructure. But when thinking about computing at the edge of an industrial or enterprise network, containers aren’t enough. Alexandros Marinos, CEO and founder of Resin.io, says that in the four years since Resin.io’s founding a lot of work has gone into making the containers resilient enough for the edge.

For example, the connectivity inside a digital sign or an edge sensor can be sporadic, as can power. So Resin.io has taken steps to store data in a way that preserves it in case of power or data connection loss. But because data must travel back to the cloud on limited or unreliable networks, Resin.io also tried to minimize the container size and the way it transfers information to limit the use of bandwidth.

The software also puts guardrails in place so a machine that is operating can’t get a software update or perform certain functions. For example, if your light bulb got a security update while you are reading, you probably want it to wait until you flip the switch off before it performs an update. Today those updates are generally scheduled for a time when you aren’t likely to be using the device or when the device is first turned on after the patch has been released.

As someone who has flipped a switch only to have to wait for an update, neither is ideal.

“Some of what we have learned comes from the embedded world and some of it from the cloud,” says Marinos.

This philosophy makes sense when it comes to building what is essentially a new computing architecture for the internet of things. Now bring on the developers.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

Spire makes wash and wear wearables

Spire’s new washable wearable.

During my first trip to a B8ta store a little over a year ago I bought a device that claimed it would track my breathing and tell me if I was stressing out. If I was, it would help me relax. Spire was backed by breathing rate science from the Stanford Sleep Lab. It didn’t actually work for me. It kept telling me I was relaxed when I was most definitely stressed.

However, after selling it on eBay, I discovered from Spire’s CEO that my breathing rate is apparently on the low end, which confused the sensor. He told me if I had held onto it a bit longer, it would have learned and started to be more of a help. That’s a key reason I’m interested in the newest product Spire has made.

This device measures breathing rate, heartbeat, activity and sleep. But the most exciting thing is that it does this in a tiny sensor designed to stick inside your underwear or bra for a year or so. Because it’s a semi-permanent sensor for clothing it’s also designed to go through the wash hundreds of times.

Building a health tracking device that’s low-powered enough to track activity, sleep, breathing rate, etc. for more than a year, while also protecting the electronic components from the wash, is tremendously impressive. Spire adds one more thing to its electronics, though: sustainability.

Jonathan Palley, CEO and co-founder of Spire says that the company used glues and packaging that’s designed to be taken apart and recycled when the device’s battery runs out.

When that happens, consumers send the tags back to Spire and presumably order a new one. This business model is very similar to that of Tile’s trackers.

I’m not sure how many people are going to like spending $ 100 on a three pack or $ 299 on a 15-pack only to have the devices die in a year or two. Even if they do accept this, I’m not sure how many will ship the defunct tags back.

However, I’m impressed by the way that Palley and his team have taken their vision and found a way to create it with available electronic components. Palley says that many of his suppliers, which include Maxim and Ambiq Micro, love that he’s showcasing new ways to use traditional components and using their most advanced silicon.

I’ve been covering Ambiq for at least six years. The company started with a new way to make a timing component and has since made a microcontroller that uses 10x less power than a traditional MCU. When I last covered the firm in 2015 people didn’t understand why such a low powered MCU mattered since things like displays used most of the power in a wearable.

Spire’s health tag is an excellent example of why I cared. Not everything will need a display. And by having an MCU that can use more power for computing while sipping on the battery, the tags can take in less data and make inferences from the smaller sample size by using more complex algorithms. These sorts of tradeoffs are always happening in computing, and now they can happen in a device that you wear in your underwear and can be washed.

The future is cool, and I’m excited there are companies pushing the limits on what’s possible to make real innovation happen.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

Amazon’s Blink buy sums up the smart home in 2017 … and 2018

The Blink camera is a $ 99 wireless camera.

Amazon has acquired the company that makes the Blink line of cameras and a newly launched $ 99 doorbell. The deal itself doesn’t come as a surprise since Immedia Semiconductor, the Boston-based company that makes Blink, has been on the market for months.

Amazon likely scored a relative bargain, much like Ooma did with camera maker Butterfleye (see the news section below). Smart device startups seeking an exit is one huge theme from 2017, as is a focus on security. Looking ahead to 2018, it’s worth noting that Blink’s planned $ 99 doorbell and existing $ 99 wireless cameras put price pressure on competitors in the the market.

If I were picking a macro trend for the smart home device space, I would bet on next year being the year of pricing pressure for devices. For example, one of the most compelling devices I’ve seen this year is the $ 20 Wyze camera that is built to modern hardware specs like a Nest Cam or Arlo, but costs so much less. The Wyze co-founders were former Amazon alumni and the company’s goal is to sell a bunch of cameras on razor-thin margins to command the market.

With Blink, Amazon gets a cheaper device, but it also gets some serious technical know-how. The Blink camera business was actually born out of a chip company that decided it needed a new and more lucrative market for an image processing chip it had developed.

Immedia Semiconductor made a chip that sold for a few bucks to DVD and Blu-Ray player companies, but after looking at the margins, CEO Peter Besen decided to build a product that showcased the chip’s battery-sipping image processing technology. The result was a wireless camera that launched on Kickstarter in 2014.

Amazon now has the cameras and future doorbell. It also now has its own image processing chip technology. As companies like Google and Apple build dedicated silicon for their mass-market devices, that could become an advantage. Even if it doesn’t Amazon now has another advantage in the smart home — a security offering.

As I’ve written in the past, home security is a gateway drug for home automation. Companies ranging from Nest to Comcast are trying to build compelling security offerings to entice consumers to adopt their platform and buy their devices and services. Meanwhile, security firms like ADT are pushing into the home automation market and trying to stop rivals from encroaching on its turf. For example, ADT is suing Ring to stop the sale of Ring’s security system.

In short, for what is likely a relatively decent price, Amazon now has a dedicated low-power image processing chip, a security offering and a leg up on the coming price war in connected devices. Meanwhile, Blink device owners will get continued support for the time being.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis