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Touchscreen mirror
In a 2011 video, Corning Glass showed off a lot of the technologies that would come to be known as the Internet of Things. The touchscreen bathroom mirror hasn’t yet come to pass, however. (Credit: Corning Glass via YouTube)

Most consumers don’t know what “the Internet of Things” means, and People Power’s David Moss thinks he knows why.

“Before you can experience what an Internet of Things is, you actually first have to go out and buy an internet-connected thing,” he said Wednesday night at Town Hall Seattle, during an MIT Enterprise Forum presentation about intelligent homes. “And why would you go buy an internet-connecting thing if you don’t know what value it can add to your life?”

To capitalize on the Internet of Things, or IoT, People Power came up with a free app called Presence, which turns a spare smartphone or tablet into a Wi-Fi home security camera.

Moss said he was amazed to discover that the app was being used for much more than home security.

“We had created a new thing, but I soon found out that the Internet of Things is actually not just about things,” Moss said. “While I was enamored with how cool it was to check in on my house from anywhere in the world, the stories that we were getting from our users were really about how they were connecting with other people, and their pets. The thing they had, this app, was just a way to connect with what mattered most to them.”

The way Moss sees it, calling the technology the “Internet of Things” doesn’t describe its true power. “I personally prefer the term ‘ambient computing,'” he said.

And however you call it, the technology is on track to become much more powerful, thanks to cloud computing – which provides the “brains” for the Internet of Things – as well as the social dimension.

“The killer apps for ambient computing will be social,” Moss said.

For example, imagine a home security system that can let a trusted neighbor know when a package arrives at your doorstep … or a home control system that turns up the thermostat (and turns on the coffeemaker) just as you’re getting up … or a bathroom camera that discreetly sizes you up as you step out of the shower, and then calls attention to any health concerns.

Sidhant Gupta, who focuses on AI applications for health monitoring at Microsoft Research, said voice-activated intelligent agents like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Home are just the start.

AI agents could well be linked up with personal monitoring systems, such as today’s Fitbit wristbands, to start up conversations with their users.

“That’s something that you would see two people do,” Gupta said.

Greg Feiges, who holds the job title of “intrapreneur in residence” at Honeywell’s Connected Home Division, said the quest for comfort is a big driver for the Internet of Things at home.

“At the end of the day, I want to be able to not even say it to Cortana, or Siri, or Alexa. I want to think it as I walk in the house,” Feiges said. “I want to turn things from ‘I’m thinking that I maybe want to raise my thermostat 10 degrees’ to ‘I’m thinking, make me comfortable.'”

But there are lots of hurdles to get over, technologically as well as conceptually speaking:

  • Wireless electricity is a biggie. “When was the last time you saw a power supply in a windowsill?” Feiges asked. Eventually, home devices should be designed to draw power wirelessly (and researchers at the University of Washington are working on it).
  • Network security is a concern. The massive hack attack that intermittently overwhelmed Twitter, Amazon and other online services last month was traced to a botnet created from webcams and other unsecured devices on the Internet of Things. Feiges said the incident demonstrated the importance of changing default passwords, even on connected devices that aren’t computers per se. “It’s a problem, but you have to be self-aware,” he said.
  • Industry standards are still in flux. The manufacturers of connected devices haven’t yet settled on an industry-wide standard for interoperability. Instead, there’s a mishmash of protocols ranging from Z-Wave and ZigBee to Apple’s HomeKit. “It’s a mess,” Gupta said. Fortunately, all the devices are programmed to play well together on the cloud and on standard Internet routers.
  • Which AI do you trust? Gupta said there’s an obvious reason why webcams haven’t been built into bathroom mirrors yet. You don’t want someone hacking into your home system while you’re sitting on the toilet. But eventually, connected devices in the home – and the AIs that control them – will have to become aware of who’s interacting with them, who gets to control them, and how much information they can share with residents vs. guests.
  • The Internet of Trash? “I do worry very much, not about the Internet of Things, but the Internet of Trash,” Feiges said. There are already billions of IoT devices out there that could be orphaned by technological shifts. “You’ll end up with all these devices with no physical capability to talk to anything, potentially still connected to the Internet but with no control system for them,” he said. “Your house doesn’t get torn down every five years. It’s not a software mentality. Your buildings have devices in them that have been there for 50, 60 years. … So it is a long-run mentality.”

The next MIT Enterprise Forum program is scheduled on Jan. 18, and will focus on nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing. Check in with the MIT Enterprise Forum of the Northwest for details on the Innovation Forum schedule.

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