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Google-backed Thread Group opens membership, wades into home IoT marsh

Stephen Lawson | Oct. 2, 2014
The Thread Group has invited more companies to join its effort at harmonizing the "Internet of things" in consumers' homes, but it still faces a tangled industry with competing and overlapping technologies.

The Thread Group has invited more companies to join its effort at harmonizing the "Internet of things" in consumers' homes, but it still faces a tangled industry with competing and overlapping technologies.

The organization launched in July with a core group of major technology companies including Samsung, ARM Holdings, Freescale Semiconductor, and Google's recently acquired home devices business, Nest Labs. On Tuesday evening at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California, it announced that other companies can now apply to join. The group is open to anyone, with memberships starting at US$2,500 per year.

Thread is developing a networking software stack for linking many types of devices in homes, such as lights, security systems and heating and cooling equipment. Thread devices would form a mesh rather than connecting through a single hub in the center of the network, which could offer longer range and greater reliability, avoiding a single point of failure. Thread is meant to augment Wi-Fi, forming a second network for small, power-sipping connected devices instead of laptops and tablets.

The software stack uses the 6LoWPAN personal-area network technology, which is based on IEEE 802.15.4, a low-power wireless protocol that's already in the market and uses the same chips as ZigBee, another low-power system. The stack also uses IPv6, the next generation of Internet Protocol, so every home device can have a unique Internet address. Networks will be able to accommodate at least 250 devices, according to Thread.

The group turned to existing technologies so it could make sure Thread products get out to market quickly, said Chris Boross, president of the Thread Group and technical product manager at Nest Labs. It expects to start certifying products next June, much sooner than it could have done building a standard from the ground up, he said.

Because the Thread stack only tells devices how to talk to one another and doesn't include an application layer, vendors can use different applications and user interfaces on top of it. Any application layer that uses IPv6, such as ZigBee Smart Energy and the Internet Engineering Task Force's CoAP (Constrained Application Protocol), can run on top of Thread, Boross said. The common networking platform will let different types of devices communicate automatically without users having to organize a network, Boross said.

For example, Nest thermostats, which already use an early form of Thread, will be able to control home ceiling fans from Big Ass Fans, another founding member of the group. That interaction was demonstrated at Tuesday's event. By turning on fans, the smart thermostat could hold off activating an air conditioner, saving energy and money. In addition, signals from motion sensors around the home could activate fans exclusively in rooms people are currently using.

 

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