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The Internet of Things, explained

Chanelle Bessette | Jan. 2, 2015
Everybody’s talking about it, billions are being spent on it, and it will impact all of our lives sooner rather than later. Our primer explains what all the fuss is about.

The Nest thermostat itself famously learns the activity patterns of a home's residents, so that your HVAC system operates only during those times of the day when someone is around to benefit from it. If the house is quiet and still during the day, the thermostat will assume that its occupants are gone and adjust the temperature so that the heater or air conditioner isn't running, saving energy and money while reducing your carbon footprint.

For those who prefer an integrated solution over the piecemeal DIY approach, companies like Vivint sell a smart-home-in-a-box that includes all the components--smart door locks, thermostats, lighting controls, and more--in a single package that their technicians install for you. The up-front costs of such systems can be incredibly low, but the trade-off often is a long contract with monthly subscription fees.

The Wild West
We're in the midst of the earliest days of the Internet of Things, and the market is a bit like the wild west. New ideas--and new companies--are popping up left and right, and bigger players are swooping in to snap up some of the pioneers. Google spent billions to buyNest,Dropcam, and Revolv this year; Samsung picked upSmartThings; and Microsoft partnered with Insteon.

We're also seeing a proliferation of standards as the industry seeks to develop a universal language that all these devices can speak. Unlike wireless home networking or Bluetooth, no one seems willing to wait for a slow-moving deliberative standards body like the IEEE to get it done. "We see the Internet of Things as a train, and everybody's getting on it," said Big Ass Fans controls engineering manager Landon Borders. Borders is also on the board of the Thread Group, a consortium Google formed to wrestle with this issue. "We're building the railway as we go, and what's to be determined is where we're going."

Mike Harden, co-founder and senior partner at the San Francisco venture-capital firm Artis Ventures, sees a bright future for this space. "With the Internet of Things, certain products always seem like pipe dreams early on, but we're starting to see the proof points of the dream," Harden said. "Take locks, for example, when you make them connected to the Internet, it changes the sharing economy. Say you're renting your house out on Airbnb, and your visitors' flight doesn't get in past midnight. Instead of waiting around to give them a key, you can just text it to them."

The typical short-term view of the smart home, Harden said, is one filled with exciting gadgets and bright buttons, not unlike the futuristic architecture of Star Trek in the 1960s. Harden has a different view of what dwellings will look like 50 years from now. "I think that the future is a super intuitive, nice home that's closer to nature," Harden predicts. "Instead of panels on the wall with lots of screens, the technology will be simplified, elegant and behind the scenes. You won't see the technology anymore."


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