Networked Things?

The magic starts when household devices can communicate over a network.

Well over a decade ago, Bill Joy was mocked for talking about a future that included network-enabled refrigerators. That was both unfair and unproductive, and since then, I’ve been interested in a related game: take the most unlikely household product you can and figure out what you could do if it were network-enabled. That might have been a futuristic exercise in 1998, but the future is here. Now. And there are few reasons we couldn’t have had that future back then, if we’d have the vision.

So, what are some of the devices that could be Internet-enabled, and what would that mean? We’re already familiar with the Nest; who would have thought even five years ago that we’d have Internet-enabled thermostats?

From the thermostat, it’s an easy jump to the furnace. A furnace may be the dullest appliance in the house. Except when it breaks. The first November after we bought our house, the furnace broke down. The furnace guy came and fixed it. And fixed it again a few days later. And fixed it again a few days later … seven times during the month of November, until he finally said, “I have a bad feeling about this,” and replaced the part he had replaced on the first service call, which turned out to be defective in exactly the same way as the original.

Fortunately, we had a service contract and got most of a new furnace out of the deal. But what impressed me was that I didn’t really appreciate waking up at 2 a.m. wondering why it was cold, noticing that the furnace wasn’t running, calling the answering service, and waiting for the guy to get here. And I wondered why the furnace couldn’t have a little Internet-connected controller that would notice it wasn’t working and send the repair service a message saying “fix me” — bonus points for sending diagnostic information so the technician could make sure he had the right part. Then the tech could call me and say, “We’ll be at your house in 15 minutes; just unlock the door and go back to bed.” That’s a good reason for the phone to ring at 2 a.m.

So that’s one. My next Internet-enabled device fantasy is our water system. Like many residents of formerly rural suburbs, I have a private well. And one of the things I dread is groundwater pollution: every few years, you read about an area where the well water goes bad because someone dumped pollutants (dry cleaning fluid, used motor oil, you name it) that eventually made it to the water table. The polluter has frequently gone out of business, so there’s nothing you can do but try to persuade the water company to extend service to your area. Wouldn’t it be worthwhile if the state were flooded with water sensors (one on every well) that would allow you to trace these events and predict their spread? Wouldn’t it be great if the water company could start running the pipes before your tap water started smelling like tetrachloroethylene? That’s easily within modern sensor network technology. A daily update to a central database from each of a few hundred thousand homes isn’t a big deal. I bet the sensors themselves would be quite simple, and I’m sure the local water companies already have sensors (and networks) on their wells.

Let’s move downstream from the well to more familiar appliances. What about dishwashers? At Foo camp last year, Jason Huggins (@hugs), founder of Sauce Labs and BitBeam, said, “Robotics is always in the future. Every once in a while, a piece of it breaks off and becomes part of the present. Then we get used to having it around, and it stops being robotics. But someone who lived in the 40s would be amazed by a modern dishwasher.” So, how smart could a dishwasher really be? Loading and unloading sounds like a hard problem. But for those occasions when you’ve just left home and realized that you’ve forgotten to start the dishwasher, being able to start it remotely would be useful. Being able to sense what was in it and adjust the cycle accordingly would also be useful. An Internet-enabled dishwasher could also access a rate API from the utility company and run itself at times when power is least expensive.

Bread makers: what if a bread maker or ice cream maker could download recipes from the web? (There is an XML-based microformat for recipes.) Then making bread would be as simple as loading up the machine with ingredients; it would take care of everything else by itself, based on a recipe you’ve selected from an online library. For that matter, what about your stove and oven? Why get up to turn off the oven when the timer goes off — why can’t it know what you’re cooking and turn itself off at the right time? There’s also a recipe standard for beer (BeerML); I can imagine fully automated brewing. I’ve seen a fully automated Internet-enabled still (at a properly licensed distillery).

What makes these ideas interesting isn’t the intelligence, it’s the connectivity. Furnaces newer than mine have microprocessor-based controllers that probably display error codes. I’m sure that modern dishwashers have microprocessors to regulate temperature and water usage; and while bread makers went out of fashion a while ago, my rather elderly microwave has a “sensor” mode that will automatically turn itself off when it thinks the food is cooked. I suspect it would be hard to find any modern device that doesn’t have at least one microprocessor. The magic starts when you add the ability to communicate over a network. Given that these devices already have processors, adding a simple network connection is trivial.

None of these examples are staggeringly inventive. A dishwasher that can be turned on from remote locations and optimize energy consumption is almost dull. So is the Nest thermostat, if you think about what it does rather than what it means. A thermostat is supposed to be dull, and the smarter a thermostat is, the more you can ignore it. The Nest is most certainly a part of the future that has broken off and now belongs to the present. So, here’s the challenge: rather than think about what can’t be done or how silly it would be to have a networked refrigerator, let’s take what we already have and think about what we might be able to do if our things were part of an Internet of Things. What “Things” would you Internet-enable?

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