If you want your washing machine to email when your clothes are clean and your basement to tweet when it's flooding, you can pick from a growing handful of startup products to get the job done.
Connected boxes Twine and Ninja Blocks, card-like Electric Imp, and stand-alone sensor hub Knut all use sensors to communicate information about objects or the environment around them to the Internet — a concept known as "The Internet of Things."
The Internet of Things has been around for a while. It includes gadgets like connected scales and the Nike+ shoe, as well as identifying technologies as simple as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags. Over the last few years, however, the hardware involved in putting objects online has become more accessible — and The Internet of Things has made a beeline toward the mainstream.
Startups are creating hardware that makes it easy for anyone to connect an object.
Users of startup gadgets like Twine and Knut, for instance, can typically program software to activate actions based on information they gather: "When sensor gets wet, then send text message that says 'The basement is flooding!'" or "When sensor is dry, tweet 'your plant needs to be watered!'" In the case of the Electric Imp, appliance manufacturers can install a card-reader that, when the user inserts a card, gives their products smart capability. Users could, for instance, turn on their sprinklers when the weather gets hot.
But the concept has greater potential than simply watering your plants.
"Think about a commercial user that has 200 greenhouses," says Scott Lemon, the creator of a software that helps connect objects to online services. "It's a much, much different world when you look at it from a non-toy approach."
Pay-as-you-drive car insurance, smart metering and shipping systems that track temperature and other potentially damaging conditions are just a few of many ways the Internet of Things has already started to change the technology landscape. But Lemon's company, Wovyn, wants to make it easier for developers who aren't backed by governments or big companies to integrate with the real world.
It allows programmers to easily include information from connected objects in their apps and, unlike most systems, connects any hardware with any cloud application. Like Twine, Ninja Blocks and Knut, he's raising money for the product on Kickstarter.
If successful, the system will broaden the affordable use cases for putting objects online — adding to the enormous growth in connected objects that analysts have predicted.
In 2010, there were about 12.5 billion objects connected to the internet. The same year, a former director of Internet technology at IBM, Michael Nelson, predicted that within 5-10 years, 100 billion objects would be connected to the Internet. A more conservative 2011 estimate by Cisco puts the number of connected devices at 50 billion by 2020.
"Trying to determine the market size of the Internet of Things is like trying to calculate the market for plastics, circa 1940," Nelson explained in a report by consulting firm the Hammersmith Group. "At that time, it was difficult to imagine that plastics could be in everything.
"If you look at information processing in the same way, you begin to see the vast range of objects into which logic, processors or actuators could be embedded."
With sensors and integrations priced for consumers, startups have started to make that range more visible.
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