Connected Things: a decade of progress?

The above video, the infamous Legomercial, is about to celebrate its ten year anniversary. In January 2003, over the span of a week, I built the Lego sets, shot the stop motion using a Lego webcam, wrote the entire score using an Alesis Quadrasynth and produced the video using VideoWave, the rendering taking hours on an AMD Duron 700MHz. We played the video in a non-stop loop for two days at our booth at the Davis Centre of the University of Waterloo as we showed off our fourth-year design project.

The project: a web-connected home automation system. Three engineering classmates and I built a web server, an embedded client, a digital controller and a few analog sensors and actuators. Essentially, you could use a web page to turn electrical outlets on and off in your home. You could read your thermostat remotely. And you could remotely trigger the Ferris Bueller doorbell message to play off of a CD-ROM. And it all worked!

I bring this up because at LeWeb’12 in Paris, SmartThings demoed remotely turning on and off a Christmas tree in Minnesota by using a smartphone. It was a great demo with a sexy mobile app and the audience loved it. But it gave me flashbacks to 2003 when people told us we were late to the game and that X10 already enabled the connected home. So if the technology exists, and people are excited by the idea, why are there still so few connected Things in the home?

Fuck Yeah Internet Fridge asks the age old question “why doesn’t my fridge have the Internet yet?” In the Legomercial, we show the connected oven (Samsung has now built this), the doorbell camera (now crowd-fundable as Doorbot) and the pet feeder (which you can have today as FeedandGo). So there’s been some progress, but contrast that to the following:

  • the mobile device in your pocket today is more powerful than the computer used to create and render the Legomercial and it even shoots photos and videos
  • we had to build and host our own web server for the system to work whereas today you could have that up and running on AWS in minutes
  • in the Legomercial we show the Netscape browser (we avoided IE back then too), Web 2.0 has come a long, long way since then

All this to say that the idea of connecting Things is as cool as ever, but progress lags far, far behind mobile devices, the cloud and the web. So, will 2013 finally be the year of the Internet of Things? Will it be consumer applications that lead the way? Will GE’s Industrial Internet or Cisco’s Internet of Everything lead the way? Time will tell, but one thing’s for sure, it’s not technology that’s holding us back.

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