Of Internet-connected Crock-pots, cars, smartwatches

The CES show floor shows how we've arrived at the Internet of Things

LAS VEGAS -- The oft-used phrase, " Internet of Things" is one emerging tech jargon abstraction that average users are still noodling over in order to better understand and appreciate it.

Here's one reporter's attempt to give it some meaning.

A Crock Pot with Wi-Fi access was shown at the Belkin booth at International CES.

Let's start with some concrete examples in the consumer electronics realm.

At its booth at the International Consumer Electronics Show this week, Belkin showed off a Wi-Fi-enabled Jarden Crock-pot. The Crock-pot uses Belkin's WeMo technology to connect the slow cooker's IP address to the Internet through a home Wi-Fi router. The company also showed a Wi-Fi-ready Mr. Coffee automatic coffee maker.

Prices haven't been announced for either appliance.

Users can control both devices over the Internet, to turn on the coffee or heat up Irish stew from pretty much anywhere in the world, just as can already be done with a Nest thermostat and other devices. The Wi-Fi capability allows an office manager to turn on the morning coffee pot in the break room before arriving or a catering firm to fire up the cooker at a remote location.

Dozens of fitness wrist bands and smartwatches are also on display at CES.

For instance, the $100 Fitbit Flex can monitor your heart rate, vibrate to wake you up or advise that your last night's sleep was restless and disrupted. Other devices, like the new $249 Pebble Steel smartwatch, are connected through Bluetooth to an iPhone or Android smartphone acting as a hub for using Wi-Fi or cellular to reach the Internet. Conceptually, a person's bodily functions could be distributed to a doctor for further treatment or used to compare to a fitness database.

Amid the chaos of the CES are thousands of vendors and tens of thousands of visitors looking to view an estimated 20,000 new products.

The products on display could hit store shelves this year, or might not blossom into consumables for up to a decade. Most are targeted at consumers, but Internet-connected devices, or "things," are already running in industrial sites to control electricity generators, water pumps, traffic lights and more. Some don't need to connect over the Internet at all; they can rely on a local network.

For several years, the tech world has used small or embedded processors and computing devices in cars, smartwatches, tablets, PCs and smartphones. ARM, for instance, said here that it works with nearly 250 device makers with 1,000 ARM licenses to run ARM microcontrollers, tiny devices that are just 2 mm x 1.9 mm, that help keep the "things" they are inside of smaller than ever.

More recently, short-distance (such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth) and long-distance (such as 4G LTE, which is 10 times faster than 3G) wireless networks have vastly improved in functionality. The networks are faster, of course, but also focus on preserving battery power, as with Bluetooth Smart, based on the Bluetooth 4.0 specification.

There are also more than 1 million smartphone or tablet applications in each of Google's and Apple's app stores, and some of those Android apps even work the latest smartwatches.

The Nepture Pine smartwatch, priced at $335 and due out in March, features a 2.4-in. color touchscreen that will run most Android apps, allowing users to, for example, play the popular Angry Birds game in a relatively tiny form factor. The watch's multiple radios that use Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and even 3G wireless make it even more functional.

That may sound fantastic, but most analysts think the trend will be toward the development of much smaller, more fashionable smartwatches that can lure in more buyers, especially women. The tradeoff is that smaller watches likely need their own apps; many smartwatches now support fewer than 20.

The price of sensors used in many devices has drastically dropped in recent years, also helping drive the Internet of Things. For instance, an accelerometer sensor used in a smartphone that cost around $7 six years ago now costs just 50 cents, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, which operates the CES.

You get the idea.

What's happening in 2014 is a massive technology mashup of silicon, wireless networking, apps and data that can be stored almost anywhere and retrieved almost at any time -- as long as the network is up and running and the devices have power.

On the power side, prices of batteries for portable devices are also dropping fast.

Rayovac unveiled a line of new chargers priced from $15 to $50. Available in the spring, the line includes a $20 Phone Boost 800 that can recharge a mobile phone with up to 150 minutes of talk time.

Casio unveiled a $100 runner's watch, the STB-1000, with two years of battery life. It can be connected to free runner's apps on an iPhone via Bluetooth and will be available for Android later this year.

These products in the Internet of Things are not just physical and touchable parts, but also the data that can be as elusive as fairy dust but travels as electrons through networks everywhere. Some people will laugh at a Wi-Fi-ready Crock Pot, but others who work out of the home and still need to prepare dinner will say, "I can use that!"

Good enough, but what's still missing is an answer to whether average users want to be constantly connected to data about their pulse and heart rate (or a number of other metrics) while running a 10K road race, or whether consumers want constant access to any number of other data points in a car or home.

Given the sheer number of consumer electronics vendors showing Internet-connected devices at CES, the answer would seem to be that data on just about anything will be shared and available on many new commonplace devices in the next two years.

A recent Wi-Fi Alliance survey of 1,000 U.S. residents over 18 showed that more than half already have a Wi-Fi-enabled household appliance, thermostat or lighting system. Wi-Fi is installed in more than 4 billion products already, and is expected to surpass 10 billion in 2018, according to ABI Research.

Wi-Fi Alliance CEO Edgar Figueroa said he personally uses a fitness band that can be connected to the Internet via Bluetooth, and a Wi-Fi weight scale that helps him track his weight history from a data stored in the cloud. "It's useful," he said. "I've had it a while, since I got married." (Figueroa isn't overweight, but says he doesn't want married life to lead to a middle-aged bulge.)

Figueroa said he was amazed at the kinds of things being connected to the Internet, but had to chuckle when he heard of the Wi-Fi-ready Crock Pot. "What else are they going to connect?" he laughed.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Read more about internet in Computerworld's Internet Topic Center.

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