While nobody was paying attention, a wonderful new class of mobile gadget emerged.
These devices aren't wearables because you don't wear them. They're not "Internet of Things" devices because they don't have IP addresses. And they don't enhance the normal functionality of a smartphone like, say, Bluetooth earbuds or a tiny projector. Even more intriguing is that the actual functionality of these gadgets is very specific, but can be applied creatively to a huge number of jobs.
So what are they?
I'm talking about tiny, inexpensive sensor-based devices that work with a smartphone to keep you informed about what's going on with your projects, hobbies or other stuff.
You might call them "Awareness of Things" devices.
Here are five interesting examples.
It's just a thermometer. Big deal, right?
Actually, the ThermoPeanut has three attributes that make it super useful. First, it's a stick-on. You can stick it on your laptop, inside your refrigerator or even in the car where you leave your dog when you step into a store.
Second, it's cheap. That means you can buy several of them. You can place one in each part of your refrigerator to make sure your beer isn't too warm and your lettuce doesn't freeze.
Third, it's app-connected. This is my favorite part: You can tell the app to notify you when the temperature gets above or below any temperature.
When I'm not obsessing over technology, I'm obsessing over food. My wife and I make a lot of food from scratch, from cheese and yogurt to sauerkraut and fermented escabeche. Making fermented foods always requires a specific temperature range. For example, milk with a little yogurt culture turns into yogurt when you leave it at 110 degrees fahrenheit for between 8 and 12 hours. The light in your oven might keep the oven at around 110, but how can you be sure? The ThermoPeanut can tell you.
The app also tracks temperature changes over time, so you can ignore the app, then later come back and see how the temperature has been fluctuating, and what the highs and lows were.
I've told you in this space about the wonders of Bluetooth beacons.
The idea of beacons is micro-location far more accurate than GPS, cell tower triangulation or Wi-Fi hotspot proximity. Normally, beacons are used for commerce: in department stores, sports stadiums and Starbucks.
Now there's a $20 consumer beacon called the Dot (made by a company of the same name). It's a hockey puck shaped device that's about an inch in diameter with a light in the middle. It's got an adhesive back so you can stick it to just about anything.
The Dot simply makes your phone do what you tell it to when the phone and the Dot are close to each other. For example, you can put one in your car and give yourself a notification to get gas next time you get in, have the light turn on when you walk into your hallway, or play music on your phone when you leave the house.
You can also tell the Dot to communicate with color. You can have it show a solid green light when there's a package at the door or flash red when rain is forecast.
Dot is working on open source utilities to give Dot beacons extra functionality. They've already got a few, including one that opens your daily agenda when you sit down at your desk and another that launches Netflix when you sit on the couch. When Dot launches, the company promises integration with a wide variety of smart-home platforms, including Philips Hue, Samsung's SmartThings, plus Belkin and WeMo devices. It also integrates with Chromecast and Apple TV.
The Dot's replaceable battery lasts between six months and a year, according to the company. The Dot is being crowdfunded on Kickstarter and may ship as early as March.
If you listen to tech podcasts, you may have heard the TrackR advertised. The TrackR is a $29.99 gadget (Amazon price) you can attach to your backpack, keys, wallet, bike or dog, then keep track of them with the free app. (If you buy more they get cheaper. For example, a pack of 10 costs about $12 per TrackR.)
The TrackR app tells you how close you are to a lost object within the house, and can even sound an alert to make finding your item easier. Plus, the reverse is true. If you have the Trackr but not your phone, you can make your phone sound the alarm. The app lets you even set up an alert, so if you leave the house without your wallet, your phone makes noise. Best of all, if something is truly lost or stolen all the Trackrs in the world form an ad hoc network. When your TrackR gets near somebody else's Trackr, you get updated about where this took place.
TrackR supports Alexa, so you can just ask your Amazon Echo device where your keys are. Best of all, you don't even need a TrackR to use it. By simply downloading the Trackr app, you can ask Alexa to make your phone ring so you can find it in your house.
The Tile Slim works pretty much like the TrackR.
Tile Slim is able to be so slim because the battery is not replaceable. You have to replace the entire Tile Slim device. Replacements cost $21 each. The company says Tile Slims last a year and that it recycles the old ones.
The Sensor-1 from Metasensor is another tracker in the Trackr and Tile Slim mold, but with a difference: The $99.99 device has an accelerometer, a gyroscopic stabilizer and a magnetometer, so you can tell it to sound an alarm if it moves -- both the Sensor-1 and your smartphone app make noise.
You can use the free Sensor-1 app to adjust the sensitivity of the motion tracking. You can choose, for example, whether to get an alert only if someone picks up your laptop, or if it is merely opened. You can tell the Sensor-1 to alert you if somebody opens the refrigerator or opens your lunch bag in the break room, opens a door or window or steals your bike.
These five products represent a new class of mobile gadget. They are tiny, low-cost and give you and your smartphone amazing powers of awareness, detection and location.
We all know about the Internet of Things. The new class of "Awareness of Things" gadgets keep you informed about what's happening with all your stuff.