First our phones got smarter. Now our homes are getting smarter, too.
Everything that can be connected to the Internet is being – or soon will be – linked to a wireless network, including thermostats, faucets, light switches and egg trays. Yes, “smart” egg trays.
Experts have branded this development the “Internet of Things,” or the “Smart Home,” and it’s welcomed by wireless companies, electronics manufacturers and tech-savvy consumers.
“It’s just an easier way to be connected at all times,” said Dan Green, an Allentown resident who owns a smart watch, a smart video baby monitor and smart switches that allow him to remotely control a space heater and the lights on a Christmas tree.
In the Buffalo Niagara region, the trend is playing out in homes, at area businesses and in the stores of Verizon Wireless, AT&T and other retailers.
With the market for mobile phones reaching a saturation point – nearly everyone who wants a phone has one – manufacturers and wireless providers are looking for new, Internet-capable products to sell to consumers.
In a tangible example of the rise of the “Internet of Things,” Verizon Wireless will update most of its local stores this year with a redesign that emphasizes the company’s range of Internet-connected devices for home, fitness and music and gaming.
However, the trend raises some compelling questions about the growth, and the true value of these connected devices.
“The more the devices can do for us, the more the communications can do for us, the easier it is to become excessively focused on the device,” said Jeffrey J. McConnell, chair of the Canisius College computer science department.
As of May, 91 percent of American adults owned a cellphone and 56 percent owned a smartphone, according to the Pew Internet Project.
Given the broad adoption of mobile phones, wireless providers and the companies that make phones and phone accessories are looking to conquer new markets and give consumers new reasons to connect wirelessly, said John O’Malley, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless in upstate New York.
Further, the wireless providers still have their older-generation, 3G networks, which are too slow for video streaming and other bandwidth-intensive tasks on smartphones and tablets but still can service other connected devices, he said.
“It’s still growing,” O’Malley said of the smartphone market, “but we are seeing penetration rates that are reaching, exceeding, 100 percent. The question is where’s the continued growth going to come from? And it’s going to come from all these connected devices.”
Worldwide in 2009 there were 2.5 billion connected devices – mostly smartphones, tablets and computers – in use, according to Gartner, the research firm. By 2020, the firm estimates, there will be 30 billion connected devices in use, with a much greater variety of devices, accounting for $1.9 trillion in added economic value, Gartner reported in November.
Dave Evans, Cisco’s chief futurist, writes of an expansive “Internet of Everything,” or IoE, with the tablets and social networks of today surpassed by smart sensors built into bridges, disposable ones added to milk cartons and sensor pills swallowed to report on the health of the digestive tract.
“As the Internet evolves toward IoE, we will be connected in more relevant and valuable ways,” Evans wrote in 2012.
$45 a month
The nation’s two largest wireless companies are trying to ride the Internet of Things wave.
AT&T has heavily marketed its “Digital Life” suite of products, which range from home security to remote operation of door locks, appliances, light switches and the water main, touted with “The future of home automation is here.”
The Digital Life network runs on AT&T’s 3G network and lets its customers control many of those functions, such as lowering the temperature in the home, through an app on their smartphones. “Everything’s being connected,” said Ben Marcello, AT&T’s director of sales for upstate New York.
Digital Life was launched commercially in early 2013 and went live in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse in August, and people don’t need to be AT&T wireless customers to sign up for the service.
A package that includes “smart security” and remote operation of the thermostat and lights costs $349.98 in a one-time fee for equipment and $44.98 in monthly fees.
“It’s consumer needs, consumer demand, the almost-insatiable demand for more and more data,” Marcello said. “It’s not just us providing more options.”
Verizon Wireless sells connected products from Belkin, Ion, Hue and other electronics manufacturers, including the $59.99 Belkin WeMo Insight switch – which plugs into an outlet, letting you remotely turn off a light and track energy usage – and the $99.99 Tagg Pet Tracker, which is GPS-enabled and attaches to a pet’s collar.
Verizon’s website has “Lifestyle” sections for products that include “Get Fit,” “Have Fun” and “Home and on the Go,” and the company is emphasizing those same categories in its store redesigns, O’Malley said.
Most of the company’s six Buffalo-area retail stores will be converted to the company’s “smart store” concept this year, he said.
“It’s an acknowledgment that our customers aren’t just coming to us for smartphones anymore,” O’Malley said.
The Verizon Wireless and AT&T representatives said the companies take seriously the privacy and security concerns raised by allowing remote electronic access to security systems and other home features, and they say any data shared over their networks is secured.
Cable companies, too
The combination of sensors, GPS and wireless networks also appeal to businesses, which can monitor their water usage or track a fleet of trucks and the packages carried on those trucks.
And it’s not just for wireless companies. Time Warner Cable has its IntelligentHome next-generation home security and management program, asking, “What if your home obeyed your every command?” It was introduced here in 2012.
The consumers who are buying or signing up for these products are, for the most part, early adopters such as Nicholas Barone, a 29-year-old interactive designer who lives in the Elmwood Village.
Barone in late 2012 bought the second-generation, Wi-Fi-connected Nest Learning Thermostat, which learns the schedule and preferences of the residents in a home and programs itself to adjust the temperature accordingly.
“It listens for you moving around,” he said, “so it will know if you’re home or if you’re not home.”
The latest version of the Nest, which can be operated remotely through a smartphone app, sells for $249. Barone concedes this is expensive for a thermostat, but the company promises to help save consumers up to 20 percent on their heating and cooling bills.
Barone plans to buy the company’s newest product, the Nest Protect smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detector, which shuts itself off after a kitchen cooking disaster with a quick wave of the hand underneath.
“That beats waving a towel in front of the smoke detector for five minutes,” he said.
Green, the Allentown resident, is a technology analyst for Weill Cornell Medical College who previously worked for Apple.
He set up the Belkin WeMo switches around his house, and he can use his phone to set a timer on the switches or to manually power them on or off. He also has the app-controlled Stem IZON baby monitor.
Green was an original Kickstarter investor in the Pebble Smartwatch, which links to a smartphone and can push notifications of new emails, text messages, phone calls and social media posts to your wrist.
Green said the smart watch comes in handy when you’re in a meeting, or out at dinner, with a group of people and you don’t want to disrespectfully check your phone every time it buzzes. But he admits furtive, frequent checking of a watch may not be much better.
McConnell and his husband installed an alarm system from General Security in their home in 2011. They can control the system online or through their smartphones, and the system is connected to a cellular network.
“There are so many ways that technology can enhance our lives, and improve our lives, and this is one of those ways where it can really reassure people,” McConnell said.
At what point, however, are these devices a solution in search of a problem?
Do people really need a watch that tells them they just received a text message on their phone? Or a switch that lets them turn off a light through their phone? Or a $69.99 egg tray that tells you when you’re running out of eggs?
Traditionalists will scoff at anyone who answers ‘yes’ to those questions.
Green said he checks with his wife before making investments in new technology because she is a better judge of whether something is necessary or just the latest, potentially addictive widget.
“I think when you start to pull back from reality, when you start to constantly look at your wrist, when you constantly look at your phone ... that’s when you’ve kind of let the technology take over you,” Green said.
McConnell imagines when the gadgets will cut us humans out of the picture. He proposes a car that knows when it’s running low on gas and alerts your smart alarm clock to move back your wake-up alarm 15 minutes, giving you time to stop for gas on your morning commute.
“Are we getting to the point where our devices control us?” he asked.
The smart gadgets of today are leading us closer and closer to the futuristic world of “Star Trek” or “The Jetsons,” but some parts of that vision remain unfulfilled.
“We’ll never have flying cars,” Barone said.