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Helping ‘Smart’ Devices Talk To Each Other

A house that tracks your every movement through your car and automatically heats up before you get home. A toaster that talks to your refrigerator and announces when breakfast is ready through your TV. A toothbrush that tattles on kids by sending a text message to their parents.

Helping 'smart' devices talk

Exciting or frightening, these connected devices of the futuristic “smart” home may be familiar to fans of science fiction. Now the tech industry is making them a reality.

Mundane physical objects all around us are connecting to networks, communicating with mobile devices and each other to create what’s being called an “Internet of Things,” or IoT. Smart homes are just one segment — cars, clothing, factories and anything else you can imagine will eventually be “smart” as well.

But there’s a catch: So far, most Internet of Things products have been a messy tangle of different wireless protocols and brands. Many can communicate with their own apps and ecosystems but haven’t found a way to play nice with each other. The Nest thermostat, which can adapt to your energy-consumption habits, is just one example.

These standalone devices and ecosystems are running their own proprietary software and speaking different languages. Your smart toaster is humming along in French, for example, while your fridge is babbling about dairy expiration dates in Japanese.

Now chipmaker Qualcomm is trying to give the industry a major push with an open-source project that can link all these disparate pieces. Qualcomm is hoping its platform, called AllJoyn, could act as a sort of universal translator for the industry.

Over the past four years, Qualcomm has been working on its AllJoyn protocol to connect devices from different manufacturers, even if they have different communication standards. It wants to be the de facto language your fridge, lightbulbs and garage door all use to communicate.

“The only way that vision can be realized is if we turn this into a true panindustrial effort with companies all over the world,” said Liat Ben-Zur, Qualcomm’s senior director of product management.

Choosing a standard

Many standards already help smart devices communicate, though none has emerged as a dominant option yet. Some companies, such as SmartThings, Lowes and Revolv, depend on a physical hub to link devices.

Experts say this market will struggle to really take off until someone can convince the major players it’s in their best interest to work with other brands.

“We could see a few large ecosystems emerge for (the Internet of Things), such as we have today with Android, iOS and Windows. But consumers like to have choices and will demand that closed systems learn to communicate with each other,” explained Karen Bartleson, president of the IEEE Standards Association.

If there are too many different ecosystems, people will find a way to connect them — much like how the problem of multiple phone chargers is being solved by micro-USB, she said.

“Because (the Internet of Things) is so vast and varied, it will be hard to come up with a ‘one size fits all’ standard,” said Bartleson. “Instead of a single, dominant communication standard for IoT, there will likely be several that serve different purposes.”

A company with as much industry clout as Qualcomm might have luck bridging some of the gaps. It’s a smart business move: The wireless technology giant makes many of the chips found in smartphones and tablets. It also sells the chips that will go inside smart thermostats, security systems, cars and everything else.

But the connected-things revolution will only work if all the companies and products find a way to break out of their silos and work together, according to Ben-Zur.

“Oftentimes we kind of think about the evolution of the Internet in two revolutions. The first revolution was the connected Internet,” she said. “The second kind of revolution was when we suddenly went to the mobile Internet.”

Being able to access the Internet from our pockets isn’t just revolutionary because it is portable. The devices collect and share information about us using built-in sensors, such as accelerometers and GPS. The Internet becomes a two-way street where we share context about our location, environment and habits so it can serve up customized information.

A third revolution

Ben-Zur predicts the Internet of Things will be the third revolution. Sensors will show up in more and more devices and turn them into sponges that soak up data about our habits, environment, movements and health.

A smart smoke detector, for example, might also gather information about the pollen count in a house. A home security system’s motion detectors can track a family’s movements and location over time, sharing information with a central heating or cooling system to customize each room’s temperature.

But it’s still to early to say for sure how all these devices will chat with each other and whether Qualcomm’s AllJoyn or some other option will take off.

The exact killer apps for the Internet of Things are also a mystery. We won’t really know how the technology will change our lives until we get it into the hands of creative developers.

“The guys who had been running mobile for 20 years had no idea that some developer was going to take the touchscreen and microphone and some graphical resources and turn a phone into a flute,” Ben-Zur said.

The same may be true when developers start experimenting with apps for connected home appliances.

“Exposing that, how your toothbrush and your water heater and your thermostat … are going to interact with you, with your school, that’s what’s next,” said Ben-Zur.


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