Internet of Things News of the Week, December 1 2017

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The letter N may not be part of the Alphabet much longer: Google is reportedly bringing Nest back into the fold to consolidate Google’s hardware efforts. Google split Nest off in 2015 as part of its Alphabet restructure, but it makes sense for Nest to be within Google itself. Having two separate hardware divisions isn’t ideal, particularly when there are common threads (ha!) between the two such as wireless protocols, machine learning techniques and potentially overlapping uses of Google Assistant. By bringing Nest within Google, Rick Osterloh’s hardware team can continue to push forward with cohesive branding, design and functionality between various Google products. And that just might help in Alphabet’s growing battle for the home against Amazon Echo and Alexa devices. (WSJ)

Amazon goes IoT crazy this week: Speaking of Amazon from an IoT perspective, the company held its AWS re:Invent this week and in its own words, announced “a slew of IOT services.” I’d agree with that assessment. We’ll be digging deeper into the news but here’s a quick summary of what’s new for AWS: A preview of AWS IoT 1-Click that calls services with a button press, the AWS IoT Device Management framework, AWS Device Defender for IoT security policy audits, AWS IoT Analytics, the Amazon FreeRTOS platform for IoT devices built on microcontrollers, and the AWS Greengrass ML Inference that brings machine learning to embedded devices, even when they’re not connected to the internet. It’s worth noting that FreeRTOS was created by Richard Barry, who joined Amazon last year. The company also launched a deep learning vision camera for developers, so I expect more Amazon devices with cameras along with third-party skills or apps that can take advantage of them. (Amazon)

Oh, Google’s got a smart camera too but for tinkerers: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the second AIY kit from Google. In May, Google launched the AIY Voice Kit as a way to build a small Google Home-like device out of cardboard, a Raspberry Pi and a few other components. Now it’s following up with the AIY Vision Kit using similar parts. Included in the software are a trio of TensorFlow-based neural network models to give your home built camera some smarts. (Google)

HPE and ABB equals industrial IoT: This summary of the IoT alliance between HPE and ABB provides a nice overview of their industrial IoT efforts as well as a vision of using data for both continuous operations and analysis in a cyclical fashion. (Guardian)

Designing for Centaurs?: For those not familiar, the mythical Centaur is half-human and half-horse, or a hybrid creature. And that’s the analogy in this thoughtful piece on future design for users. Instead of creating software or services for people, designers will be challenged to create things for a hybrid user comprised of both people and machines. The Waze example is a perfect: Since Waze is monitoring a network of drivers in real time, it may send some humans on a longer route so that the network as a whole isn’t negatively impacted. A good thought piece here. (Co.Design)

AI and ML will make our smart homes smarter: The Centaur design article reminds me of a post I wrote earlier this week because I posit that our smart homes aren’t really that smart. What’s needed is more use of the knowledge graph our IoT devices can create about our unique living habits and then surface suggestions or take action based on human behaviors. I think it’s a good read that gives a glimpse of the smart home future, but then again, I’m admittedly biased on this one. (StaceyOnIot)

Smart IoT security guidelines: I love that this article notes 90 percent of security professionals consider connected devices to be the biggest threat they face, but it’s concerning that 66 percent of them are unsure how many such devices are in their environment. Time to check the router logs, gang! Regardless, we can never read too much about how to better secure the IoT and this list is a fine example. I particularly like the one that’s easy to overlook: disabling UPnP or Universal Plug and Play on devices. Given a choice of simplicity or security, I’d go with the latter every single time. (Innovation Enterprise)

Nokia is bringing IoT to Africa: Africa isn’t a continent known for manufacturing and production compared to other world regions, so it makes sense that IoT efforts there are focused on different verticals. And that’s what Nokia is doing: bringing IoT in the form of smart cities, public safety, connected vehicles and digital health. These are the areas that will benefit a broader number of Africa’s residents and tie nicely into Nokia’s networking and imaging expertise. For example: Did you know that Nokia has a worldwide IoT network grid as a service or WING for short? Me neither! (Talk IoT)

One multi-radio to rule them all? Since we’re traveling around the world, let’s hop from Africa to New Zealand where Pycom has launched FiPy. This board provides total flexibility for IoT device makers because it supports WiFi, Bluetooth, LoRa, Sigfox and dual LTE-M (CAT M1 and NB-IoT). Pycom’s approach is smart because it can sell the product to various network operators, regardless of which IoT radio they plan to support. Based on the FiPy spec sheet, this small hardware works across a range of frequencies for all of the networks, so it’s truly a worldwide device.  And the board supports the MicroPython framework for developers to build their services. FiPy is now shipping at a cost of €54.00 for those interested. (ComputerWorld)

IoT trends for 2018 to watch for: A panel of experts (not including us – what’s up with that?) provide their 17 IoT trends to follow next year and I can’t really find any that I completely disagree with. The first one, for example, is about the use of blockchain in IoT; something I hope to brush up on in the new year. If I were forced to pick one of these trends as a “meh”, it would probably the rise and potential of smart clothing within the next year. Yes, this will become more a useful thing at some point,  but this market is maturing far slower than others in this space. Right now, most of the smart clothing implementations are super specific, expensive and don’t really solve many problems that another convenient form factor (think smartwatches and wearable sensors) already manage. (TechJini)

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

How the Internet of Things Will Change War

The future of war with IoT

This week on The Internet of Things Podcast, Stacey Higginbotham talks with Tarek Abdelzaher, a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois Urbana Champagne. He’s part of a team that won a research grant from the U.S. Army Research Lab to figure out how to bring the internet of things to the battlefield. The discussion ranges from technical elements to the ethics of having machines kill people.

In the first part of the show, Stacey and co-host Kevin Tofel talk about Google getting better at understanding your commands, the ability to talk to Waze and notifications coming to the Amazon Echo. They also discuss China’s plans to create standards for the smart home, including a preference for NB-IoT over Wi-Fi. Weather reporting gets more accurate without sensors and Stacey and Kevin discuss the end of two smart light bulb startups. Finally, a pro tip for the holidays and we answer a listener question about WeMo and HomeKit.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

It’s time for our smart homes to get smarter (with ML and AI)

Amazon announced that it sold millions of Alexa devices last weekend, helping to bring digital assistants to more individuals and smart homes. And yet, how “smart” are our smart homes these days, really? Not very when you think about it.

Essentially the mainstream smart home products that work with hubs or apps, as well as voice assistants, are currently very rules based. For example, smart home owners generally have to program devices to turn on or off at different times.

I do this with my outdoor lights, having them turn on at dusk and off by 11pm. Devices in the smart home also “react” based on trigger events: When a motion sensor detects movement in my house, the thermostat will run on the “at home” settings I’ve previously set up. The common thread is that all of these device actions require some manual configuration to be smart.

Yet all of these IoT devices are generating gobs of data. They know when you turn your lights on or off whether that’s done through voice commands or in app controls. Your router, your set top box, or your streaming apps all know when you’re viewing IP-based video content on a television, and even — in the case of the content app — what you’re watching. A smart door lock knows when you might be leaving or coming home; information that can be validated with the GPS data on your phone.

Are smart home devices really using this data yet? I’d argue not really although the original Nest thermostat in 2011 was self-learning. Unfortunately, few other devices or services have pushed forward from where Nest left off. And that means there’s a huge opportunity here.

What’s missing from the few scenarios I’ve outlined above is machine learning and/or artificial intelligence. Put another way, why can’t our homes learn how we live our lives in them and truly bring that smarts to the experience?

I could see this happening either in the cloud or on the hubs that run our smart homes, although it’s likely that both will be part of the solution.

On the cloud side, we’ve already seen examples of predictive or contextual assistance. Google’s smart replies in Gmail add value because they predict a few relevant replies based on the content of an email message which is scanned in the cloud.

And when I open Google Drive before our weekly podcast recording, Google automatically surfaces our show notes spreadsheet because it knows I normally open the document at that time. This type of assistance is better than what we see from Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri and Cortana today because we don’t even have to ask for the help: It’s smartly suggested for us.

For hub-based intelligence, we’ll need to bring that type of assistance down from the cloud and onto devices. It’s early yet but Google’s Tensorflow Lite was released earlier this month as a way to bring machine learning to mobile and embedded devices. Amazon too is entering this space, today announcing its AWS Greengrass ML Instance: A way to move machine learning down to the device level. In the short term, I don’t envision a sentient-like assistant such as Iron Man’s Jarvis in the home. (Although that would be nice: “OK Jarvis, write this blog post for me.”)

Instead, I’m hoping we see digital assistants, apps and smart home devices working together to anticipate our needs based on our day-to-day lifestyles.

When I’m not at home and my wife walks downstairs past the thermostat, for example, my home should know it’s her and that she likes our home a little warmer than I do. It would know this because she raises the heat more often than not when I’m not home.

After dinner, I often retire to my office and use a voice command or sensor to turn on the lights. Typically I then fire up one of several streaming apps on my television, unless I’m going to read. In the latter case, I play one of a few SiriusXM channels on a smart speaker. Once my home knows I’m in my office at night, it would be great if a voice assistant asked me which of the two typical activities I’m going to do and then adjust the environment appropriately: Turning on the TV or playing my favorite music.

Until this happens though, I’ll have to keep programming my devices even though they have enough data to adjust on their own. And I’ll keep barking commands at my digital assistants to make things happen, since they never initiate a conversation based on all of the information they have at their disposal.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

The 2017 IoT Podcast Gift Guide!

This is the $ 20 Wyze camera. It’s a solid gift.

You guys, this week’s podcast is all about the toys. Specifically toys for your kids, your dog and your loved ones. In the last year Kevin and I have tried many devices and have compiled our experiences into a gift guide for the connected life. You’ll find both our favorites like the June oven and utilitarian objects like the Ecobee 4 thermostat among a $ 20 smart camera and $ 30 motion sensor for kids. We also handled the few news items for the week– namely Apple deciding to delay the sale of the Home Pod.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

The 2017 IoT Podcast Gift Guide (written version)

There are so many connected options for gift giving. Let us show you.

Last Friday kicked off the holiday giving season, so my IoT Podcast co-host Kevin Tofel and I have pooled our experiences over the last year to create a list of tried and true devices that make a good gift. Some are for kids, some are for pets, and some are for the guy or gal who already has a connected home. I hope you can find something worth gifting or buying for yourself.

Smart Home Picks

The Wyze came sells for $ 20.

Wyze Camera ($ 19.99): For $ 20 you might expect this camera to be a piece of junk, but in our two weeks of testing we found it works really well. The camera offers two-way audio, night vision, 1080p resolution, 14-day cloud storage and motion detection. It’s wired and rated for the indoors, but if you want a simple security camera this one is an excellent place to start. With a microSD card (not included) you can even see a time lapse shot of the day, a feature that the more expensive Nest Cam also offers. The camera’s makers licensed the hardware from a Chinese company and have placed their bet on making good software while offering the cheapest prices they can. The team is based in Seattle and hail from Amazon. It doesn’t work with any other smart home platforms today, but Jessie Zhou, director of marketing at Wyze, says the company plans to add support for popular options over time. And for $ 20, the lack of integrations is not a huge deal killer.

The Netgear Arlo Wi-Fi cameras work indoors and outdoors.

Arlo Pro outdoor 2 cameras and hub ($ 349.99): For the security conscious homeowner and renters alike, these cameras make for a nice outdoor or indoor option. They are rechargeable, offer 720p video resolution, two-way audio, motion detection and night vision. We leave ours on the roof deck when we have parties and want to keep an eye on children from the Amazon Echo Show or from our phones and then toss them outside or on window ledges when we leave town for vacation. These are not always recording, so they aren’t foolproof. They have to detect motion in order to turn on, and one or two people have told me the cameras missed an event. If you want failsafe security, wired cameras are probably the way to go. That being said, these are good enough, durable, convenient and a decent price.

The Google Home now does so much more.

Google Home ($ 79 during the holidays): In the smart speaker category, our choice is the Google Home, which has managed to surpass the Amazon Echo at offering responses to everyday inquiries and has mostly met the challenge in the smart home. If you haven’t decided yet on a smart speaker option for the home, for $ 79 during the holiday season, you can pick up a decent-sounding device that can control hundredsof smart home devices and process almost any query you can think of. Plus, it can make phone calls, which turns the Google Home into a de facto land line for people as long as there is internet access and power. My only quibble with this device is that the slanted design of the top means that you can’t always see if the device “heard” your initial voice command.

The Sonos One works with the Amazon Echo.

Sonos One ($ 174 from 11/23 to 11/27): As an alternative to Google Home, we also recommend the new Sonos One for specific people. For example, this new hands-free speaker supports Alexa voice controls for your smart home, as well as for music playback on Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify and more. Even better: You’ll have a choice of digital assistants in 2018 when Sonos adds support for Google Assistant. Sound quality is excellent on the Sonos One and you can combine multiple units for multi-room audio. Plus, the Sonos companion app includes a smart configuration option to optimize audio playback for your specific room set up.

The Wink Hub 2 is smart and sleek (Credit: Wink)

Wink Hub 2 ($ 99): You can buy the Samsung SmartThings Hub for less, but we recommend the Wink Hub 2 for the extra money. This second-gen hub improves over its predecessor with a faster processor, more memory, and dual-band WiFi support. You don’t need to hardwire it to a router either, making it easy to place in the center of your smart home for maximum range of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, Zigbee and Z-Wave devices. It’s easy to use the Wink app to add new devices, create schedules or automate devices as well. Local processing means that even if your internet service goes down, Wink can still control your home; a feature that Samsung only just added to its hub. With broad device support, simple setup and the ability to work with either Alexa or Google Assistant, the Wink Hub 2 is a great choice to be the brains of your smartphone.

The Ecobee 4 thermostat and remote sensor (Credit: ecobee)

Ecobee 4 ($ 199 on sale): Nest may be the most recognizable smart thermostat brand but we think the Ecobee 4 is better. It’s just as easy to install and includes a Power Extender Kit for older HVAC systems. It also has two key benefits: Remote sensors — one included, additional sensors cost $ 79 per pair — to monitor temperature in additional rooms and a built in microphone/speaker combo that works with Amazon Alexa. The Ecobee 4 is compatible with Apple HomeKit so you’re covered regardless of your hub or smartphone platform.

Google WiFi mesh networking expands coverage and is easy to setup (Credit: Google)

Google Wi-Fi ($ 289 for a three pack / $ 249 on Black Friday at Best Buy): Unless you need super advanced router features, the Google Wi-Fi mesh network units are a great addition to any home. They’re simple to set up and less expensive than most other competing products. The three pack covers 4,500 square feet and creates a single network for your devices, making them a better choice than older network extenders. Although you use Wi-Fi to connect the units, each has an Ethernet port for wiring a device as well. Some standout features include scheduling a Wi-Fi pause for family time, guest network support and the ability to prioritize your wireless signal to a specific device for a certain length of time.

Nvidia Shield TV with remote and optional game controller (Credit: Nvidia)

Nvidia Shield TV ($ 149 on Black Friday) and Samsung SmartThings Link ($ 39.99): This recommendation might seem like it doesn’t belong on an IoT gift guide but bear with us while we explain. The Nvidia Shield TV is primarily a powerful Android TV streaming box and Chromecast unit that supports 4K HDR playback with ease. You can also play Android games on your big screen with the optional (but recommended) game controller included in the $ 169 Black Friday bundle. Nvidia also offers 1080p console games through a monthly $ 8 subscription fee: These titles are played on Nvidia’s cloud servers and streamed to you without any noticeable lag, provided you have a fast enough broadband connection. Here’s where the IoT part comes in on this double-duty device. The Shield TV supports Google Assistant voice commands through a microphone found in both the remote and the game controller. And Nvidia also plans to sell small plug-in microphones you can put throughout your home to use Google Assistant in any room. Lastly, you can add the new Samsung SmartThings Link USB stick for $ 40 which adds Zigbee and Z-Wave support, turning the Nvidia Shield TV into a fully functional SmartThings hub.

For the kids

The Kano Motion Sensor.

Kano motion sensor kit ($ 29.99): This gizmo is made by the same company that makes the Kano build-it-yourself computer for kids. The sensor plugs into the USB port on a computer and lets the user wave their hand in front of it to make music, control games and more. It’s designed for the younger set, with kids as young as five likely to understand what the device does and start interacting with it. My 11-year-old thought it was a little young for her and was not excited to see the coding challenges that Kano has set up to help youngsters learn how to program the games that use the sensor. “Oh no, coding again!” However, with a less jaded audience the games are fun, and the product is simple and intuitive to use. I’ll also add that the Kano community is wholesome and full of good child-safe computing activities.

The Littlebits Droid kit is pretty cool.

Littlebits R2D2 Droid Inventor Kit ($ 99.95): I have not tested this device, but we’re huge fans of Littlebits in this house so I’m excited about this package. Basically, the company has combined several of its bits into a Star Wars-themed Droid to excite kids. It solves one of the challenges my daughter and I had with the original Littlebits package, which was we had all these servo motors, lights and computers, but no real plan on what to do with them. We overcame that, but the cool part of this toy is that once the magic of the Droid wears off, the nits can be used to build whatever your kid desires. Or not. Either way, they still have a fun toy to play with. I’d recommend this for older kids, roughly in the tween demographic.

Stocking stuffers

You can get 5 TrackR Pixels for $ 50.

TrackR Pixel ($ 49.99 for 5): Bluetooth tracking devices are ideal for purses, wallets, backpacks, keys and any other personal item you don’t want to lose. The TrackR Pixel is roughly the size of a quarter so it’s easy to attach to just about anything without calling attention to itself. Once paired with the TrackR app on your smartphone, you can use Bluetooth or even enable an LED or a sound on the TrackR Pixel to find that lost item. It works in reverse too: By pressing a button on the TrackR Pixel, your phone will sound a tone. No more searching around the house for your smartphone! If you leave something behind while on the go, TrackR crowdsources data so if another TrackR app user passes by your lost item, you’ll see where it is in the app.

Flosstime ($ 39.99): This might be an insulting gift for an adult but it makes a good gift for a teen or child. Basically, this is a connected dental floss dispenser that suctions to your mirror and has an LED smiley face or frowny face on it. When you grab the floss, it will dispense the right amount automatically and then the frown turns upside down to cheer you on for flossing. As someone who doesn’t floss like she should I look at this as something that would compel me to actually floss in ways that my thrice-annual dental check ups do not. A warning though, this does require special refills that cost $ 6 a pop.

The Fibaro button is for advanced smart home users.

Fibaro Z-wave Button ($ 49.99) This is not a gift for the smart home novice. This is a stocking stuffer for the person who already owns a SmartThings hub or Fibaro’s own Home Center line of hubs. The button is a beautiful device that can be programmed to respond to 6 different types of touches to set a pre-programmed scene or action in motion. It comes in 8 colors (I have orange) and it’s basically like a magic wand (button) that your loved one can use to impress people with their existing smart home setup and scenes.

Crazy, expensive gifts

June Oven ($ 1,495): Without a doubt this an expensive gift but we’re both glad we bought ourselves one. June is a smart, connected convection oven that resembles a large toaster oven. Don’t be deceived though: In addition to the ceramic heating elements, the June Oven has a built in camera and included temperature probe. While the camera is fun for watching your food cook, it’s really meant to identify the foods you place inside the oven by combining the camera with a growing food database. This way, the June can pick the proper cooking mode, temperature and timer. You can always control the settings manually through the touch screen display or your connected iPhone with the June Oven app installed. Recently, June added support for an Alexa skill, so now you can preheat the oven with a voice command. Pricey, yes, but worth it if your budget allows.

The CleverPet is a pricey toy for dogs.

CleverPet ($ 299.99): Does your loved one have fur? If there’s a really good dog in your life who is food motivated and smart, then consider the CleverPet. The device is like a treat-dispensing Simple Simon game for your dog that uses its Wi-Fi connection to update the treat dispensing devices with new games and to track the treats or kibble your dog takes. It takes a while for dogs to warm up to the full capabilities of the devices and if your dog is indifferent to food, this isn’t going to work in your home. At $ 300 it’s pricey, but if you have the right pet, this will keep it entertained while you are out. It’s loud though, so if you work from home be prepared for a constant whirring noise in the background. Combine with the $ 20 Wyze camera if your pooch is home alone and you can show your officemates how smart Fido really is.

Nanoleaf Aurora Rhythm ($ 229.99): Part light, part art, this product is the gift I’d love to get. Unlike my many connected bulbs and switches this doesn’t have much of a purpose, but boy, does it look cool on the wall. The starter kit comes with nine light panels and a controller that’s capable of controlling up to 30 of the triangle LEDs. The Rhythm aspect of this kit means it will change the lights in response to your music, effectively turning your room into a disco. So if you have a fat wallet and a loved one who likes playing with light, this makes for a great present.

 

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis