You pull into your driveway, put your car in park, and close the garage. At this point, you fumble for your keys, feel along the wall for the light switches, and adjust the thermostat--but what if your door unlocked, lights turned on, and the house was set to a comfortable temperature before you even walked through the door? This is the very near future: the Internet of Things.
It's a vague, silly, overly wrought term that describes the post-smartphone age of technology, an era where we use the computers in our pockets to control the world around us.
Over the last few years, companies have used International CES to show off all types of Internet-connected hardware: the usual suspects like phones, tablets, and PCs, but also TVs, thermostats and smoke alarms, not to mention cars, refrigerators, lightbulbs, and yes, even Bluetooth-enabled toothbrushes. It exists, therefore it is connected to the Web.
But after every device we own has been hooked up to the Internet, what then? Companies this year took to the CES show floor to show how our smart gadgets can flawlessly talk to each other to fully automate our lives.
The universal remote
But in the past, each Internet-connected gadget had its own app and existed in its own world. This year, companies are focused on creating a universal remote for your smart home. Samsung and LG, which both make a slew of smart appliances, announced all-encompassing apps at CES that connect your TVs to your refrigerators to your lighting.
But few people are devoted to one company's products, so this year we also saw services that connect devices from a plethora of different companies. Revolv, for instance, is a hub lets you control your Nest thermometer, your Philips Hue lightbulbs, Yale locks, and your Sonos speakers from one app.
Revolv can speak to all of your devices using seven wireless radios that speak 10 wireless languages. The fact that Samsung and LG are finally allowing you to communicate with all of your gadgets is great, but Revolv's solution is even better, because no one owns only Samsung or LG home gear. After you sync your myriad of devices to the $299 Revolv Hub, the company's GeoSense technology can tell when your iPhone moves in and out of range of your home. You customize the actions Revolv will take when you leave the house or pull in the garage--unlocking your door and turning on music when you get out of your car or turning off your lights and heat when you walk outside. SmartThings, another CES exhibitor, has a similar hub and app setup that lets you program custom triggers.
The concept of geolocation-based actions is promising. Now that you can connect just about any device in your home to the Internet, the next step is a fully automated network of smart machines.
Smart can be practical
From cooktops you Facebook from to refrigerators that can text, we encountered several high-tech, Wi-Fi-connected appliances on display at CES that no real person will use--at least not anytime soon. But there were also really cool examples of practical applications of the Internet of Things. In other words: smart stuff that can actually make your life better.
Kitchen gear is getting more intelligent in ways that are actually useful. So you can't afford a $12,000 Android-powered dual-range oven, but you can probably swing a $99 smart crockpot that helps you get dinner on the table straight from your smartphone.
We saw Nest competitors on display for remotely controlling your home's heat and air conditioning, an upgrade to Lowe's Iris home management system that adds voice control and garage door opening, and Internet-connected devices for checking on your house, kids, and pets.
And in a show of tech that can improve lives even more dramatically, the ReSound Linx Bluetooth-enabled hearing aid that debuted at CES will stream sound from iOS devices for those with hearing loss. You can use your iPhone as a remote control for the hearing aid to adjust the volume, or others can use their iOS devices as microphones that connect to your Linx. You can even stream music to the Linx.
Tech companies obviously want you to snap up all of the Internet-connected devices they're producing, but it's going to be a slow process. New numbers from the Wi-Fi Alliance, which lobbies for companies that make wireless gear, show that more than 50 percent of survey respondents already own Wi-Fi household items and 75 percent think all homes will soon be smart. The Wi-Fi Alliance's Edgar Figueroa said buyers will start replacing their old stuff with new wireless gadgets over time.
"You don't have to go out and make a big investment and redo your whole house," he said in an interview with TechHive at CES.
You can buy one Internet-connected product or collect them all for a fully automated life. The ease of adoption and potential to add more gadgets when your budget allows is exactly why the "Internet of Things," despite its dumb moniker, will continue to dominate the world of tech trends.