The promised connected pajamas failed to make an appearance at Mobile World Congress, while many of the touted devices in GSMA’s Connected House exhibit — such as the vending machine you can interact with on Facebook — failed to impress. But beyond the gimmicks was an undercurrent of serious innovation around the Internet of things.
Ericsson and AT&T both tried to answer the question of how our future connected devices will communicate with each other as well as humans. If we build a world where 50 billion devices are connected, those devices will generate a lot of chatter, and that chatter could get very annoying, said Mikael Anneroth, manager of user experience at Ericsson Labs.
When our lamps are constantly telling us they’ve been left on and doors incessantly update us when they’ve been unlocked, we will get bombarded with information. While that info at times is quite useful, it has the potential to become just a stream of noise. By telling us everything about our homes, cars and appliances the Internet of things may wind up telling nothing at all.
“I still want to be in control, but I don’t need every piece of information,” Anneroth said. “The Internet of things needs to keep me in the loop but not all of the time.”
Ericsson is working on methods for connected device information curation and management. Part of that effort is the development of a social media platform for things that aren’t people. At the Connected House exhibit, Anneroth was demoing a social network interface that linked all of the different connected nodes in a home as well as trusted points in the public sphere. Through that network, a user can interact directly with his devices, but the devices spend much of their time interacting with one another.
If for instance a home owner accesses his home social network and discovers he’s left the lights on while away on business, he can shut them off remotely. The lights can then tell the thermostat to power down and then check to make sure all doors and windows are locked. Outside information sources could be hooked into the network as well. For instance inclement weather reports could set off a chain reaction of device adjustments. New navigation data recommending alternate routes to avoid storm-related traffic would automatically loaded into vehicle navigation systems. Personal and office calendars could automatically be updated to allow more time to drive the appointments. The house itself could turn itself into storm mode, shutting off sprinklers, closing windows and turning up the heat. All of this happens in the background on the social network of things. The homeowner might just get a message recommending he leave 10 minutes earlier for work.
There will be cases in which a user wants to take more active control of his network of devices. If a car owner wakes up in the morning to discover his vehicle is missing, he uses the interface to ask the car where it is. If the car informs him it’s heading to the nearest state line, its owner can instruct the car to call the local police, report itself stolen and provide police officers with constant updates on its location.
While Ericsson’s social device network is still in the labs, AT&T is trying to tackle the problem today. It’s working to bring multiple connected appliances into a single mobile management platform. AT&T chose MWC in Barcelona to launch its new Digital Life business. That may seem like an odd decision, until you learn that AT&T doesn’t plan to sell the connected home service in the U.S. Instead it’s looking to license it to international service providers and energy and security companies. Apparently it plans to keep the technology in house on its home turf.
AT&T is bringing dozens of different applications under a single control interface, all of which can be accessed from a console on an iPad or iPhone. While the individual devices don’t talk to one another like Ericsson’s social appliances, AT&T is combining application functions together into profiles and then applying specific rules. For instance, when the front door is unlocked, the platform could open all of the blinds if it’s daytime or turn on the main lights if it’s dark outside. A home monitoring app could send an alert to the homeowner if the oven has been on for more than two hours, embedding that message with a live video feed of the kitchen. The homeowner could then see if a family member is actually baking a cake before he reflexively shuts down the oven remotely.
Ericsson and AT&T’s concepts really aren’t that far off from one another. Ericsson’s just adds an extra level intelligence. In the world of Ericsson Labs, not only can devices communicate with one another, they can make decisions based on the information they receive. AT&T’s system is based on pre-defined rules, but perhaps for now that’s the safer approach. As I wrote on Tuesday about the connected car, giving power to our machines to make critical decisions could have some nasty side effects if they aren’t implemented perfectly or if their security is somehow compromised.