The bread-and-butter reality of tech dreamers

Let's get this out of the way first and quickly: You probably don't need a toaster that is connected to the Internet.

There is probably, however, a very good dystopian short story in the concept — something about hackers overtoasting someone's bread from afar until they go crazy or a toaster model that nefariously studies a family's bread-toasting habits in service of a vast spy network.

It's ridiculous, right? It's barely worth thinking about.

Except.

It probably will happen. Not right now. Not this year. Perhaps not even in this decade.

But one way or another and in hundreds of little ways, "the Internet of Things" is coming.

And toasters are probably part of the deal.

It's possible that someone, somewhere said it in another context, but the term "the Internet of Things" appears to date back to 1999, when British sensor researcher Kevin Ashton used it in a presentation to Proctor & Gamble.

The idea was this: Even at that time, data sensors and hardware for online connectivity were quickly getting smaller and cheaper. Physical objects, not just computers and phones but many other things, could be hooked up, connected, made smarter and more useful, trackable and accounted for on the blossoming Internet.

It may have seemed a little crazy at the time.

In 2014, it's a lot less ridiculous given the massive number of uses a device like, say, a small smartphone gives us.

But there is still a lot of skepticism about how this will play out, especially in two areas where we spend a lot of time - the home and the car.

At the Consumer Electronics Show, which took place early last month in Las Vegas, tech manufacturers crowed about smart wearable wristbands, dazzling in-automobile entertainment systems and even a connected Crock-Pot, a slow cooker whose temperature and other settings could be controlled from afar with a smartphone.

It's not a toaster, but it doesn't seem so weird now. There are already plenty of gadgets on the market to control your TV, a lighting system, a home security camera / baby monitor or any other number of "smart" devices with a phone or tablet.

Rajeev Kumar is director for worldwide marketing and business development for microcontrollers at Freescale Semiconductor Inc. Freescale makes so-called embedded systems that end up as the guts for many a connected gadget.

Kumar sums up what Freescale is doing pretty simply: "Making things intelligent," he says.

"Everything that we touch in our lives from a machine standpoint, those things are becoming intelligent," Kumar said. "They're needing processing, they're needing connection to the Internet. Then you need services on top of that to take that intelligence and present it to the consumer in a way that's easy to use and meaningful."

That could be a smart meter outside the home that wirelessly transmits water usage to a utility company and allows you to check your usage online. Or a home audio receiver that pulls music from services like Spotify and Pandora. Or health monitors. Or washers and dryers. Or, yes, coffee machines and toasters that could download recipes or be networked into a whole-home automation system.

Will they be useful?

On this, Kumar is willing to take the long view.

"The convenience factor in terms of the Internet of Things is huge," he said. "But it'll take some time. A lot of people are going to be gravitating toward these types of things."

Some of them have already gotten our attention. Many models of HDTVs you can buy today are branded "smart" because they connect to the Internet, allowing you to check in on Twitter, watch Netflix movies or even use a web browser. Game consoles, cable boxes and music players are likely to have an Internet connection.

Different research firms and companies bullish on the future of the Internet of Things have different predictions for how many of these intelligent devices will be out there; some say 20-30 billion by 2020, others estimate 50 billion connected devices.

The research firm Gartner Inc. said in a report last year that while some Internet of Things devices are already being embraced by early adopters (the kind of person who will buy an Internet-connected lightbulb for $300), the concept won't be fully realized even by 2020. "The Internet of Things is a concept that is, in itself, transformational, and it will take more than 10 years to gain mainstream adoption." ("Mainstream" means that more than 30 percent of us are using it.)

In 2011, some former Apple engineers at a company called Nest Labs released their first product — a gorgeous, Internet-connected thermostat called the Nest Learning Thermostat for about $250.

Last year, the same company released the Nest Protect, a smart smoke and carbon monoxide detector for $129.

Both products earned raves for their design sophistication and ease of use.

Last month, Google bought the company for $3.2 billion.

Does this mean Google is getting into the market of smart appliances and that we'll eventually see Google-branded refrigerators and home alarm systems?

It's unclear what Google plans to do with Nest Labs, but it appeared to be a wake-up call to the entire tech industry that products like the Nest thermostat won't be niche for long.

And whenever Google, which at its heart is a company that makes money on advertising, gets into a business like this one, many questions are raised about our data. If we use these devices, where will the data they generate go and how will that information be used.

Can smart appliances be hacked, and could they pose a danger?

Kumar says much of the work in making the Internet of Things happen has to do with addressing those concerns and making sure many of these devices can talk to each other through an alphabet soup of competing standards and incompatibilities.

And as companies spend millions on research and development, communities of garage hackers and DIYers are also tinkering with increasingly cheap tech and making their own products, often funded publicly on sites like Kickstarter.

Someday, that toaster will be a reality and someone will have figured out how to make is useful, relevant and, above all, smarter.

Whether you'll buy it or stick with analog toasting will be entirely up to you when the time comes.


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