The concept of an Internet of Things (IoT) is often mocked. The idea of kitchen appliances, light bulbs and toothbrushes all being connected to the Internet and communicating with each other can be seen as taking things too far in the whole technology takeover.
Part of the problem is marketing going further than the technical reality. It’s easy to understand why having a refrigerator with apps seems unnecessary and promises of a fridge that automatically reorders soda, or a washing machine that can place an order to restock laundry detergent, hasn’t lived up to the promise or made a compelling case to the consumer market.
As with many technologies where the hype went far beyond the reality, things are slowly starting to catch up. In fact, you may have purchased your first IoT device without realizing you were doing so.
One of the surprising tech hits of the past year has been the Amazon Echo, a hands-free voice-controlled speaker that can be easily attached to your home wi-fi. The Echo has been the first introduction many people have to talking into the air and controlling music playback, or placing an order with Amazon. You can use this very cool device to check traffic, read audiobooks, update your calendar, or even order pizza or your next Uber ride. Things have gone so well for the Echo that Google recently launched Google Home to compete in the space.
While all of these apps (called “skills”) are cool and Amazon is making it even easier to keep buying things from them, one of the major technical innovations included in the Echo is the ability to control a wide range of Smart Home devices. With voice commands, which people are becoming more comfortable using, the Echo can control devices such as lights, power switches and thermostats.
This is not to say that people who love their Echo or Home device are all of a sudden replacing all of their light bulbs and electrical outlets. But, for the first time, there are millions of people who have a device in their home they can easily set up, command using natural voice instructions, and use as single hub to do a wide variety of different tasks. Once people are comfortable playing music, and get used to a voice recognition system that actually works, it becomes your expectation. Why can’t I control my TV this way? Can’t Echo turn off the lights when I get into bed? Why should I fiddle with the thermostat when I can just ask Echo to make the temperature the way I want it? As people slowly look for these features in new appliances and hardware they purchase, the IoT promise becomes reality.
The industry is working through some of its biggest issues, such as incompatible standards, and overly complicated and expensive devices. By having major consumer players such as Amazon and Google, not to mention Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri, changing the way we interact with computers and making the process less creepy and more natural, the expectations for what we expect computers - things - to do for us will continue to change. And, as these “things” meet actual needs that people have and make our lives easier, they will no longer be something weird to be mocked, but the normal way we expect things to work.