Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Internet of not-so-many-Things

... or: Brother, Can You Spare a CR2032?

Last fall I had a fun lunchtime conversation with someone who had just returned from seeing a Gartner presentation about the Internet of Things. They'd made a bold claim, that there will be 500 IoT devices in your house within the next few years. Specifically, they said that "a Typical Family Home Could Contain More Than 500 Smart Devices by 2022" as their headline for the press release announcing their report.

It was an interesting back-and-forth during that lunch because I was quite skeptical about such a large number. I based my argument on the fact that there aren't 500 *electronic* devices in a typical house of 2014; even in my unusually geeky house I don't think I could get to that number. And after lunch, I forgot about the whole thing, passing it off as yet another attempt by Gartner to get 15 minutes of publicity and sell a few copies of the report.

Last week, though, the topic came up again when this picture popped into my Twitter stream, posted by Jan-Piet Mens from the IoTConf in Berlin. I don't know whose presentation it was, but it hardly matters; the point is that Gartner's claim has become a talking point. After agreeing with JP's skepticism about this claim, I resolved to dig into it further. Of course I don't have access to the actual report, but neither do most other people, so I decided to rely on the press release itself. It's mostly a rehashing of things that are fairly obvious to anyone who has paid any attention to IoT: there are lots of choices with no clear leaders, most of them are not interoperable, the installed base is largely "techno-geeks" - a label I wear with pride - and yet, right at the top there's that claim of a two orders of magnitude increase in adoption over the next eight years. Well, with one little hedge; the prediction only applies to "a typical family home, in a mature affluent market" for whatever that's worth.

My family is by no means typical, but in this case I think that gives us an advantage. The four of us are all digital-savvy, and we've made sure that everyone has access to their own devices; the only residents without their own computers, tablets, laptops and phone are the dogs. And only because they've never asked. We aren't "affluent", but we can afford to get decent things. So unless Gartner is restricting their analysis to Bill Gates and Elon Musk, we ought to be right in line to become a "typical family home" of 2022.

In 2015, though, we aren't quite there. I took a pad and paper (how quaint!) and went around the house to see what I could find out about the potential for hundreds of smart devices to sprout up. As a baseline, our house was built in 1968 and has a typical colonial-style floorplan with two levels above ground (1800 square feet) and a full basement (900 square feet). We make full use of every square inch, and then some. Here's the result of my inventory.

Room Outlets Extensions Lights Devices
Master bedroom 12 8 1 11+2
Guest bedroom 8 0 1 1+1
Back bedroom 8 5 1 8+2
Front bedroom 8 6 1 11+2
Upstairs bath 2 0 5 1
Upstairs hall 2 0 1 1+1
Downstairs hall 0 0 2 0+2
Living room 14 18 0 18+2
Downstairs bath 0 0 4 1
Kitchen 14 0 1 10+2
Family room 10 0 1 6+1
Office 12 19 2 25
Garage 4 0 2 2
Basement 24 20 9 22+1
Exterior 4 0 2 0+3
Living space totals 90 56 20 93+15
Household totals 122 76 33 117+19

A few explanations before I try to figure out what those numbers mean. I think this is a fairly typical number of outlets in the above-ground part of the house, the portion that would be considered living space. Back in 1968, builders weren't expecting people to have quite as many electrical devices as we now have, so they typically installed one duplex receptacle on each wall. Modern standards call for somewhat more; typically one every six feet, though that varies. But we have what we have, except in the basement where it's easy to run additional wire, and that's why there are so many listed; I installed all but one of those after we moved in. It takes considerable effort to install more outlets even on the first floor, where they have to be stubbed up into the walls; it is a major project to put any more in the second floor. Hence, we have quite a few extension cords and plug strips in order to create more outlets; that's the second column. The total of the two, 146 for the living space and 198 for the whole house, is all the A/C powered devices we could have connected at one time (unless I go to the hardware store and buy still more extensions, of course!)

Our particular builder wasn't much for ceiling fixtures, choosing to install them only in the kitchen, dining room (which is now the office), closets and hallways. Most of the house is lit by table lamps, again except for the basement where I could run my own lighting circuits fairly easily.

As for the devices, that's my count of everything that is receiving A/C power either through an outlet or by being hardwired, along with anything else that is electronic and powered on - the items after the plus sign. Some of those receive power another way, including our thermostats (which are programmable but not connected) and doorbell (purely electromechanical). Others are battery powered, like wall clocks, smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, and our one true IoT device, which I'll get to later.

Now, let's consider the totals. As it stands, if I were to occupy every single outlet in the house, I could have 198 things powered on, about twice what I count as actually being in place. I guess I don't need to go shopping for more plug strips right away. So in an IoT future I could have a bunch more Things on my Internet, except... what is already in the house is most everything we need. There's already a refrigerator and a chest freezer; we won't be adding any more. There's only one garage door to be opened, the heating system only requires a single furnace. We have large and small food processors, separate coffee and spice grinders, hand and countertop mixers; what else would we get? Even if we doubled the number of devices we'd only get to about 240, and have no room to keep most of them.

So we won't be increasing the number of conventional devices. But won't all of them become smart? Well, let's think about that. I just did another walk around the house and looked for things that already are connected, and things that could potentially be. We have a dozen or so computers; obviously they count already. Four phones, two tablets, two e-readers, a half dozen music players. A Bluetooth speaker - that's arguably smart, although it only knows how to talk to its paired device. The TV (just one!), Apple TV and Blu-Ray player are all connected. Three networked cameras (two to watch the dogs, one to watch the 3D printers). And my one true IoT device (still saving that for later). What could we make smart? Everyone wants a smart refrigerator, I guess. Plus the freezer, so it isn't left out, and of course the microwave; our stove is from the 1950s though so it won't be getting any upgrades. All 33 light bulbs, if for no other reason than so we can play tricks on each other ("Hey, who turned out the lights!") All said, I figure that if we smartened-up all the devices that make any sense at all, we could have another 50 or so, but try as I might I can't come up with a total of 100 smart things.

Okay, you say, but what about the new things - little smart devices that will allow us to instrument our homes. Well, I'm all for that! In fact, I have a lovely little IoT device aptly called a BLEThrowie. It uses a tiny processor that has a few I/O pins and a built in Bluetooth Low Energy radio, and can monitor temperature, humidity and light levels. Right now it's sitting in the basement, helping me keep track of the humidity so we don't get mildew. I'm on the waiting list to buy a couple more, so I can instrument other spots in the house. Thanks to careful power management it can run for months off a single CR2032 coin cell, so you can "throw" it anywhere and talk to it wirelessly from your phone. Maybe those devices will account for the other four hundred Things in the typical house? It would certainly make retrofitting a lot easier; imagine a version that sits on top of the compressor for your fridge and monitors when it runs, or sticks on the front door frame and works as a wireless doorbell. There could be lots of those... and then the top search on Google would be "best prices on bulk CR2032 batteries." And we'd have a new job market for people who specialize in tracking down little IoT gadgets and swapping their cells. Maybe not.

Finally, let's look at this one more way. If I currently have 50 smart devices in the house - being generous, but that's okay - and I want to get to 500 in the next eight years, that means buying and connecting 56 new smart things each year. Even if I backed everything on Kickstarter and Indiegogo, I couldn't get a new smart device every week. Perhaps that's another new job for the mature, affluent household - IoT purchasing agent?

I fully expect that our house will become ever smarter and more connected, and there will be cool gadgets that I haven't thought of. I'll be buying and trying them out, maybe even making some of my own. I have an optimistic view of a future, smarter, better connected world. And I can't say what will happen in eight years, but I think it's a fairly safe bet to say what *won't* happen, and that's "500 smart devices in a typical family home."