By Kevin Maney, USA TODAY
Regular old dumb stuff is getting smart and connected.
You can buy a backyard telescope loaded with global position satellite
(GPS) technology so it can point out which stars you're viewing. At
one university, each parking meter has a chip and antenna so you can
call it with your cellphone and buy more time.
And then there are the touch-screen sewing machines that can download
images to embroider, gas station pumps that run Microsoft Windows, and
shipping crates that can call their owners for help if they're lost.
A lot of technology companies focus on making computers more powerful
and Internet connections faster. But a major trend is pushing in
another direction -- toward getting cheap computer chips and limited
networking capabilities into products that never used to have such
technology. It lets companies turn commodity products into premium
products that cost more and stand out in the marketplace.
The trend is analogous to the electrification of products 100 years
ago, when inventors found ways to use that technology to change
everyday items. Hand-turned drills became power drills. Ice boxes
became refrigerators. The same thing is happening now, but with
computer chips and tiny radio transmitters.
And there's a fascinating twist this time: When you add information
and communications to a product, it doesn't just improve that product
-- it allows that product to become part of a network. Which means
those products can talk to other products, or to websites, or to you
through your cellphone or PC -- creating layer upon layer of new
"It opens up innovation to all new things no one ever thought of,"
says Irving Wladawsky-Berger, in charge of IBM's technical strategy.
"There's an interesting pattern now -- everything is an accessory to
everything else," notes Mick McManus, CEO of Maya Design.
The parking meters, for instance, are at the University of California,
Santa Barbara. IBM devised the system and will try to sell it to other
campuses and cities. In the near future, a "smart," networked parking
meter might be able to talk to all the other parking meters in the
neighborhood and feed that information to a website. That way, as you
drive to an area looking for a place to park, your cellphone could tap
the parking website and display a map showing open spaces.
You might even be able to push a button and reserve a space. The meter
could flash a "reserved" sign and refuse to accept payment from any
other cellphone for five minutes. After that, you'd lose the space.
Such a level of integration isn't here yet. In fact, there are
significant challenges to getting there, as anyone knows who has tried
to get two incompatible gadgets to work together.
Still, the movement toward smart stuff keeps picking up steam. Research
firms haven't yet put a value on the "smart stuff" industry because
it's so scattered and new. But companies are clearly making plans to
move in that direction. A survey by research firm Aberdeen Group found
that more than half of executives plan to pump more money into radio
frequency identification (RFID) projects in the next 12 to 24 months,
even though half of those surveyed also said they don't yet know the
"value proposition" of such investments.
One way or another, though, fascinating developments keep popping into
view. Some recent examples:
Consumer electronics companies keep pushing the idea of the "digital
living room" -- a holy grail where high-end TVs, PCs, video recorders
and stereos link up and share content. But while we're waiting for
that to happen, a number of companies are digitizing less-glamorous
Whirlpool's Duet Sport washing machine has embedded sensors that can
set the water level depending on how big a load you put in. Down the
road, Whirlpool and others plan to include sensors that can read bar
codes or RFID tags on clothes so the machine can program appropriate
Another appliance maker, Salton, has introduced the Beyond
Microwave. When you need to heat packaged food, swipe the bar code
past the microwave's reader. Stored inside are 4,000 settings for
different products. A wireless Internet connection allows the
microwave to download new ones all the time. Salton's microwave reads
the bar code, sets the right time and power level, and all you do is
Maya Design is bringing out a layer of technology it calls Home
Heartbeat. It connects sensors on washing machines, microwaves, doors
and other fixtures in a house. The system, in turn, can generate text
messages that can be sent to a cellphone. So a homeowner can program
the system to tell her every time the front door opens and the TV
turns on -- a good sign the kids arrived home from school.
On a more futuristic scale, researchers at the University of
Pittsburgh and New Jersey Institute of Technology are working on
nanotechnology that could change the nature of paint and carpets. Both
could be connected to the home network, so you could use a computer to
instruct the paint or carpeting to change colors. The nano-engineered
molecules would do just that. The military is already beginning
experimental use of the smart paint.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, telescope maker Celestron
rolled out its $399 SkyScout -- a gadget loaded with global position
satellite (GPS) technology and a database of star and planet
positions. Aim it at a part of the night sky, and the device picks up
its position via GPS, cross-checks with its database, and tells you
what you're seeing.
Also at CES, Brother was showing its Innovis 4000D sewing machine,
which can store and download images, and then embroider them on
fabric. Wearable technology is a hot concept. ElekTex makes "smart
fabrics" -- clothing and backpacks with soft, built-in controllers and
a Bluetooth wireless connection for an iPod or cellphone. Drop the
gadget in your pocket, for instance, and use the buttons on your
sleeve to control it.
Swim goggles from start-up Inview add a computer chip to plain plastic
goggles for competitive swimmers. The chip keeps track of time and
number of laps and displays it on the inside of the goggle lenses.
Computer and networking technology is even making its way into the
least glitzy of places -- like the gas station. Gas pump maker Dresser
Wayne in January unveiled its Ovation iX -- a prototype pump with a
flat-panel screen and a network-connected, Windows-based computer
inside. "In addition to dispensing fuel, the Ovation iX lets customers
(order) a cup of coffee, download MP3s, or check traffic conditions
without ever leaving the pump," the company's literature says.
In a popular IBM commercial, the boxes inside a truck notify a help desk
that the truck is off course. Though it's a dramatization, the technology is
real. RFID tags and cheap GPS units today are being tacked onto crates. That
lets the crates "talk" to the network and lets operators know where they
are. If they get lost -- or stolen -- the crates can be located.
"We have already recovered over $7 million of goods illegally diverted
last year," says Mark Eppley, president of SC-integrity, a company
formed to build this kind of technology. "I had no idea how large the
supply chain 'shrinkage' problem was."
Then there are cows. When asked about this trend of making mundane
stuff smart, Matthew Szulik, CEO of open-source software company Red
Hat, points to the DeLaval Voluntary Milking System. It's a milking
machine -- running on Linux open-source software -- that lets the cow
request to be milked by stepping into the milking area through a
gate. A radio tag identifies the cow, and the system knows when the
cow was last milked. That way, the system knows whether to attach the
robotic milking arms -- or keep the gate closed, blocking the cow from
That kind of development, Szulik says, "is just the tip of the
Why is stuff getting smart now? Some of it is straightforward: The
technology has finally gotten good enough and cheap enough to put into
everyday items without driving the cost sky-high. Inexpensive
microprocessors add smarts. Wi-Fi, now nearly ubiquitous, allows
appliances to get on the network without wires. Tiny RFID can add
small bits of data and communications to any item. GPS is getting
cheap and reliable.
"The entire process and mindset of product makers now is to have a
tech component," says tech research analyst Gary Arlen.
As the technology falls into place, integrators such as IBM, Maya and
SC-integrity can do their thing -- putting pieces together to create
applications and services never before possible.
Of course, it's not all smooth seas ahead. One huge hurdle is getting
different technologies to work together. Just as Apple's iTunes
doesn't work with a Dell MP3 player, various pieces built on different
standards can't communicate. Some industry leaders such as Google's
Vint Cerf, who helped create the Internet's TCP/IP standard, are
pushing for new standards that would help solve these problems.
One other possible hitch: "Everyone runs the risk of making products
soooo complicated and off-putting," analyst Arlen says.
Still, as the next decade unfolds, more of our stuff will get smarter.
Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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