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The Internet of (Expensive) Things

Posted by on 04/04/2017

You’re driving home, 80s rock blaring from the car speakers. It’s raining out; in fact the temperature has dropped significantly over the last few days.

“Alexa,” you say. “Turn the radio off.” Paradise City fades away. Silence, apart from the squeaking of the windscreen wipers.

“Turn the home heating on. 66 degrees.” You adjust your seat position slightly, safe in the knowledge that your home is going to give you a nice toasty welcome when you arrive.

You pull up the driveway and shut off the engine. As you approach your front door, an e-sticker above it detects your presence via your smartphone. With a quick tap for fingerprint recognition, the door clicks open and you’re inside. It is nice and toasty.

“Mood?” a speaker asks as you step in. You pause to think for a second, removing your wet jacket.

“Nostalgic,” you reply. The lights in the house react accordingly (dimmed, no overheads, blues and ambers). A scent device starts to hiss as it spreads a cinnamon smell through the house.

You move through to the back of the house. You crouch down and dip a finger into the water. The small swimming pool has been heated to exactly the right temperature.

But it’s not quite perfect yet, you think, running your tongue over your teeth. That oreo was a bad idea. Your teeth are encrusted with the stuff. Best clean them. You walk into the downstairs bathroom where your e-toothbrush sits on the shelf. You brush them. When you put the toothbrush back, a notification pops up on your phone:

“Great job! But you missed your upper-right third molar!” You smile, and pick the brush up once more.


The Jetsons: Even the robot maid gets some down time

Priced Out

These are all examples of Internet of Things (IoT) technology: everyday objects, connected to the internet, that can send and receive data to fulfill a particular purpose.  

What do all of the IoT devices mentioned above have in common? Well, for one thing they’re all real products offered by startup companies: I saw them presented at the IoT Stars networking event in Barcelona last month.

But they have something else in common: they’re all expensive.

The toothbrush costs €79. The mood controller is around the same price. The stickers that can detect your location? €70. The air freshener? Preorder now for €50. Let’s not even start on the pool…

Aside: This post is not a rant against free-market capitalism. The beauty of new technology is that it’s open to potential in every segment of the market. If you’ve developed IoT management software for superyachts—good for you, it’s lucrative and ripe for money making. But rigging your home with smart devices is beyond the financial reach of many low-income families.


Superyachts: IoT opportunities ahoy

There’s an opportunity here to make the IoT truly accessible and develop your business at the same time.

Entrepreneurship 101 says identify a problem, then fix it. Spraying a can of air freshener takes 5 seconds longer and strains the index finger a little when compared with a smart air freshener device. The ‘problem’, you could argue, exists. But it’s not a smack-your-face-in-utter-disbelief problem. We can do better.

Park Life  

One Barcelona-based startup that has done better is U-Smart Toys. They recognize that it is becoming more and more of a challenge to promote social interaction via physical public spaces, as opposed to the draw of virtual ones.

This is especially true for kids, who have been born into a world where connectivity is the norm. Pokémon Go made an impact, but like all crazes the buzz is beginning to fizzle out. Shopping malls resort to installing extravagant spectacles to keep families coming back for more. Parks are less and less a cauldron of children’s laughter, and more and more a lone pigeon’s squawk.

U-Smart’s solution? They’ve designed a touch-sensitive interactive block that can be installed in public parks. When kids approach the block, they can interact with it by playing over 20 different games involving lights, music, tactile parts, and so on.

The blocks themselves are connected via WiFi to other blocks in the park (for games that involve running to and from each block), and to send and receive data regarding their battery life, geolocation, frequency of use, and how much power they’re generating from the sun. Watch an introductory video here. It’s an IoT device that’s free for the end user, accessible to everyone, and solves a burning social issue.


Public parks: lacking kids and Pokémon

“That’s all well and good,” I hear you mutter, “Barcelona is a Smart City. The infrastructure’s there already. It’s easier to reach people from all walks of life.”

There’s some truth in that. Barcelona has 590 free public WiFi hotspots across the city; one of the biggest provisions in Europe. It’s almost harder to be disconnected.

But people are still suffering. In a toss up between buying a cheap smartphone and grocery shopping to last you a week, real chips beat computer chips every single time. Not everyone can afford the hot drink it takes to be able to sit in a coffee shop and use the WiFi. It may be easier to access the internet, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t issues to be tackled. U-Smart Toys saw a deserted park and decided to bring the internet to the kids, to bring the kids back into the park.

IoT? Think Globally

Having said that, there’s no excuse not to think bigger picture as well.

Last year, the World Economic Forum estimated that around 4 billion people worldwide still didn’t have access to the internet.  The reasons vary from infrastructure, to affordability, to localization issues (80% of online content is available in 1 of 10 languages).

Mark Zuckerberg is a guy who likes to think big. In 2015, Facebook launched their bid to connect millions of India’s residents to the internet. By making deals with regional phone companies, end users would be able to access the internet free of charge. The catch was that Facebook defined exactly which services the user could connect to (shocker: Facebook was one of those services). This, essentially, meant that it was Facebook’s version of the internet new users could access. No competitors, no choices, no net neutrality. Activists campaigning against Facebook dubbed it: “Poor internet for poor people”.

Much like IoT home devices, people are excluded from connectivity in the purest sense because of their income.

Facebook’s Free Basics: Cost-free but web-restricted

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Startup Groundtruth, for example, won funding last year from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for their low cost sensors that help farmers get accurate weather data. Sweetsense collects data from latrines and water pumps to measure the effectiveness of global health programs. Both of these IoT technologies have committed to solving a problem, without making the act of solving that problem an exclusive commodity.

Your €79 e-toothbrush just sent you another notification:

“Smile! You just cleaned your upper right third molar perfectly!”

Make thousands of people smile, not just the small group that can afford €79 toothbrushes. Embrace the IoT, but be a innovator:

See a problem, fix it, and make sure it’s truly accessible.


Steve Howe is a freelance writer, translator, and teacher living in Barcelona.

Read more about him here.


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