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At TED, Sharpening the Vision of the Internet of Things

Smartphone-controlled coffee machine? Let's dream a little bigger.

Smartphone-controlled coffee makers turn out to be less cool than you might think. It’s not that hard to time your morning brew.

“I look today at some of the work being done around the ‘Internet of Things’ and it’s kind of tragically pathetic,” said MIT Media Lab founder and longtime tech futurist Nicholas Negroponte on the first day of the TED conference in Vancouver this week.

Negroponte’s problem is with intelligence living in smartphone apps, rather than in connected objects in the world around us.

He thinks things in the world should actually get smarter — for example, ovens should recognize when a plate of chicken is placed inside them, and automatically cook the dish according to their owners’ preferences.

Two Internet of Things leaders also attending the conference say they agree with him completely, but for different reasons.

“The phone as a remote control is dumb,” said Quirky founder and CEO Ben Kaufman, who today introduced his company’s most ambitious product, by far. It’s an air conditioner called Aros, shaped by Quirky community feedback and expected to be available for sale at Home Depot and other stores in May (you can order it online today).

“This is leaps and bounds above anything we’ve ever done,” Kaufman said. It’s part of Quirky’s ongoing collaboration with GE, which previously resulted in products like a smart piggy bank that’s kind of silly but has the fantastic name Porkfolio.

In December, Kaufman and GE technology exec Kevin Nolan were discussing what might be an interesting appliance to work on, and they searched the Quirky archive for air conditioner ideas. It turned out a former Department of Energy employee named Garthen Leslie had in fact proposed a smart AC unit on Quirky just a few months earlier.

Kaufman personally dove in and spent the past four months developing the product with Quirky and GE. It learns from usage, automatically turns off when its owner is away and recommends energy cost savings. Manufacturing started in China on Monday.

How is this different from smart-thermostat maker Nest? “I love Nest,” said Kaufman, “but Nest doesn’t tell you how much money you’ve saved because they don’t know what HVAC system you have. We are a fully enclosed system. You don’t even need the app to use it.”

The sleek white Aros costs $300, about $75 more than GE’s comparable traditional air conditioner.

Meanwhile, another hardware startup, littleBits, unveiled a future product that will connect its playful electronics modules to the Internet. The point is not to create complicated appliances like air conditioners. Not at all.

The littleBits Cloud Module, planned for the third quarter of 2014, will stick with a magnet into whatever someone builds out of other electronic toys, musical instruments and tools.

“It doesn’t have to be beautiful or smart,” said littleBits founder and CEO Ayah Bdeir at TED. “The Internet of Things doesn’t judge. Maybe you’re the only one in the world that wants this to exist. But for us, that’s enough.”

For Bdeir, adding connectivity is a simple tweak that will allow people to turn things on or off from afar, based on parameters they have set themselves on the Web or in an app.

She is excited for what people will be able to imagine and create, today with modules and eventually with tools that allow people to be more flexible and creative. That might be a teddy bear that transmits emotion from afar, or an automated fish feeder based on sunlight. Or it might be a prototype for connected jewelry that eventually becomes a manufactured product.

“It’s sort of backwards, the way we’re thinking about the Internet of Things,” Bdeir said. “We’re making it too much to be a data problem. I think the interesting thing about the Internet of Things is the Things piece.”

Update: Later at the conference, MIT professor Pattie Maes showed off a way to create smart objects using open web standards. She showed a physical world interface controlled by swiping between real objects via tablet camera. More info here.

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