The Next Big Thing: “Things”

February 9, 2015

By Dennis Kneale

 

Nicholas Negroponte became famous as a futurist with his book “Being Digital,” published in 1995. A few years later, a cub reporter at The Wall Street Journal asked him what would be next for the Net.

“Things,” Negroponte answered. “Things that think want to link.” Soon, he foretold, the Internet would link everything from household appliances to factory equipment. He made that prediction in 1998 in a Page One story I edited:http://on.wsj.com/1zFYl41. So much time has passed that the WSJ cub who wrote it now is executive editor of Time magazine.

Negroponte wasn’t wrong—he was just early. Two decades later, the Internet of Things is the Next Big Thing, at long last. The future always arrives, eventually. It just takes longer than we expect.

A glimpse of that future and the Internet of Things will be on display at the Montgomery Summit presented by Macquarie Capital, set for March 10-11 in Santa Monica, Calif. Eight private companies will unveil their efforts at making the mundane objects of everyday life smarter than ever before. They are among 145 early-stage firms presenting at Monty, where VC and private-equity investors will be watching, checkbooks in hand to make real investments. I’ll be there, happily, as MC.

The Internet of Things “is really ready now,” says Chris Anderson, co-founder and CEO of 3D Robotics, a presenter at the Summit next month.

“I never use that phrase, but, over all, the trend is real.” This from a guy who has seen many tech fads fizzle as the former editor of Wired magazine and author of “The Long Tail.

His “thing” is the ultimate aerial vanity-cam for the athletic and the adventurous: a four-propeller drone that flies, hovers and tracks its owner as it captures the action from above. “Drones are just connected sensors that happen to be in the air,” he says.

Back when Negroponte first gazed into the crystal ball, I.o.T. was seen more as an industrial play. Instead, it has emerged as part of “Consumerization of the Enterprise,” Anderson says. This theme also will be in sharp relief at the Montgomery Summit next month; it’s what has made back-office software suddenly sexy.

“Consumer is the way to go, because it changes the toughest thing to change: the human mind,” says Anush Elangovan, CEO and co-founder of Nod Labs, a Monty presenter. “We’re pushing the boundaries of human-machine interaction.”

The Nod gesture-control ring, a bulky black contraption, lets a user make hand gestures to control a gaggle of gadgets: to press “play” on an iPhone or Android, slice flying fruit in a video game, turn a virtual “knob” on the Nest to raise the heat. It is a daunting array of electronic hook-ups.

The finger-ring is just the start of new interfaces with the sensors and machines all around us now, Elangovan says. His engineers now are tracking the human torso. He dreams of a Nod platform of open interfaces and open-source code that will accommodate thousands of device types. “The Internet of Things is about the ambient computer, everything becomes aware, everything becomes connected and everything becomes available.”

It still is unclear whether the I.o.T. innovators presenting at Monty are one-hit products or full-fledged companies. It may not matter. Ring.com, maker of a doorbell as video security sentry, says its market is one billion doors around the world. “Which is why I’m not too worried about whether it’s a company or a product,” says co-founder and CEO James “Jamie” Siminoff.

He hates locked doors and wants to make your neighborhood so safe you don’t need them. Ring aims to be at an annual run rate of $100 million by the end of 2015, but, “I didn’t start it to build a company, I started it to build a solution. Our company mission is to reduce crime in communities.”

The Ring video doorbell may be one of the coolest doorbells in the world—and a neighbor’s privacy lawsuit waiting to happen. A tiny, 180-degree HD cam with motion-detection sensors shoots video from your front door to show you, via your smartphone or tablet, who is at the door and everything that is going on outside. You can answer the door by voice even when you are elsewhere, scaring off burglars who think you’re at home.

This takes a ton of tech. Of Ring’s 50 employees, 35 are engineers, toiling in industrial design, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, embedded firmware, cloud software, video-processing, mobile apps. The company also may need a good lawyer if neighbor-on-neighbor spying sparks the inevitable lawsuit. “The first lawsuit we get on that is probably where we can say we’re now successful,” Siminoff says. “You gotta be big enough to get sued, and right now we’re too small.”

While Ring jazzes up the doorbell, a firm called August smartens up the lock. The August Smartlock works via iPhone or tablet remotely to let in, say, a repairman you trust. It recognizes the home’s owners as they approach and unlocks itself to let them in. No keys required. “Say you have to fire a former employee, you no longer have to worry that they made a copy of your key,” says Jason Johnson, CEO of August. It sells for $tk.

Ring’s voyeuristic video doorbell and August’s smartypants lock might make a great merger, no? “Jamie’s a friend of mine,” Johnson says of the Ring CEO. “We definitely both believe our products are highly complementary. Plenty of people with Ring doorbells will want an August Smartlock.”

But why “August”? Why not, say, the Sherlock Lock? “We like the month of August, it’s a month often associated with vacations and relaxation, and that’s how technology should be in your home,” Johnson says. Among his investors is one of the early proponents of the Internet of Things: none other than Nicholas Negroponte, which brings us full circle. “He’s a friend of mine,” Johnson says.

3D Robotics IRIS: $750

Nod Labs gesture ring: $149

Ring video doorbell: $199

August smartlock: $249.99