Zoe: perhaps even better than Echo as IoT killer device?

Zoe smart home hub

I’ve raved before about Echo, Amazon’s increasingly versatile smart home hub, primarily because it is voice activated, and thus can be used by anyone, regardless of tech smarts — or whether their hands are full of stuff.  As I’ve mentioned, voice control makes it a natural for my “SmartAging” concept to help improve seniors’ health and allow them to manage their homes, because you don’t have to understand the underlying technology — just talk.

Now there’s a challenger on the horizon: start-up Zoe, which offers many of Echo’s uses, but with an important difference that’s increasingly relevant as IoT security and privacy challenges mount: your data will remain securely in your home. Or, as their slogan goes:

“So far, smart home meant high convenience, no privacy, or privacy, but no fun. We are empowering you to have both.”

You can still get in on Zoe’s Indegogo campaign with a $249 contribution, which will get you a hub and an extra “voice drop” to use in another room, or the base level, $169 for a single room. Looks kinda cool to me, especially with the easily changed “Art Covers” and backlight coloring (the Che Guevera one looks appropriate for a revolutionary product) …  The product will ship in late 2016.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Echo & will be getting mine soon, but there is that creepy factor given government officials’ fascination with the potential of tapping into smart home data as part of their surveillance. Remember what US Director of Intelligence James Clapper said, ““In the future, intelligence services might use the [internet of things] for identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials.” Consider then, that Echo sits there on your kitchen counter, potentially hacked and then hoovering up all of your kitchen chit-chat to relay directly to the spooks.  Wouldn’t you rather that data remained totally under your control?

In addition to storing the data on site rather than in the cloud, Zoe also touts that it has advanced voice-recognition so it can learn IFTTT-style “recipes,” or be operated by apps. She comes with 1,500 built-in voice commands, or, if you stump her, (and only if you choose to, preserving that in-house-only option) web-based Advanced Voice Recognition steps in, with a cloud-based voice recognition system. Her recognition capabilities will grow over time.. Zoe will work with WiFi, Bluetooth, Z-Wave, and other standards.

The company will ship the developers’ kit in six months. It will be open source.

Not being cloud based will mean it loses to Echo on two important counts. For many people, the ability to order things from Amazon simply by speaking may be more important than security concerns,. Also, I notice it doesn’t mention any speakers, so it may be lacking the ability to also serve as a music source (obviously it wouldn’t work with Amazon Music or Apple Music if it isn’t cloud-connected, but it would at least be nice to be able to use it to play your own collection — advantage to Echo on that one.

At least this means there’s competition in the field (and, BTW, I’d love to see Apple swoop in and make THE voice-activated device!)


BTW: Thanks to good buddy Bob Weisberg for the tip about Zoe! Follow him!

 

Amazon Echo: is it the smart home Trojan Horse?

Could Amazon’s Echo be the Trojan Horse that gets the smart home and IoT inside our homes — and consciousness?

Typical Amazon Echo commands

I’ve always suspected Amazon was critical to corporate adoption of e-commerce in the ’90s because so many C-level executives were introduced to the concept by doing online holiday shopping for their families.  Just a hunch …

Fast forward to this holiday, and I suspect Amazon’s Echo will have a similar impact for the IoT and, in particular, smart homes (aided, no doubt, by the redoubtable Oprah, who gave it her imprimatur as one of her Favorite Things — which now, conveniently, has its own page on Amazon — for this year!).

In case you’ve been hibernating for the past few months, during which time the Echo has taken off, it’s the slim (9.25″ x 3.27″) cylinder that sits on your counter, and, after starting out largely to access Amazon’s streaming music service by voice, seems to take on new functions every week.

I suspect it’s the voice input that’s most important about Echo: because voice doesn’t require any technical skills.  I can’t think of any dedicated device (Apple’s Siri, a service on almost all its devices but the computers, is right up there, but a service, not a device. Again, obligatory disclaimer that I work part-time at The Apple Store but am not privy to any inside secrets) that better embodies the dictum of IoT “father” Mark Weiser, that:

The most profound technologies are those that disappear.
They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life
until they are indistinguishable from it.

Alexa shopping list "recipe" on IFTTT

Alexa shopping list “recipe” on IFTTT

For me, the critical step was when Echo was added to my fav IoT site, IFTTT, which makes the IoT’s benefits proliferate by allowing you and me to create “recipes” to trigger devices without requiring any programming skills.

The number of new recipes allowing Alexa to “trigger” an action by a device, including Hue lights and the Nest thermostat, is constantly growing (you’ll notice that many of them relate to actions such as adding to shopping lists, a clever way of making it easier for users to shop at a certain online behemoth..).

An indication of exactly how far-reaching Echo could be as a hub?  It now even interfaces with the Automatic device, to help manage your car more effectively: “Alexa, how much gas is left in my tank?”

I’m also excited about Echo’s potential role as a hub for my “SmartAging” concept: granny starts out listening to Guy Lombardo’s “Managua Nicaragua” streaming on Amazon Prime, and the next thing you know, she’s saying “Alexa, turn down the thermostat 3 degrees.”  What could be easier? Haven’t seen any Echo links to Quantified Self devices yet, but I suspect that’s only a matter of time, and others are now enthused about its benefits to the disabled.


 

PS: You can track new developments with Echo on its Twitter feed, as well as one from Dave Isbitski, the Echo’s chief evangelist.

IFTTT DO apps: neat extension of my fav #IoT crowdsourcing tool!

Have I told you lately how much I love IFTTT? Of course!  As I’ve said, I think they are a phenomenal example of my IoT “Essential Truth” question: who else can use this data?

IFTTT_DO_buttonNow, they’ve come up with 3 new apps, the “DO button,” “DO camera,” and “DO Note,” that make this great tool even more versatile!

With a DO “recipe,” you simply tap on the appropriate app, and the “recipe” runs. Presto! Change-o!

As a consultant who must bill for his time, I particularly like the one that lets you “Track Your Work hours” on Google Drive, but you’re sure to find your own favorites in categories such as play, work, home, families, and essentials. Some are just fun, and some will increase your productivity or help manage your household more easily (hmm: not sure where “post a note to your dog’s timeline” fits in (aside to my sons: feel free to “send notes to your data via email”.  If past experience is any indication, there should be many, many more helpful “Do” recipes as soon as users are familiar with how to create them.

As I’ve said before, it’s no reflection on the talented engineers at HUE, NEST, et. al., but there’s simply no way they could possibly visualize all the ways that their devices could be used and/or combined with others, and that’s why IFTTT, by adding the crowdsourcing component and democratizing data, is so important to speeding the IoT’s deployment.

IoT ideal example of “recombinant innovation”!

I’m currently reading Erik Brynjolfsson (say that one fast three times…) and Andy McAfee’s brilliant The Second Machine Age, which I highly recommend as an overview of the opportunities and pitfalls of what they call “brilliant technologies.”

While they don’t specifically mention the IoT, I was riveted by one section in which they contrasted current digital innovation with past technologies, using economist Paul Romer‘s term “recombinant innovation”:

Economic growth occurs whenever people take resources and rearrange them in ways that make them more valuable…. Every generation has perceived the limits to growth that finite resources and undesirable side effects would pose if no new … ideas were discovered. And every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new … ideas. We consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered… Possibilitities do not merely add up, they multiply.” (my emphasis)

I felt like Dr. Pangloss, who was surprised to learn he’d been speaking prose all his life: I realized Romer’s term and definition was a more elegant version of what I’ve written before, especially about IFTTT, about an Essential Truth of the IoT — that sharing data is critical to achieving the IoT’s full potential. IFTTT is a great example of Romer’s argument in practice: individuals are “taking resource and rearrang(ing) them in ways that make them more valuable.” As Brynjolfsson and McAfee write:

“.. digital innovation is recombinant innovation in its purest form. Each development becomes a building block for future innovations. Progress doesn’t run out; it accumulates. And the digital world doesn’t respect any boundaries. It extends into the physical one, leading to cars and planes that drive themselves, printers that make parts, and so on….We’ll call this the ‘innovation-as-building-block’ view of the world..” (again, my emphasis)

This is such a powerful concept. Think of Legos — not those silly ones that dominate today, where they are so specialized they can only be used in making a specific kit — but the good ol’ basic ones that could be reused in countless ways. It’s why I happen to believe that all the well-thought-out projections on the IoT’s potential size probably are on the low side: there’s simply no way that we can predict now all the creative, life-saving, money-saving, or quality-of-life-enhancing ways the IoT will manifest itself until people within and outside of organizations take new IoT devices and use them in IFTTT-like “Recipes” that would never have occurred to the devices’ creators.  But beware: none of this will happen if companies use proprietary standards or don’t open their APIs and other tools to all those who can benefit.

How exciting!

If This, Then That (IFTTT): essential crowdsourcing component to speed IoT development

I’ve been meaning to write about IFTTT (If This, Then That, pronounced like “gift,” but minus the g) for a long time, because I see it as a crucial, if perhaps underappreciated, component to spread the IoT more rapidly and increase its versatility — by democratizing the IoT.

That’s because this cool site embraces one of my favorite IoT “Essential Truths.” We must start asking:

who else could use this data?

I first started asking this question in my book, Data Dynamite, which largely focused on a fundamental paradigm shift away from the old view of data, namely, that you could gain a competitive advantage if you had proprietary information that I didn’t have. It was a zero-sum game. Your win was my loss.  

No longer: now value is created for you if you share data with me and I come up with some other way to use that data that you hadn’t explored. Win-win!

As applied to the IoT, I’ve explored this shift primarily in the context of corporate initiatives, where it becomes possible, for the first time, to share data instantly among everyone who could benefit from that data: everyone within the company, but also your supply chain, your distribution network, and, sometimes, even your customers. 

samples of IFTTT recipes

Here’s where the benefit of sharing data with your customers on a real-time basis comes in: there are a lot more of them than there are of manufacturers, and I can guarantee you that they will come up with clever uses that your staff, no matter how brilliant, won’t. Exhibit A: during last year’s World Series, GigaOM’s Stacey Higginbotham, did an IFTTT “recipe” that turned her HUE lights red (too bad for her, the Sox scored more runs. Wait until next year…). What Philips researcher would have ever done that on company time?

By harnessing crowdsourcing of ideas, the IoT will progress much faster, because of the variety of interests and/or needs that individuals add to the soup!

So, how’s IFTTT work?

Here’s a brief outline (or go here for details):

  1. a “recipe” is made up of a “trigger” (i.e., if this happens, such as “I’m tagged in a photo on Facebook”) and an action (then that happens, such as “create a status message on Facebook.”).
  2. the building blocks for recipes are called channels — 116 as of now, and growing all the time — each of which his its own triggers and actions.  The channels include a wide range of apps and products, such as Nest thermostats or Facebook.

There is a wide variety of recipes on the IFTTT site (you can subscribe to have new ones involving a given channel that interests you sent to you as they are shared) or you can easily create your own — with no programming skill required. How cool is that?

Yes, IFTTT can be fun (“email your mother Foursquare checkins tagged #mom. Useful for brownie points“), but I’m convince that it’s also a critically important tool to speed deployment and impact of the IoT, by harnessing the power of crowdsourcing to complement the work of app developers and device manufacturers.

Now get going!