Here are the under-hyped areas of IoT (based on hundreds of hours of hacking)

Joe Heitzeberg
April 23, 2015

Over the last couple of years I’ve done a ton of home automation hacking, as well as a lot of reading and tracking of emerging products in the IoT and home automation space. In the process, I’ve been able to identify some under-hyped areas of opportunity in the space.


There are many scenarios where it’s useful to know if a person is home or not. That information can be used to make sure music is off when you’re away, turn lights off — or even to make a house appear to be occupied if people have been away for a long time. I haven’t found anyone really talking about this, but now that I’ve implemented it for myself, I know how useful it is.

To my knowledge, no product today makes it easy to sense presence passively and make that information available to implement useful automation scenarios.

iBeacons are an option, but they tie to the phone, which isn’t always useful if your phone isn’t with you always. And iBeaons are immature. I’ve testing many of the leading brands including Estimote, Gimbal and a handful of Chinese iBeacons; battery life is a disaster and configuration is arduous. There’s no management layer, so building a presence app is non-trivial effort.

Nest (and it’s API) includes home and away detection, but I’m not sure how accurate or realtime it is.

Voice Control

The smartphone is the defacto user interface for IoT, and that’s usually a good thing. But phones get left in bags or set on counters to charge. It would be incredibly useful to talk to your house (“set the lights to movie mode”) no matter where you happen to be standing or sitting.

Amazon Echo has done the best job so far of creating a passive voice recognition ability that works in noisy environments and from across the room.

But at least for now, it’s a completely closed system…unless you want to hijack your shopping list and use that to trigger commands.

**Scripting / APIs **

I haven’t found a user-friendly system that helps tie together various IoT systems into something cohesive.

Revolv may have been the great hope for his, but they didn’t offer an API and they’ve been acquired by Nest and don’t appear to be on the market any more.

I ended up writing my own server running on a Mac Mini that connects directly to various systems (lighting controllers, security panel, Sonos, Nest, Spotify) to monitor and run scripts and to accept commands from my own iPhone app.

For example, when I open the door to my home gym in the morning, my Spotify workout playlist automatically starts playing on the Sonos in that room.

When I press “movie mode” on my app, music (if playing) stops playing and lights reconfigure to reduce outside glare and dim downstairs.

If it has been hot during the day and windows were left open, but the weather report predicts temperatures below 65 during the night, a push notification reminds me to close the windows.

When the house is empty, the alarm system is automatically armed. I don’t have to think about it. SMS notifications? Cameras? Check.

When I open the front door late at night, the entry lights inside the house turn on (but dimly), and then turn off again after a bit. Avoid eye strain and reduce cognitive load. Less stress is a big thing.

All of these scenarios are incredibly useful and were impossible to achieve without writing my own service, hacking into devices that don’t have official APIs and (in some cases) issuing telnet commands. The hardware is there and the software algorithms are simple. Getting things to talk to each other? That’s the hard part.

Somebody ought to wrap all this stuff into a visual scripting tool. And support IFTTT. Of course none of this will be possible unless vendors decide that opening up is good for business. Currently it seems that most (even Kickstarter) projects forgo open APIs. Perhaps HomeKit will usher in more interop.

No, most consumers will not directly use APIs or scripting interfaces. However if more manufacturers supported open interfaces and offered APIs, we’ll see useful innovation that can be shared and purchased. Things are often better when they work together and the devices that play nicely will get purchased more often.

Too Much Hype? Not Enough Vision?

Overall, I think IoT and home automation is over-hyped, and I’ve come to the conclusion that many of the industry’s so-called leaders lack vision. The prime example of this is Nest and their “Works with Nest” program.

Months after their $3.2B acquisition by Google, and presumably armed with a major PR push, months of significant planning, big name strategic partners and top-notch video production, the best they could do to outline the vision of the future for home automation was:

1: Your Jawbone UP knows you woke up, so your Nest thermostat can turn the heat up. An savings of about 15 seconds from the tim when you will walk by the thermostat and it detects you walking by. And in the 15 seconds, the heater will have affect the ambient temperature in your room by how much?

2: Thermostat + Washing Machine = ? Spoiler alert! —> In the video, the President of Whirlpool asks “why would we ever bring the thermostat and the washer together? that’s a good question”. Then he talks for a bit and never really answers the question.

3: If fire detector goes off, lights flash red so your neighbors can see there is trouble. It helps save lives. Um, okay.

4: The president of R&D for Mercedes outlines their vision for interfacing the car (using time of arrival information) to tell the Nest to turn on so your house can be warm when you get home. This can be implemented trivially in the Nest app. What does the car have to do with it? And who cares anyway. Nest learns when you usually arrive home. This is an optimization for the unusual case of a different time of arriving home.

These are not game-changers. They aren’t revolutionary. But they are the top scenarios outlined by the apparent leader in the space. Ouch.

Given hardware ship and replacement cycles, the time it takes to evolve and adopt standards and, frankly, the lack of vision from industry, I think it will take quite a bit of time before useful mass-market IoT and home automation really takes off.

In the meantime though…happy hacking.

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