For years, the wireless industry has been talking itself blue in the face about the myriad devices that would one day be connected to the network. Whether by Wi-Fi or through a cellular modem, major vendors like Ericsson and Intel, as well as operators big and small, hope darn near every item in your house receives or sends a signal of one kind or another.
Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg expects 50 billion connected devices by 2020. A good portion of those connections will come from smartphones and tablets, but this year's International CES gave us real-life examples of some truly innovative connected devices, many of which already have launched or will be by the end of the year, across a variety of verticals.
Beyond the conceptual renderings, prototypes and keynotes of imaginative CEOs, here's a look at some of the unique products that will actually make the connection in 2012, while simultaneously putting the smartphone and tablet at the center of everything.
Samsung Stays Cool with Connected Fridge
Already, Samsung has brought two refrigerators ($2,499-$3,499) to market that feature Wi-Fi connectivity and touchscreen displays mounted into their doors. The touchscreen displays – essentially tablets – allow users to display photos from a Picasa library, check Google calendar, access recipes from Epicurious or see their social networks (so much for a clutter of magnets and reminder notes).
But the real breakthrough in this kind of technology is that a connected appliance is able to communicate with other devices. In the very near future – this year sometime – we're going to see ovens that can be set to preheat directly from the smartphone. Imagine the connected refrigerator with a camera mounted on each shelf that can stream a picture of its contents to the owner's smartphone or tablet while they're walking the aisles at the supermarket.
Once these items are connected, they become smart, able to communicate with an ecosystem of devices. Samsung is battling it out with Apple on this front, but Samsung has one ace in the hole. Unlike Apple, Samsung makes everything from smartphones to washing machines and refrigerators, putting it in a unique position to lead the connected appliances space. Similar to what we've seen from the connected TV space, prepare for the emergence of a vibrant collection of apps aimed at giving consumers control of their home appliances via their smartphones.
Baby, LTE On Board
If you didn't notice all the connected cars at this year's International CES, you weren't paying attention. This was the year of the LTE-connected automobile and everything that goes along with that proposition. Cadillac, Ford, Subaru, Toyota, among many others, all had reason for rolling four wheels onto the exhibit floor. ABI Research estimates that the installed base of embedded and hybrid connected car systems is expected to grow from 45 million at the end of 2011 to 210 million by 2016. Contributing to this trend are fully embedded OEM systems such as GM's OnStar and BMW's Connected Drive; embedded aftermarket solutions for vehicle tracking, road user charging and insurance; factory-installed hybrid systems such as Ford SYNC; hybrid aftermarket solutions from Pioneer and Kenwood offering Pandora Internet radio via smartphone integration.
The carriers are enthusiastic about the opportunity to go beyond connectivity via smartphone integration. Cadillac's CUE system comes equipped with an in-vehicle LTE modem, which connects to Verizon Wireless' LTE network. The possibilities for this space are endless. Cadillac's OnStar division is particularly interested in streaming content to everyone in the vehicle; in-car video chat; smart grid technology and home connectivity to develop in-vehicle applications centered on energy management; real-time diagnostics and eco routing.
Given how much we all love our cars and technology, perhaps the only thing that could put a dent in this potentially gigantic market is a huge hike in gas prices.
Paging Doctor Smartphone
One of the first truly practical, and FDA-approved, applications in this space is Vitality's GlowCap, which recently launched as part of AT&T's connected devices incubator.
GlowCaps fit on standard prescription bottles and remind patients to take their medications using light and sound alerts, which can be followed by a phone call or text message so people don't miss a dose. Each time the pill bottle is opened, adherence data is recorded and relayed to Vitality over AT&T's wireless network. This information can then be used to create progress reports that are sent to patients, caregivers and doctors and family members.
But again, solutions like GlowCaps are just the tip of the iceberg. ABI research projects that the market for just sports and health apps will break $400 million in revenues by 2016. That's just apps. Juniper Research estimates that revenues from remote patient monitoring services that use mobile networks will hit $1.9 billion globally by 2014.
Aside from GlowCaps, we're already seeing a slew of new consumer-based applications and devices that aim to make us more aware of various aspects of our health. Wristbands that track biometrics are everywhere – pedometers, even smartphone-based glucose monitors.
Rise of the mToy
An increasing number of smartphone-controlled toys are coming to market. Some, like Parrot's AR Drone, which costs a cool $299, are a little pricey, but there are a few out there that won't break the bank.
Take a look at the Orbotix Sphero in the video below. For $130, and a free app, you can control the Sphero from a smartphone or tablet. It works by swiping a finger across your smartphone's screen, and the ball rolls across the floor. The device also has sensors in it that allow you to hold it in your hand and use it as a trackball to move a spaceship in an app, or other such task.
One wonders exactly who is playing with these toys? Is there a huge population of youngsters under 12 with high-end smartphones, or are Mom and Dad slacking off? There's probably some projection on the mToy market, but it could be one more segment that no really knew would take off the way it is.
Revolutionizing the TV
The television is probably the world's favorite screen, right behind the smartphone, so it's probably not so surprising that the two are now learning to play nice together in a variety of ways. With the advent of the connected TV, as well as projects from the likes of Google and Apple, consumers are now seeing their TVs as extensions of their smartphones and vice versa.
NPD In-Stat estimates that the number of devices sold globally connecting the Internet to the television is projected to reach 1.34 billion units by 2106 – up from nearly 257 million units sold in 2011.
"CE is no longer about 'dumb' devices that exist at the edge of the network to provide specific functions, but rather about 'intelligent' devices at the edge of the network that can connect consumers to new stores of content and engage them in new digital experiences," writes Norm Bogen, vice president of research, in a statement. "This simple fact is having a profound impact on the development of the digital media and entertainment industry, which clings to the old practices of using networks to control the user viewing experience."
Additionally, consumers can now record shows and actually watch content from their providers right on their smartphones. AT&T just opened its uVerse APIs to developers, so that they can write apps that integrate the set-top box. But alas, all of this means nothing until we find out whether Steve Jobs really had racked the Apple TV problem before his death.
More to Come
This is just a smattering of what 2012 has in store. One of the great things about technology is that the geniuses behind all these crazy devices and applications never stop dreaming and inventing. While these awe-inspiring devices of today seem like an end-point, for the developer in a garage somewhere, they're just the beginning.