Opportunities 2015

Opportunities 2015: Retrofit dumb appliances into smart ones

Someday, we’ll all live in smart homes. Until then, we’ll need to retrofit our old ones

Illustration of someone using their smartphone to make toast

(Illustration by Dale Edwin Murray)

At the advent of the Internet age in the early 1990s, politicians talked of an “information superhighway,” a new public infrastructure that would have to be built to bring digital connectivity into each and every home. Long before it got off the ground, however, industry figured out ways to deliver the same thing over existing twisted-pair phone lines, TV cables and, eventually, wireless networks.

The so-called Internet of Things today finds itself at a similar juncture. For years, home-show demos and promotional videos have presented us with the dream of having all the big and little machines in our daily lives communicating with one another, alerting us to potential problems and saving us time, effort and money. In the real world, however, we’re confronted with old, dumb appliances, incompatible systems and just more apps to fuss with. Far from making lives simpler and cheaper, machine-to-machine technology has so far achieved the opposite.

But a new cadre of companies is dedicated to retro­fitting the stuff we already have to work with the Internet of Things. In December, BDC Capital fronted $1.5 million to Neurio Technology, a Vancouver-based company that has come up with a smart home technology that works even in lower-IQ domiciles. It tracks not only your digitally enabled appliances but also the ones you simply plug in and switch on—through your electrical circuit breaker panel.

“Neurio monitors signatures based on the appliance’s power draw,” says Ali Kashani, the company’s chief technology officer. That means you can know remotely whether you’ve left your oven on (and can turn it off) as well as if your kids are playing Xbox instead of doing their homework. “This is going to help us bridge the gap” between old and new household technology, Kashani says. “It’s going to take a while for all the devices to be replaced over the 10- to 20-year cycle that they usually take.”

Mojio Inc., another West Coast company, has been doing a similar thing with cars. It has developed an aftermarket device you plug into your dashboard that gives you all the diagnostic information a mechanic would get when fixing your car, plus an open platform served by some 150 third-party apps for your smartphone that will do everything from automatically logging your mileage to telling you how fast your teenager may be driving.

“There’s lots of companies taking older equipment and building connectivity into it,” says Alan Swain, vice-president of technology and operations at Wavefront, Canada’s Centre of Excellence for Wireless Commercialization and Research. And while these firms are most visible in the consumer realm, an even larger market may lie in business and institutional environments. He cites the example of Lumed, a Mexican-Canadian startup working on ways for doctors at different sites to share images and diagnostic information from previously unconnected medical devices already in service.

“The Internet of Things has certainly been challenged” in its early development, says Mojio CEO Jay Giraud. But he foresees a day, fast approaching, when it finally delivers on its promise, less by re­inventing the wheel than by adding intelligence to the ones already on the road. “The objective of the Internet of Things is where life gets simpler—people get more but do less.”