Stephen Wolfram writes nifty IoT data store for his nifty software stack

One of the challenges associated with the internet of things is figuring out where to put all that data. If you have dozens of connected devices talking to the cloud (and that is a big if) you’ve got to think about where that data lives, how to normalize it and how to grant others access to it so it becomes useful. Stephen Wolfram, the creator of Mathematica and the Wolfram Alpha search engine, on Wednesday introduced his version of a solution to this problem, called the Wolfram Data Drop.

In simple terms, the Wolfram Data Drop is a repository for data sent from a variety of devices such as Raspberry Pis, Arduinos, Electric Imps or other devices that are pointing at the Data Drop via a few lines of code. In this way, the service reminds me of other data repositories from the sophisticated, like IBM’s IoT Foundation service, to the more rudimentary such as Dweet and Freeboard. You point your device at a cloud and your data shows up there. From that point on, you can grant other services the chance to see and use that data.

What makes the Wolfram Data Drop so much more interesting is how it ties in with the other Wolfram services such as Wolfram Language or the Wolfram Data Framework. In a blog post discussing the Wolfram Data Drop Stephen Wolfram discusses how his eponymous services work together to make the data coming in from sensors work easily with the pictorial symbols in the language.

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He also explains how data put into the Data Drop is saved using the Wolfram Data Framework (WDF), which means all the gets saved with symbols that dictate how the data should be interpreted.

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]Here’s an important thing: notice that when we got data from the databin, it came with units attached. That’s an example of a crucial feature of the Wolfram Data Drop: it doesn’t just store raw data, it stores data that has real meaning attached to it, so it can be unambiguously understood wherever it’s going to be used. … And every databin in the Wolfram Data Drop can use WDF to define a “data semantics signature” that specifies how its data should be interpreted—and also how our automatic importing and natural language understanding system should process new raw data that comes in.The beauty of all this is that once data is in the Wolfram Data Drop, it becomes both universally interpretable and universally accessible, to the Wolfram Language and to any system that uses the language.
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And while Wolfram is much easier to understand when he’s offering examples instead of making up words like databin and naming ever more bits of services and features after himself, the concepts here are very powerful. Anyone who has ever used the Wolfram Alpha search engine will walk away impressed with the service even if they don’t understand the underlying technology.

The downside, however, is that all of these services fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, and it’s unclear how useful the Wolfram Data Drop is without the use of the Wolfram Language to manipulate the data in it. Although the coolness of the stuff you can do with the data — from assembling heat maps based on image data over time with a simple command, to assembling histograms with time series data — seems almost worth the lock in.

The basic Data Drop service is free and users can create open or private options. Eventually you can run a Data Drop on the Wolfram Cloud or on your own internal cloud. I assume you will have to pay for some of these options and perhaps for privacy and more storage.

HEat maps created from pictures taken of Wolfram's office fish and then dropped into a databin.

Heat maps created from pictures taken of Wolfram’s office fish and then dropped into a databin.

The beta service is available for folks to start playing with, and Wolfram writes in his blog post that already some connected devices companies are playing with the services so they don’t have to worry about building their own back-end software and cloud platforms. As he writes:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]As throughout the Wolfram Language, it’s really a story of automation: the Wolfram Data Drop automates away lots of messiness that’s been associated with collecting and processing actual data from real-world sources. And the result for me is that it’s suddenly realistic for anyone to collect and analyze all sorts of data themselves, without getting any special systems built. For example, last weekend, I ended up using the Wolfram Data Drop to aggregate performance data on our cloud. Normally this would be a complex and messy task that I wouldn’t even consider doing myself. But with the Data Drop, it took me only minutes to set up—and, as it happens, gave me some really interesting results.
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Wolfram’s enthusiasm makes the Data Drop sounds far cooler than IBM’s similar efforts or even those from other players, but essentially what is happening is a sea change in automation and it is exciting. Being able to grab real-world data, transfer it up to the cloud (or an on-premise hub) for analysis and immediate visualization) is a powerful tool that’s changing the way factory floors are run, data centers are operated and even how homemade whiskey is distilled. For more on this and other IoT related data topics check out our Structure Data event on March 18 and 19 in New York City, where Amazon Web Service’s Matt Wood will actually talk about building infrastructure for the internet of things.

Broadcom’s new Wi-Fi chip turns your phone into an IoT hub

At Mobile World Congress, Broadcom released a new chipset designed to bring Wi-Fi’s speediest technology, 802.11ac, into smartphones. What makes this particular chipset stand out is that it’s able to support simultaneous connections over both of Wi-Fi’s bands (2.4 and 5 GHz).

Simultaneous dual band has become fairly common in high-end routers, but it’s never really made its way into mobile devices because it requires two Wi-Fi antennas to maintain dual connections. But [company]Broadcom[/company] has also been paving the way for dual-antenna, or MIMO, technology in high-end handsets.

Broadcom’s press release played up the fact that accessing two networks at the same time would produce some pretty big boosts in speeds for heavy bandwidth consumers. But when I spoke with David Recker, Broadcom senior director for wireless connectivity, he pointed that there’s an even bigger implication here. This new modem will help change the role of the smartphone in the wireless network from that of a mere client to that of a network controlling hub.

While our phones can use Wi-Fi to connect directly to other devices such as wearables or home appliances, they can’t do so while maintaining their own uninterrupted connection to a Wi-Fi router. This will solve that problem, which is becoming increasingly bigger as smartphones insert themselves into the internet of things. For instance, you could use your phone to download a video from a Wi-Fi network and simultaneously stream it to your TV. Or you could use a smartwatch connected by Wi-Fi Direct to your phone to check email, while listening to music streamed over the Wi-Fi network.

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PCH buys Fab.com in its quest to find a path to the public

Updated: This story was updated throughout on March 4 to add comments from Liam Casey, CEO of PCH.

PCH, the Irish manufacturing and fulfillment shop that has made big inroads helping startups in the internet of things space go from idea to mass production, has purchased Fab.com and taken on 35 employees in a deal that was once valued at up to $15 million. The actual value of the sale is undisclosed and Fab.com founder Jason Goldberg will not be joining PCH. Aside from the employees and domain name, Liam Casey, the CEO of PCH says the acquisition will give PCH an outlet to consumers that’s more compelling than the typical U.S. retail experience.

He reminisced about his former days in retail and walking into luxury brand stores in European cities where the experience was designed to entice users in and get them to browse and experience the brand.

“If you look at the kind of stores where we buy most hardware products today it’s pretty boring,” Casey said. “They aren’t destination stores. Consumers only go if they have to go there to pick something up, not to browse.” But thanks to e-commerce and brands like Fab.com Casey thinks there is an opportunity through curation and storytelling to recreate that sense of excitement. Plus, people are already buying these products online. In the future, Casey says they might even buy them at Fab or PCH pop up stores.

In an interview with Re/code, PCH CEO Liam Casey said Fab.com would become a sales channel for the products sold by its hardware startups, like Ringly, the Drop kitchen scale, the newly launched Podo camera and others. Re/code also included this paraphrase:

Casey said Fab has come a long way since it gave up on the ‘distraction’ of holding inventory in favor of drop-shipping, and that its current model is friendlier to hardware startups that get taken advantage of by the economics of brick-and-mortar retail.

Casey explained that by friendlier he meant that most retailers expected pretty onerous terms for a smaller startup trying to get a product onto their shelves. For a startup with limited cash, these retail deals can be both a boon and a curse, as they have to produce the inventory in advance and ship them to the stores to sit on shelves. Retailers also usually demand that a startup produce a set amount, for example 10,000 units. The partner might demand a fee for good placement and may also require certain buybacks in the case of high return rates or a lack of sales.The thinking, however, is that such an expense is worth it, because it gets them in front of the mainstream consumer.

Last summer PCH signed a deal with the now-bankrupt RadioShack to stock products from some of its startups such as LittleBits in its stores. Casey said that the deal was much friendlier to PCH companies than a traditional retailer arrangement, which meant that when RadioShack went bankrupt, the PCH startups weren’t stuck holding the bag.

In light of the hopes for reducing the risks for startups and rebuilding retail excitement for hardware products, it’s no wonder that PCH decided that the Fab.com deal made sense. Since people already supported many PCH products online via crowdfunding and later via bought the products from the PCH-backed startups’ own websites, offering them through Fab only made sense. Like Amazon, maybe that’s just another stepping stone to help a product mature and reach the mainstream before committing to the investment needed to get into a big box store.

LittleBits is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of Gigaom.

The internet of things will rock your business and here’s how

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The internet of things will disrupt the hell out of your business and you best start preparing your business to meet that change by preparing to deal in information as opposed to physical goods, according to Charlie Peters, an executive senior vice president at Emerson. This may be surprising coming from a top executive at a company know from process manufacturing and old-line systems, but Peters, laid down several hard truths in this week’s podcast about how the internet of things will change enterprises in his conversation with me.

He covered the three ways that IoT changes business, the hurdles that companies face from a technical perspective (and why that hurdle is driven in part by a business rationale on the part of companies responsible for driving the technical innovations we need.) Before Peters and I chat, my colleague David Meyer joined my on the show to share his thoughts on the connected home and how he thinks manufacturers might gain consumer trust when it comes to privacy and security. Tune in for his delightful accent and stay for some compelling content about Mobile World Congress and more.
Guests: Charlie Peters Senior Executive Vice President and director at Emerson

  • A european perspective on the smart home and privacy
  • Does the internet of things need a Trust-E or other seal of approval for privacy to communicate to the consumer?
  • The internet of things changes your business in three ways. Here they are.
  • The result of more information will be a few large successes and several mediocre businesses
  • Why wireless connectivity is a last hurdle for IoT that still isn’t solved.

 

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PREVIOUS IoT PODCASTS:

How to design security into your connected product

Insurers may subsidize your smart home, but which device?

Let’s learn about blockname, a decentralized version of DNS

Connected apartments may be smarter than connected homes

This week’s podcast unravels the secrets of Thread and HomeKit

The internet of mi. Discussing Xiaomi, Yonomi and smart homes

Wall Street’s perspective on IoT and the plague of CES

Smart coffee makers, cheap light bulbs and better voice control

Hanging with my husband: His thoughts on our smart home

Exploring Amazon’s Echo and the retailer’s home automation channel plans

Looking for an architecture for the internet of things? Try DNS.

Building networks that can expand and survive the internet of things, plus some tips on crowdfunding

NXP to buy Freescale for $11.8B to create chip giant

NXP Semiconductor has agreed to purchase Austin, Texas-based Freescale Semiconductor in a deal valued at $11.8 billion, creating a $40 billion chip giant that will be a dominant supplier for the internet of things. Both companies are large chip providers in automotive and sensor markets as well as microcontroller vendors. As the internet of things expands and makes the embedded market more of a monolithic industry like the PC and mobile markets, we’re going to see the chip firms act accordingly. That means consolidation.

Connected door knobs are lying to us

This week’s podcast was all about security and how we can design things to tell us more about how connectivity changes them from mere appliances into networked computers — and all the risks that can bring. John Kestner, a principle with Supermechanical, a design firm that builds connected devices including the Range thermometer (pictured above) and the Twine sensor, was my guest for the show, and we chatted about how he designed those products with security in mind.

But it got far more interesting in the latter half of the interview (around 48:30) when he started talking about how to design products that convey their new status as a connected device.

“Consumer electronics are magic. There’s really no transparency. It’s really hard to gain any kind of mental model as to what’s happening, Kestner said. “At least when we used Ethernet, we knew when something was connected to the network or not. We could physically unplug it if we wanted.”

But now we don’t have any sense that a device is different with the exception of maybe an LED or that it runs out of batteries every now and then. Kestner wonders if that makes people less likely to wonder what makes the device different and makes them also less likely to want to educate themselves about those differences, such as the security implications. He then wondered how and if we should change the design to offer a sort of warning to consumers that the new, connected version of their old fixtures had different capabilities.

“Maybe there’s a bit of disconnect in making objects look exactly like the objects they are displacing. That’s of course, doing its job in making the customer feel comfortable with its replacement. ‘Oh it’s a familiar object,’ but you don’t want them to feel too comfortable because there are dangers that come with this,” he said.

As to what that is, though, he wasn’t sure. LEDs might make sense, or perhaps an entirely new form of design sensibility and vocabulary that we implement for connectivity that becomes synonymous with conveying the kind of information consumers should know about connected devices. If you guys think of it, please let Kestner know.

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Energy harvesting EnOcean Alliance joins All Seen Alliance

The All Seen Alliance has scored an interesting new member with the EnOcean Alliance, a group of 300 companies dedicated to sustainable building controls and automation using wireless energy harvesting sensors and technology. The EnOcean Alliance joined AllSeen Alliance Thursday and will demonstrate how the two organization can use their two technologies together at the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona next week.

The EnOcean Alliance is a group that promotes EnOcean technology specifically. EnOcean manufactures and markets energy harvesting wireless modules that are interesting for the internet of things because they do away with the need for batteries or wiring. Instead they use solar, temperature changes, kinetic energy or other techniques to power sensors and then the transmission of state around a network. The technology is used in devices sold around the world, which means that these devices might soon get All Joyn compatibility as well.

All Joyn is the protocol that the All Seen Alliance is pushing as a standard for device-to-device communications and discovery. When I asked if EnOcean, the company, or the EnOcean Alliance would consider the All Joyn rival standard Iotivity as well, I received the following response:

While they are not involved in Iotivity just yet, the Technical Working Group of the EnOcean Alliance (the member company manufacturers who use EnOcean’s technology in their products) is considering involvement in the future.

That’s not a no, and it points to how much uncertainty there still is over all of the nascent standards out there. After all, Iotivity was just launched last month, and we still don’t actually have a certification to work from — and won’t until the middle of this year.

Open Sesame! Want to try an idiot-proof $89 connected lock?

What light bulbs and thermostats were to the smart home in 2014, connected locks are shaping up to be in 2015 — basically, they are the big connected gadget people are adding to their networks. Already, we’ve seen the entry of big brands such as Kwikset, Yale and Schlage, as well as smaller startups such as August Locks, Goji and Lockitron. On Wednesday we’re getting one more with Sesame, a $149 Bluetooth-based lock launching with a Kickstarter campaign priced at $89 for the first 500 locks and then $99 for the next 500 locks.

The Sesame lock is worth a look, especially for renters, because it’s the closest I’ve seen to the original Lockitron design that just slips over the existing deadbolt to install. Of course, that design had some problems for Lockitron — on some locks it caused the bolts to slam into the door jamb too hard or wore out the mechanism too quickly, according to Lockitron co-founder Cameron Roberts, who spoke to me about those issues back in January ahead of Lockitron announcing a new design and its own $99 base lock. It’s possible the Sesame could experience similar problems with its design.

iPhone_Silver_1

However, for those concerned about price (other connected door locks can cost between $175 to $250) or in-depth installations (installing a full lock replacement can take about 30 minutes or as little as 10 for a deadbolt replacement design like the August or Danalock) the Sesame has a lot to offer. Che-ming Ku, the founder of Candy House, which makes the Sesame, is also pledging to ship in May — that’s pretty soon and could either be a sign of confidence in his manufacturing or incredible hubris.

Ku said via email that he plans to ship at least 5,000 units per month and hopes to get early feedback before shipping all of the locks. This sounds suspiciously like beta or preview hardware to me, so if you aren’t willing to be a hardware guinea pig, perhaps you should wait for the lock to hit retail stores. Ku plans to initially sell the Sesame on Amazon and eBay and then branch out to the usual suspects of Apple Stores, Home Depots and Best Buys.

For those who are interested, here’s how the lock works. After you pop it on over your lock, it operates using Bluetooth, allowing you to open your door using the app running on your phone or via a special knock on the phone or on your door. Ku decided not to enable the automatic unlock feature when you’re near the lock that some other lock makers offer because he didn’t think it was secure. You can also continue to use your keys.

The lock comes with a lithium battery that lasts about 500 days. You can pick up replacement batteries in stores or order them on Amazon. You can also buy a Wi-Fi bridge that will connect your lock to your home network and offer remote capabilities, such as seeing if your door is locked from outside your home. The bridge-and-lock package costs $139 (it will retail for $199), and I like how the design doesn’t appear to block both outlets.

Like other locks, the app notifies you of the comings and goings in your home and lets you offer invites to people. My current smart locks are radio-enabled onl,  so there’s no app that lets me offer other people access to my house when I’m not there unless I give them a code to punch in or they call and I trigger the lock from my app. I think guest access is a pretty nice touch, which is why August, Lockitron, Sesame and the newer generation of locks are so compelling.

So keep an eye out for Sesame, although be warned, that this is a Kickstarter and still appears pretty experimental for the initial backers.

Spark Electron wants to make cellular connectivity easy as Wi-Fi

Spark Labs is coming back to Kickstarter with a new project and a mission to change how cellular carriers think about the internet of things. The company, which launched a popular Wi-Fi development board for the internet of things almost two years ago on Kickstarter, is back raising money for a cellular development board called the Electron.

For $39 or $59, respectively, developers can get 2G or 3G-capable board as well as the software and back end cloud service that Spark offers. Add to this $2.99 per month for the data plan and now people building connected products have a new option available that lets them take their devices outside the realm of Wi-Fi networks. Zach Supalla, the CEO of Spark, explained that after the launch of the Spark Core board and the Photon, a postage-stamp sized Wi-Fi development kit, he asked customers what they wanted. Many of them asked for Bluetooth boards, but that wasn’t technically challenging, so he pressed harder.

“We found that many of our customers were using Wi-Fi boards as kind of a hack, like trying to cover a farmer’s field in Wi-Fi to use them,” Supalla said. So he decided to try cellular reasoning that would open up the Spark ecosystem to more industrial applications. So far, the hardware hasn’t been as challenging as getting the connectivity together.

So far, Supalla said has a deal with a Tier 1 carrier for 2G and 3G GSM service in the the U.S. and Canada, and is working on signing more. He’s also working on signing European deals with the goal of offering global coverage. In some cases, it has been tough going because carriers seem more concerned with how much money each new subscription will add as opposed to embracing more flexible pricing for smaller developers to get them on board and hopefully help them grow to a larger business, he said.

While some telcos are changing their tune on this issue, it’s a slog finding the right people inside the company, although Supalla is optimistic. He pointed out that stories such as Tesla have helped make carriers see the value in helping smaller startups and innovators because when one of those hits it big, they can change an entire market in a flash. The carriers don’t want to miss out on the next Tesla.

So he’s launching the Electron, and he’s doing so on Kickstarter, despite having raised $4.9 million in venture backing. One reason for his Kickstarter campaign is to go public, not just with the product, but with the idea that carriers should open up their business models to embrace smaller developers. He’s also hoping to show developers that cellular is a viable option for them, hopefully around the world. The board won’t ship until October, so he has time ti sign up more carrier partners.

As I said last week, when covering Konekt, a Chicago startup with a similar proposition, this is an idea that needs to happen. Flexible cellular connectivity for startups is an essential element for growing the IoT market. And if carriers don’t get on board, entrepreneurs will find a way around them — much to the carriers’ chagrin.

Updated: This story was corrected at 10:40 am to note that Spark does have a carrier partner for Electron in the U.S. and Canada.

Behold, the NFC-enabled smart whisky bottle

Sure, drinking too much Scotch can dull your wits, but if you can’t tolerate dumbness from the bottle itself, then here’s one for you. Thanks to the latest in flexible electronics, the smart whisky bottle will now be a thing.

On Wednesday, the drinks giant [company]Diageo[/company] and the Norwegian printed electronics firm [company]Thinfilm[/company] announced a prototype connected bottle for Johnnie Walker Blue Label whisky that will have a range of features enabled by Thinfilm’s new OpenSense NFC tags. The internet-of-things identity and authentication firm Evrythng is tying things together in its cloud (Evrythng has a partnership with Thinfilm). The bottle will be shown off at Mobile World Congress next week.

Johnnie Walker Blue Label whisky bottle with Thinfilm OpenSense NFC tag

Johnnie Walker Blue Label whisky bottle with Thinfilm OpenSense NFC tag underneath label

The features are largely stock control and anti-counterfeiting measures – the tags will make it possible to track the bottles and see with a tap of a smartphone whether the bottle’s seal has been broken, and one of Thinfilm’s big selling points is that its smart labels are pretty much impossible to copy or modify.

However, there’s also a marketing aspect to all this. Customers will be able to tap the tag, which is discreetly stuck underneath the label at the back of the bottle’s neck, with their NFC-enabled smartphone in order to get “personalized” messages. These messages will be contextual – if they tap the bottle in the store, it may trigger a promotional offer; once bought, it may offer up cocktail recipes or other content.

“Our collaboration with Thinfilm allows us to explore all the amazing new possibilities enabled by smart bottles for consumers, retailers and our own business, and it sets the bar for technology innovation in the drinks industry,” Diageo Futures Team global innovation director Helen Michels boasted in a statement. Meanwhile, Thinfilm CEO Davor Sutija noted that this sort of customizable marketing functionality wouldn’t be possible with conventional NFC tags, which aren’t integrated with sensors in this way.

It is certainly true that advances in printed and flexible electronics will change the nature of everyday product packaging, because the technology is now at the point where it’s becoming very cheap to implement — when Thinfilm recently partnered with Xerox on the production of printed memory labels, it said it expected to manufacture a billion of the things each year.

So in the coming years, expect produce packaging that can tell you when the contents are going off, blister packs that can point out how many pills have been popped, and yes, smart booze bottles that suggest appropriate mixers. It’s a brave new world.

This story was updated on 26 February to include a mention of Evrythng’s involvement.