Small Steps Lead to Big (Connected) Things
March/April 2012
Hans Scharler

We see a future of connected devices and services. But we see it happening in small steps where a collection of small ideas fit together to form a much bigger vision. A proven philosophy is that if consumers try something connected, they will try another. For example, if you could open your garage door from a mobile phone, then controlling a light is right around the corner. But, the same consumer will not make a major overhaul of his or her house all at once. A connected world could potentially be much more than home automation, but it will take a series of little wins to get there.

Therefore, it is important to keep creating projects to inspire new products and services. Before you know it, connected things will be commonplace, accepted, and expected. We are building our vision from the bottom up, one project at a time.

Jason Winters and I officially launched the company ioBridge in 2008, but many things had to fall into place before that happened. We brought together our professional experience and incorporated knowledge from many former projects.

Jason was a researcher at the University of Florida where he built a remote-monitoring system for his lab. Jason has a diverse background in mechanical, electrical, and biomedical engineering, which accounts for his ability to see new applications for technology. Every time Jason had a break in his research, he would come to me with a project idea. Each project got more complex. One of Jason’s first projects was a Commodore laptop he designed. I hosted his blog on my server and when he released his throwback laptop, it shut my server down from all of the traffic from news sites and tech blogs. I learned I needed to figure out scalability. I also realized the short-term power of viral marketing.

On another break, Jason put a Webcam in front of his fish tank, calling it the “fishcam.” He soon had people stopping by his Website to check out his fish. Jason added controls on his Website to move the camera around. To celebrate his Florida Gator pride, he added a robotic gator mouth that viewers could open and close. Jason received many emails asking how he built his interactive aquarium. They would be disappointed to learn about the complexity of the setup.

Everything we built to this point was a “Rube Goldberg” contraption and tough for others to repeat. In order to build an aquarium connected to the Internet, you need to know quite a bit from a wide array of areas like networking, Web applications, and hardware engineering. Beyond that, little things like security and scalability would come into play if your project went viral and if you did not want to expose your network and things to the outside world.

Jason called me up and asked me a question: “What if we made the fishcam super easy?” All you would have to do is plug something into your router and it would automatically connect to our Website. Anything you hook to it would be accessible from the outside world; it would be as easy as using a Web page and clicking on links. He added, “People could use the gizmo for anything, not just for making a fishcam.”

From that conversation on, Jason and I developed ioBridge one piece at a time. It was great timing since I had spent the previous years writing large-scale Web applications that managed schedules, people, and projects for technical training and human-resource departments. Jason had been tinkering with embedded platforms related to robotics, computers, and medical instrumentation. We married embedded devices with Web services and released a suite of products and services in 2008. The things we learned from previous projects found their way into ioBridge. Everything had to be easy, low-cost, scalable, and secure.

Jason assembled 30 “monitor and control” modules and we contacted the people asking about the fishcam. Stephen Myers, a fellow researcher at UFL, had a different idea for our product. Stephen wanted to give his dog a treat if he was going to be late. He created a dog-treat dispenser controlled by an iPhone. This project later turned into a consumer product we developed with a company in California that incorporated audio, video, portion control of pet food, and alerts. Once word got out about the first ioBridge projects, we sold out in 48 hours. We had to learn about other things, like shipping, customer support, and inventory. We never imagined selling 30, let alone fulfilling 10,000 unit orders from our partners.

The nature of Internet-connected projects was and still is novel. They sparked a tremendous amount of attention from tech blogs, news sites, and traditional media.

Inspired by Kirby Ferguson’s “Everything is a Remix” theory, we formed the basis of our business plan. We intended to make something easy for others to duplicate to allow them to make something new and potentially incorporate Web control into their products and services. We believe there are three steps to innovation: copy, transform, and combine. In order to innovate you first copy, you learn and implement other people’s ideas, and stand on the shoulders of giants. Then, you transform the ideas by making a small change and applying the idea to a new application. Finally, you combine ideas from your experience to create something unique. We were fortunate to have customers who wanted to make their own versions of fishcams by adding pH monitoring and scheduled fish feeding. A few dozen variations of the dog-treat dispenser emerged. Even a 13-year-old student named Tyler created a remote-controlled pet food dispenser so he could check in on his dog from school. Manufacturers starting using our device to make Internet-connected prototypes and found we had made it incredibly easy for them to Web-enable their product.

From my time working on smart metering, I was inspired to create a project to monitor power usage. I started by monitoring my toaster. I still post the status of my toaster on Twitter (@mytoaster) and my toaster quickly gained more followers than me. My toaster tweets, “Toasting” and “Done Toasting.” Soon my idea transformed from novelty to something slightly more useful, when I realized I could figure out my power usage from an appliance perspective. I measured how long it took to start and end toasting. If it took 60 seconds to toast a frozen waffle and my toaster uses an average power of 1,000 watts while it is on, my toaster uses 16 watts per hour. Our customers took my toaster idea much further. They started monitoring power usage for office buildings and manufacturing plants. Laundromats started tweeting when their customer’s clothes were ready. Medical and office equipment companies built prototypes of devices that report their usage and have the equipment send text messages automatically when they need to be serviced, preventing extended periods of downtime for the companies. They transformed the core idea of monitoring and reporting and applied it to their application.

Taking these small steps led to interesting things we could not have predicted. We believe this is the same for connected devices. It has been fun seeing this field emerge. When we started, we were just controlling and monitoring things via the Web and building projects. Now, we are enabling high-volume consumer products, providing a scalable infrastructure for professional applications such as power monitoring and water management, and making the occasional toaster tweet. To us, the interesting things are the applications that connect things people create. Our focus will remain making our technology accessible and repeatable, and maybe we will inspire some of you to create some amazing applications that advance this connected world.

Hans Scharler is president, software, at ioBridge,

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