Quick Thoughts: The Internet of Simple Things

This blog post was first published on LinkedIn! You can find the original here.

We’re all familiar with the Internet of Dumb Things. From “smart” water bottles that tell your phone how much water is in them, to my wi-fi enabled microwave, we’re surrounded by ample proof that adding a wireless chip to something does not necessarily make it more useful. But earlier this week, I saw a DIY video showing off one of the best-conceived IoT gadgets I’ve seen in a while. It came in a pretty unlikely form too.

I mean, who the heck even owns an umbrella stand anymore?

Yes, I know. It seems silly. It’s not exactly revolutionary IoT tech, and a smart umbrella stand isn’t going to disrupt the knick-knack industry. But it might stop me from getting wet. And more to the point, it might provide that benefit at a reasonable price and setup time, because this fun little DIY project is an example of a much bigger idea called one-bit IoT.

One-bit communication is a simple idea. It literally just means a message that conveys no more than “Yes” or “No.” For the computer, a 1 or a 0. One-bit communication is by its very nature, easier, more secure, and less power intensive than full data communications, and perhaps more to the point, it’s cheaper. Way cheaper. You want IoT gadgets that don’t make your wallet shriek in horror, this is the fast way to do it.

You can do a lot with one bit. The umbrella stand does. Is the door open? Yes. Does the weather channel say it’s going to rain today? Yes. Is there an umbrella in the stand? Yes. Okay, beep. And you can imagine more. Did I take my pills today on time? Yes. Is the refrigerator cold enough to stop my food from spoiling? Yes. Does my water contain dangerous levels of lead? No. Super.

The other big advantage of one-bit IoT is how it conveys that one bit signal to the user. My phone already gets so many alerts that “this app has push notifications” is a major incentive to uninstall, and even when I don’t, the odds are high I’ll miss one alert in all the chatter. But the umbrella stand doesn’t expect me to check my phone, it just beeps. Like a refrigerator light can blink when it’s too hot to keep the food safe, or like a pill bottle can flash if I haven’t taken my pills for the day.

There’s already a lot of great examples of one-bit IoT in the industrial space, but other than Amazon Dash buttons, we haven’t seen too much of it in consumer tech. I’d love to see more examples of this, and I’m curious what other people think.

Are there any objects in your life you wish could answer a simple “Yes” or “No” question? Give you a reminder at the right times? IoT isn’t going to take off until consumers actually see how it benefits them, and one-bit devices like this seem like a great foot in the door.

Tristan Morris