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Making Silicon Valley sense of the ‘Internet of Things’

Last November, I traveled to Dublin, Ireland to attend the Web Summit, Europe’s largest tech event with over 20,000 attendees. The most prominent trend was the Internet of Things (IoT) — adding Internet connectivity to just about any and every object around us.

Wandering around the recent career fairs at Stanford, you’ll probably hear different topics discussed over and over: “Machine learning” is one of today’s most popular terms, but contenders like “computer vision” and “wearables” also hold a great deal of popularity. While Silicon Valley is the unofficial tech capital of the world, listening to what’s buzzing in the other tech cultures around the world can be extremely informative. In Dublin, for instance, IoT seemed to take much more real estate in the minds of tech leaders than is apparent here at Stanford.

Stanford and the Silicon Valley are awash in startups attacking “big data,” “machine learning,” etc. However, IoT has had little traction around the area. This disparity is perhaps not surprising, given the lack of prominent startups explicitly focusing on the IoT space. Only two startups have gained mainstream recognition in the Silicon Valley. One such startup is Nest, which creates self-learning home gadgets. Nest was acquired by Google in Feb. 2014 for $3.2 billion. The second such startup is Dropcam, which offers remotely-viewable cameras. Google similarly purchased Dropcam for $555 million in June 2014. Outside these two purchases, IoT technology development (particularly hardware) has been largely unglamorous, hidden within the efforts of GE Software, Microsoft and other industry giants.

In Dublin, though, the Internet of Things was at the forefront of discussion. More importantly, application of the “IoT label” at the Web Summit was much less generic than the unfocused attachment of “IoT” to any project involving the Internet and physical objects. Instead, an IoT venture was understood to be the application of Internet connectivity to objects not traditionally understood as networked.

The speakers at the Web Summit were emphatic that the Internet of Things does not just comprise the microcosm of individual products, be it automated cars or fitness-measuring wristbands. The Internet of Things is also the smart home, the smart workplace, even the smart city — IoT brings with it the promise of stitching software into the fabric of our daily lives, integrated across all aspects. Yet with an ubiquitously connected world comes issues of privacy and security.

Tony Fadell, founder and CEO of Nest, shared concerns about information security.

“Nest products are invited into [people’s] homes,” he told the audience. “It’s critical to earn their trust, country by country, home by home.”

Fadell emphasized the importance of the fact that data from Nest products is not leveraged by Google for the purpose of targeted ads.

An IoT highlight of the Web Summit was a chat between If This Then That (IFTTT) CEO Linden Tibbets and John O’Farrell, who is a partner at Andreessen Horowitz. Tibbets founded IFTTT, a startup which is trying to implement the “Internet of Things” paradigm by allowing users to create automatically triggered routines. Called “recipes,” these routines are triggered either by the user or a user-specified stimulus. While currently limited to app-focused recipes (e.g. automatically save Instagram photos to Flickr), Tibbets’ vision is to create an ecosystem where routines can be automated.

To help grow the IoT scene at Stanford, check out Stanford iOT. It’s a group of students who “are interested in connecting everyday objects to each other and to the web.” They have an active Facebook group with several live IoT projects (like a smart power strip, smart oven, etc.) which students collaborate on throughout the school year.

You can talk to Kendrick at kkho207 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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