Appliance Science: The Internet of Toasters (and other things)

The Internet of Things may be the next big thing in appliances, in which your oven, your fridge and other things around your home will talk to your phone and to each other. Appliance Science looks at the science and technology behind the chatty appliances you'll be buying in a few years.

Richard Baguley Colin McDonald
Richard Baguley
Richard Baguley has been writing about technology for over 20 years. He has written for publications such as Wired, Macworld, USA Today, Reviewed.com. Amiga Format and many others.
Colin McDonald
Essentially born with a camera in hand, Colin West McDonald has been passionately creating video all his life. A native of Columbus, Ohio, Colin founded his own production company, Stoker Motion Pictures, and recently wrote and directed his first feature film. Colin handled photography and video production for CNET's Appliance Reviews team.
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Colin McDonald/CNET

Samsung CEO B.K. Yoon has an ambitious vision: he wants your appliances to talk to each other. At the CES show in Las Vegas in January, he announced that 90 percent of the devices his company sells will connect to the Internet by 2020. As Samsung is one of the largest appliance manufacturers in the world, this is a big deal: it could be the tipping point for the long-heralded Internet of Things (IoT). In this brave new world, you'll be surrounded by a cloud of chatty appliances and other devices, all talking among themselves. What does this mean for you and your kitchen? Let's find out, as Appliance Science looks at the science and technology behind the Internet of Things.

The technology of the Internet of Things

A surprising number of appliances are already smarter than you might think: devices from toasters to refrigerators are controlled by small computers called microcontrollers. These systems on a chip (SoCs) control the function of the devices, turning the pumps and valves in your refrigerator on or off, or mixing the hot and cold water in your washing machine to reach the right wash temperature. Engineers love creating one solution for many problems, so many manufacturers use a single type of microcontroller across a range of appliances, reprogrammed for the task at hand. This means that your refrigerator may have the same electronic brain as your washing machine, or your toaster may be as smart as your dishwasher.

These microcontrollers are chips like the poetically named Texas Instruments MSP430F5418A. If you look at the technical details of this (such as an RISC CPU and 128KB of flash memory) you could easily confuse them with your cell phone, as they contain the same parts and features. Basically, many of your appliances are already computerized. What Samsung announced is that these appliances will not just be computerized, but will be connected to each other and the Internet.

Watch this: Samsung CEO outlines his vision for the Internet of Things

That's what the Internet of Things is: a way for your appliances and other devices to talk to each other. Making a device IoT-ready involves adding a wireless interface to the microcontroller, and providing a language that allows appliances (and other devices) to talk to each other. Using new standards such as 6LoWPAN, these devices can connect to each other and to the Internet, using simple, low-power signals that are similar to the Wi-Fi signals of your existing home network.

Within your home Internet of Things network, each device will resend the signals of others, creating a networking "mesh" that spreads the signals around the home without requiring a powerful signal. Add in a central gateway (such as the Internet gateway that connects your Wi-Fi devices to the Internet), and you have a network of devices that can talk to each other and to the wider Internet.

All of this means that making an appliance IoT-ready won't add much to the cost of manufacturing it, and won't require much more computing power. You also won't run out of space for devices, as this new type of network will use IPv6, which allows a lot more devices to run at once. In theory, IPv6 will allow around 3,400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 different devices to connect at once to the Internet, which should be enough to be getting on with. Within the home, the standards under development would allow hundreds of devices to connect to the same home network and talk to each other.

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Colin McDonald/CNET

This all relies on every appliance speaking the same language, though, and that may be the stumbling block. At the moment, several different groups of companies are working on their own standards for how devices can talk to each other, such as Thread from Google, Samsung and others, and existing home automation standards such as ZigBee and Insteon.

Many other standards also exist, including Wink, which is supported by companies that include Cree, GE and Phillips, and which works with devices such as light bulbs, electronic locks and many others. Meanwhile, Apple, the 800-pound gorilla of the home electronics world, is about to step into the fray with its own HomeKit standard, which uses the existing Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections built into your Apple devices. It looks like the next few years may be an all-out fight between these rival standards, with the winner or winners becoming the lingua franca of your home.

So, if you buy a washing machine from one company and a dryer from another, they may not be able to talk to each other. Fortunately, at least some of the manufacturers of the devices that control things in your home, such as Philips, garage opener maker Chamberlain and lock makers Yale and Schlage, are taking a neutral stance, adding support for as many standards as possible to their products. Samsung has promised that its standards will be open for others to use, but in the politically complicated world of appliances, a standard being open doesn't mean that others will use it. It remains to be seen how this will be resolved.

The Purpose of the IoT

Smart appliances are nothing new: we've seen refrigerators with built-in touchscreens and Wi-Fi for many years. Most have proven pointless, as the best they can do is act as a notepad or play music. While they might be cool geek toys, they don't really add anything to the basic functions of the device.

Watch this: The first wave of HomeKit products arrives

The manufacturers are hoping that the IoT will get around this by creating a framework that others can use to build applications on. So far, we've seen washing machines and dryers from Whirlpool and others that ping your cell phone when they are done and also know when electricity is cheapest (to keep down the cost of the wash). You can imagine lots of other scenarios. Think of a health-monitoring device that knows when you're cheating on a diet because the refrigerator informed it about that midnight snack. Device makers also hope these things will work in the same way that the Internet did: consumers will find ways to use this framework that the manufacturers never thought of.

Eventually, the Internet of Things could include every electronic device in your home, from door locks to cell phones, coffee makers to toasters. The Thread standard currently under development will allow at least 250 to 300 connected devices within each home, offering a huge potential for devices to work together. That is obviously what Samsung is hoping, as the company spent $200 million in 2014 buying a company called SmartThings, which makes a hub that connects IoT devices from different companies together. Samsung is obviously positioning itself so that whatever language your washing machine may end up speaking on the Internet of Things, its own appliances will be capable of speaking it fluently. Will that be a smart move? Only time, and the fickle tastes of consumers, will tell.