(My) History of the Internet of Things

Back in 2007, Jason Winters and I started working on what would become ioBridge, RealTime.io, and ThingSpeak. The phrase “Internet of Things” got added to the discussion when Richard MacManus resurrected it from the RFID days in the late 90s and applied it to companies like ourselves in a 2009 article in the New York Times. Jason and I had experience with projects going viral such as a remote-controlled tractor with a webcam and an aquarium with real-time controls and monitoring. “Jason’s Fishcam” had sensors reporting temperature on a webpage and an interactive gator inside the aquarium. People used to watch the fish and control the gator mouth.

Jason’s Fishcam (January 2006)

The “Slashdot Effect” used to crush our homespun servers and render our projects useless for a period of time. Jason had the idea of moving the “control” part of our projects to the web. If all commands routed to and from a web server instead of going directly to a device, then we could control which commands went through, secure the connections using SSL, create access lists, and change things on the fly. This idea became our obsession for over a decade with several patents, licenses, open source projects, and customers from all over the world to show for the effort. We still work on large-scale IoT, Internet of Things for short, projects and have helped companies of all sizes reduce costs, predict equipment failures, and bring about connected products that serve a purpose.

“Twitter for Things” Demo App

When I first heard about Twitter back in 2006, I thought this is a perfect idea for things. Why would a human want to post short statues? Devices have a lot to say. “The HVAC system just turned on.” “The conveyor is drawing 3.1 amps.” “SYSTEM FAILURE: Code 87643.” If a web application could capture these messages, then the messages could be used for analysis. Jason and I started ioBridge in July of 2008 and built a scalable out-of-the-box solution plus a hardware dev kit. The only issue is that we only knew 30 people that were interested in the aquarium project. We sent an email to all 30 people and one person named Pete purchased a dev kit. He built a monitoring system for large aquariums in the Baltimore area. The next wave of users and customers didn’t come until Stephen Myers created an interactive pet treat dispenser for his dog. Stephen didn’t have an aquarium, but he did have a dog. Everything is a remix. Stephen blogged about his project on December 3, 2008, and his project got picked up by “The Unofficial Apple Weblog” since he used the iPhone as the controller.

iPhone Controlled Pet Treat Dispenser (December 2008)

To demonstrate the idea for a “Twitter for Things” to investors, I created @MyToaster – a Tweeting Toaster that used our system to send status updates about whether or not it was toasting. I followed Stephen’s idea and blogged about the toaster with my article, “Social Networking for My Toaster” on December 8, 2008, and described in detail how to build your own connected appliance. A few days later, Priya Ganapati picked up the story of MyToaster and wrote an article for Wired Magazine. This project and our company… took off.

First MyToaster Article in Wired Magazine (December 2008)

The toaster allowed me to start conversations with product manufacturers and designers that had ideas for new products. I worked on a number of consumer products and industrial systems that all use the same technology that Jason and I created. The Amazon Echo wouldn’t be possible if the Echo device had to understand all aspects of speech and user intents locally. The web allows Echo to tap into a huge data set that enhances its functionality. ThingSpeak is still going strong. You can still sign up today for a free, non-commercial account and join a community of over 350,000 developers around the world that are all learning about IoT and building new IoT applications.

ThingSpeak System Diagram (December 2010)

Fast forward 10 years, and we are still working on the same thing, but the things are now factories, agricultural systems, windmills, and space probes. I was really happy when Katie Blackley from Pittsburgh’s NPR New Station asked me for an interview and an update regarding the MyToaster that started my journey. It has been 10 years and the toaster still works. It is now outfitted with a Particle Photon and uses the ThingSpeak web service to update its thousands of followers. I am glad she reached out to me as it caused me to reflect a bit about the journey and prompted me to share my history of the Internet of Things.

Appendix: MyToaster

MyToaster has been popular on its own for a long time. I have gotten requests to talk about the toaster on news stations, interviews for magazines, and to have the toaster brought to IoT conferences. Every trade show we did had MyToaster on display. The “touring toaster” was a stand-in and took a lot of abuse over the years.

Another significant event for MyToaster is when the Washington Post posted an infographic on “The Marriage of Appliance and Internet“.

They listed that MyToaster from 2008 was a significant event that shaped “Connected Appliances” and “Consumer Internet of Things Products”.

2008 – @mytoaster joins Twitter. It’s a toaster that Tweets. Hans Scharler rigged up his toaster to his Twitter so the appliance Tweets one of two things: Toasting or Done Toasting.

Time Logo

A man in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has rigged his toaster to tweet “Toasting” or “Done Toasting” with each use, and — despite the account’s lack of variety — has gained more than 2,000 followers.

In order to further connect us with our possessions, Scharler and his friend Jason Winters created a platform for developers called ThingSpeak— a sort of Twitter for things — that lets objects send messages, broadcast their location, graph their temperature, and more.

 / Time

Wired Logo

“Tweeting appliances speaks to this whole ‘internet of things’ idea,” says Hans Scharler, a tech consultant who also writes comedy material. “If your appliances were outputting information, it can always go to a database. But we love to share information. So why not find a way to do that?” Scharler found online fame for his twittering toaster, whose tweets alternate between “toasting” and “toast is done.” @mytoaster has about 200 twitter followers.

Priya Ganapati / Wired

Use the New MQTT Service from ThingSpeak for Real-time CheerLights Updates

It’s that time again. That time when people all across the world synchronize their lights together with CheerLights! People have built amazing CheerLights displays. I have seen everything from color-changing shoes to snowmen… and trees.

 

CheerLights Introduction

Here’s a quick introduction to the CheerLights project for those who are new to the project. Imagine 1000’s of multicolored lights all around the world synchronized to one color. When one of the lights turns red, they all turn red. To control CheerLights, send a tweet to @cheerlights or include “cheerlights” somewhere in your message with the name of a color. This will cause a chain reaction and all of the CheerLights displays and apps will change their color to red.

 

ThingSpeak MQTT Service

CheersLights is powered by ThingSpeak IoT. And, this year, I am happy to introduce real-time CheerLights updates using ThingSpeak’s new MQTT service. Using the MQTT service by ThingSpeak, your CheerLights change instantly. ThingSpeak has posted an example that gets a Particle Photon connected to CheerLights using MQTT. The Subscribe to Channel Updates Using Particle Photon Client example shows you how to use a Particle Photon Wi-Fi board to subscribe to channel updates from the CheerLights channel. The program displays the color read from the channel on the built-in LED on the Photon board. You can subscribe to the channel feed or directly to the color field on the CheerLights channel.

Once you learn how to use the MQTT service from ThingSpeak, you can easily adapt it to your IoT project. This is a great way to have real-time control of a device or real-time monitoring of sensors.

If you want to follow the project and see what others are building, visit CheerLights.com or follow on Twitter.

CheerLights Robot for Your Nursery

I shared my latest project over on my Nursery Hacks website. It combines some of my favorite things… IoT, CheerLights, ThingSpeak, Particle, and building things for my soon-to-be-here son’s nursery.  I didn’t want a bright light in the nursery, but I did want to build a little CheerLights display for something in the background.

I found a Robot Nightlight on Amazon and purchased it. This little robot is a great night-light and you can change the color using the included infrared remote control. To connect this light to CheerLights, I built an IR controller that is internet-connected using the Particle Photon. The Photon subscribes to the latest CheerLights color on ThingSpeak and transmits the IR code as if the button was pressed on the remote control.

To build your own CheerLights Robot, visit Nursery Hacks for the parts and code.

Open Source IoT Debug Tool for ThingSpeak and Particle

Often when building IoT projects, you end up wondering what data is being sent to a cloud service like ThingSpeak. The IoT Debugger tool allows you to see the data inside a ThingSpeak channel in a table view. The ThingSpeak Logger shows you data as the channel gets updated. This is an easy way to see if you are sending bad data or null data. The project is open source and available on GitHub.

IoT Debug Tool

Features of IoT Debugger

  • ThingSpeak Data Logger
  • Particle.io Webhooks Manager
  • Settings are saved in LocalStorage
  • Built using HTML5, Bootstrap, and jQuery
  • Open Source!

Demo and download the source code for IoT Debugger on GitHub.