My favorite project: The Internet of things in real life

Some projects are more worthy than others in the long view

When my former boss at JBoss, Marc Fleury, first described his new project OpenRemote to me, I couldn't think of anything I was less interested in. It had nothing to do with the enterprise or Web-scale space -- that is, serving the needs of large companies with money -- and seemed more about paving the way for the new millionaires at JBoss to enjoy the same kinds of luxury as Bill Gates. I kind of changed the subject, ate more steak (Marc is a great cook), and instead talked about my idea, which later crashed and burned.

A year later, when OpenRemote was looking to support Android, Fleury contracted my firm to do it. It was fun, and although I still found the project underwhelming, I've learned to lie to entrepreneurs when asked what I think of their ideas -- they're delusional and won't listen anyhow. Besides, I got to write an Android app in my friend's garage back when my company was still three people and no one else I knew had actually written an Android app! Later, when Marc's former adminstrator and the heart of JBoss, Kelly Stine, was looking to use OpenRemote for her brother Adam, Fleury contacted our company about integrating the Insteon ISY-99 and associated devices.

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You see, Adam Stine wasn't some lazy rich guy who couldn't be bothered to get up and hit the switch to turn on his lights in the morning. Adam was suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) and was bound to a wheelchair.

Using OpenRemote and the ISY-99 platform, we were able to connect Adam's lights to his iPad. Unfortunately, Adam's condition had progressed to the point where he could no longer use his iPad with enough dexterity, so one of our guys, Andrew Ball, figured out how to connect the OpenRemote Web console to Adam's Tobii Eye-Gaze machine. Literally, Adam could control his lights with his eyes. Frankly, this is the kind of project that makes life worth living if you have any heart at all. It was also irresistibly geeky.

What OpenRemote really means

OpenRemote is to home automation what Android is to cellphones. It ties together devices like lighting, air conditioning/heat, and audio/video. Until recently, this market was exclusive to those who could afford $500 light switches and massively expensive system integration projects.

Like JBoss, the project Fleury launched more than a decade ago, OpenRemote enters a market dominated by a few very proprietary and very greedy players. These companies have proven themselves hugely shortsighted by keeping prices up to maintain these products' reputations as "luxury goods." OpenRemote will bring the broad sword of open source to bear on this market and lower the price. The net effect will be like what John D. Rockefeller did to oil, Henry Ford did to cars, or Bill Gates did to software: The price will drop and the market will grow larger as a side effect.

This works through the use of "smart devices" -- wireless or powerline network devices that can connect to an intranet or the Interent and allow you to control them from a server-side process like OpenRemote. You communicate with that server-side process with a Web browser or mobile app. Until recently this was really expensive. Now, with players like Insteon, for example, light switches can be had for as little as $45 per switch. It's not as cheap as the 89-cent light switches you can buy at Lowes, but it's affordable.

What makes OpenRemote special is that it's pulling together all of the proprietary vendor's devices. It's like one platform with a series of device drivers instead of each vendor selling you a unique, expensive platform -- and forcing you to hire an actual developer to build both your integration and your UI. Assuming the device you are buying has already been integrated into OpenRemote, a power user can drag-and-drop together a UI. For a major home installation, that could shave off $10,000 in cost.

OpenRemote and smarter, greener buildings

Think of the effect on the green "smart building" movement. If you've been in a modern meeting room, used the touch panel, brought down the projection screen, dimmed the lights, and controlled the sound, you've encountered some of this technology. But that crappy touch panel is expensive (reportedly several thousand bucks), and the battery wears out every two years. It also has terrible resolution compared to your average iPad or Android tablet. Not to mention that the UI is typically confusing and your average computer scientist presenter has no idea how to get the screen to descend without dimming the lights too much.

Smart buildings go beyond this and integrate alarms, climate control, blinds, and so on into one platform. This stuff is fairly common in Europe already. A few years back, at a Siemens building in Germany, I saw the outside metal blinds automatically adjust with the sun. Clearly, there's an opportunity for OpenRemote to "smart up" new buildings. At relatively low cost, that smart home or office space enjoys a nice deal-closing differentiator on the open real estate market.

This technology is expanding. One of the organizations that we're working with is Durham SciNergy, which is remodeling low-income housing to go "off the grid" and energy efficient. We're looking to help the company use OpenRemote and automation technologies to make smarter use of energy.

I may love the cloudy NoSQL big data goodness, but when I daydream these days, OpenRemote is on my mind. I think of Adam, who unfortunately passed away earlier this year. Here was a guy who had an amazing sense of humor in the face of an adversity I can't even begin to imagine. We automated his lights; he joked about automating his bidet.

This is the kind of "save the world stuff" I got in this field to do. Helping people like Adam and reducing our carbon footprint in a smart way -- that's what I zone out on during meetings.

OpenRemote is the most important project I've ever worked on. Ten years from now, long after NoSQL is commonplace and MongoDB has been sold to Oracle, this is what I'll still be bragging about: I helped build the Internet of things.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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