My favorite project: The Internet of things in real life

Both my nomination for the geekiest thing I've worked on and the most important thing I've worked on, OpenRemote is changing the world

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.

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