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Main article: Connected objects

All topics: 4

Amazon stops selling stick-on Dash buttons

13:56 | 1 March

Amazon has confirmed it’s retired physical stick-on Dash buttons from sale — in favor of virtual alternatives that let Prime Members tap a digital button to reorder a staple product.

It also points to its Dash Replenishment service — which offers an API for device makers wanting to build Internet connected appliances that can automatically reorder the products they need to function — be it cat food, batteries or washing power — as another reason why physical Dash buttons, which launched back in 2015 (costing $5 a pop), are past their sell by date.

Amazon says “hundreds” of IoT devices capable of self-ordering on Amazon have been launched globally to date by brands including Beko, Epson, illy, Samsung and Whirlpool, to name a few.

So why press a physical button when a digital one will do? Or, indeed, why not do away with the need to push a button all and just let your gadgets rack up your grocery bill all by themselves while you get on with the importance business of consuming all the stuff they’re ordering?

You can see where Amazon wants to get to with its “so customers don’t have to think at all about restocking” line. Consumption that entirely removes the consumer’s decision making process from the transactional loop is quite the capitalist wet dream. Though it does need to be careful about consumer protection rules as it seeks to remove all friction from the buying process.

The ecommerce behemoth also claims customers are “increasingly” using its Alexa voice assistant to reorder staples, such as via the Alexa Shopping voice shopping app (Amazon calls it ‘hands free shopping’) that lets people inform the machine about a purchase intent and it will suggest items to buy based on their Amazon order history.

Albeit, it offers no actual usage metrics for Alexa Shopping. So that’s meaningless PR.

A less flashy but perhaps more popular option than ‘hands free shopping’, which Amazon also says has contributed to making physical Dash buttons redundant, is its Subscribe & Save program.

This “lets customers automatically receive their favourite items every month”, as Amazon puts it. It offers an added incentive of discounts that kick in if the user signs up to buy five or more products per month. But the mainstay of the sales pitch is convenience with Amazon touting time saved by subscribing to ‘essentials’ — and time saved from compiling boring shopping lists once again means more time to consume the stuff being bought on Amazon…

In a statement about retiring physical Dash buttons from global sale on February 28, Amazon also confirmed it will continue to support existing Dash owners — presumably until their buttons wear down to the bare circuit board from repeat use.

“Existing Dash Button customers can continue to use their Dash Button devices,” it writes. “We look forward to continuing support for our customers’ shopping needs, including growing our Dash Replenishment product line-up and expanding availability of virtual Dash Buttons.”

So farewell then clunky Dash buttons. Another physical push-button bites the dust. Though plastic-y Dash were quite unlike the classic iPhone home button — seeming temporary and experimental rather than slick and coolly reassuring. Even as the end of both points to the need for tech businesses to tool up for the next wave of contextually savvy connected devices. More smarts, and more controllable smarts is key.

Amazon’s statement about ‘shifting focus’ for Dash does not mention potential legal risks around the buttons related to consumer rights challenges — but that’s another angle here.

In January a court in Germany ruled Dash buttons breached local ecommerce rules, following a challenge by a regional consumer watchdog that raised concerns about T&Cs which allow Amazon to substitute a product of a higher price or even a different product entirely than what the consumer had originally selected. The watchdog argued consumers should be provided with more information about price and product before taking the order — and the judges agreed. Though Amazon said it would seek to appeal.

While it’s not clear whether or not that legal challenge contributed to Amazon’s decision to shutter Dash, it’s clear that virtual Dash buttons offer more opportunities for displaying additional information prior to a purchase than a screen-less physical Dash button. So are more easily adapted to meet any tightening legal requirements in different markets.

The demise of the physical Dash was reported earlier by CNET.

 


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Banksy’s rigged art frame was supposed to shred the whole thing

12:42 | 18 October

In the connected future will anyone truly own any thing? Banksy’s artworld shocker performance piece, earlier this month, when a canvas of his went under the hammer at Sothebys in London, suggests not.

Immediately the Girl with Balloon canvas sold — for a cool ~$1.1M (£860,000) — it proceeded to self-destruct, via a shredder built into the frame, leaving a roomful of designer glasses paired with a lot of shock and awe, before facial muscles twisted afresh as new calculations kicked in.

As we reported at the time, the anonymous artist had spent years planning this particular prank. Yet the stunt immediately inflated the value of the canvas — some suggested by as much as 50% — despite the work itself being half shredded, with just a heart-shaped balloon left in clear view.

The damaged canvas even instantly got a new title: Love Is in the Bin.

Thereby undermining what might otherwise be interpreted as a grand Banksy gesture critiquing the acquisitive, money-loving bent of the art world. After all, street art is his big thing.

However it turns out that the shredder malfunctioned. And had in fact been intended to send the whole canvas into the bin the second after it sold.

Or, at least, so the prankster says — via a ‘director’s cut’ video posted to his YouTube channel yesterday (and given the title: ‘Shred the love’, which is presumably what he wanted the resulting frame-sans-canvas to be called).

“In rehearsals it worked every time…” runs a caption towards the end of the video, before footage of a complete shredding is shown…

The video also appears shows how the canvas was triggered to get to work cutting.

After the hammer goes down the video cuts to a close-up shot of a pair of man’s hands pressing a button on a box with a blinking red LED — presumably sending a wireless signal to shreddy to get to work…

The suggestion, also from the video (which appears to show close up shots of some of the reactions of people in the room watching the shredding taking place in real time), is that the man — possibly Banksy himself — attended the auction in person and waited for the exact moment to manually trigger the self-destruct mechanism.

There are certainly lots of low power, short range radio technologies that could have been used for such a trigger scenario. Although the artwork itself was apparently gifted to its previous owner by Banksy all the way back in 2006. So the built-in shredder, batteries and radio seemingly had to sit waiting for their one-time public use for 12 years. Unless, well, Banksy snuck into the friend’s house to swap out batteries periodically.

Whatever the exact workings of the mechanism underpinning the stunt, the act is of course the point.

It’s almost as if Banksy is trying to warn us that technology is eroding ownership, concentrating power and shifting agents of control.

 


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Imagination Technologies Is Crowdfunding A Dev Kit For IoT

19:19 | 24 November

Another dev kit targeting developers and startups that want to build devices for the Internet of Things has launched on Kickstarter — although its maker, Imagination Technologies, is no startup, but rather an established company which licenses IP to chipmakers and counts Apple (with an 8.4 per cent stake) among its investors.

Why does Imagination need to go down the crowdfunding route? It’s more about wanting to tap its target dev community during the product development phase, says Imagination’s Alexandru Voica.

“Using Kickstarter allows us to directly communicate with the maker community, start-ups and individuals interested in new dev kits and get their opinion on how and what we can improve. Kickstarter has some really great automated tools for user feedback and we’re already seeing some great comments about what other sensors we should add and how we could reduce costs for example,” he tells TechCrunch.

Imagination is aiming to raise £20,000 via Kickstarter for the project, and Voica says the funds will be used to accelerate development of the IoT kit and to finalize its open source software framework. As many as 20 billion connected devices are projected to be in play by 2020 — hence all the interest in infrastructure to help developers create all those ‘smart objects’.

So what exactly is Imagination making? It’s a kit, called the Creator Ci40 for IoT, targeting developers wanting to build Internet of Things devices. The kit will include both hardware building blocks and open source software frameworks, network stacks and cloud connectivity for securely connecting and authenticating all the wirelessly linked devices.

The core idea being, as with all these connected device dev kits, to offer a simplified system for developers wanting to quickly prototype a wireless IoT system — i.e. without needing to figure out things like how to get boards talking to each other first.

Imagination’s IoT dev board can be used in conjunction with more than 200 sensor boards to prototype multiple IoT use cases, such as — for example — making a gizmo that monitors temperature or humidity in the home. It links out to these sensor boards via two battery-powered 6LoWPAN Clicker expansion boards and three Click companion boards.

The Kickstarter campaign notes:

The Clicker boards are compact development boards based on the mikroBUS socket. When used together with the companion Click boards, they provide a quick way to prototype and build standalone gadgets that connect using low power wireless standards to the Creator Ci40 IoT hub.

“It will be a combination of people. The maker community and individuals who like to build innovative things (robots, drones, etc.),” says Voica of the target market for the kit, pointing by way of example to “hacker-friendly” peripherals, as well as flagging its “powerful” hardware. (The board will have a 550 MHz dual-core, dual-threaded MIPS CPU.)

He also reckons startups will be interested in the kit — again as a way to simplify and accelerate development times, freeing them up to focus on their core area of expertise, whatever that is.

“For example, we’re running a trial right now in Portugal where a company is using the kit to monitor the temperature and humidity of the soil in several farms and adjust irrigation accordingly,” he adds.

Another target is OS developers working with the likes of Linux and Brillo — given the board runs a combination of open source operating systems and software stacks. The Kickstarter campaign page notes the Creator Ci40 will run a range of GNU/Linux distributions, including OpenWrt, Debian, and Buildroot as well as Google’s Brillo operating system; the stripped down version of Android Google is targeting at IoT devs.

Imagination is certainly not the first to come up with an IoT dev kit aiming to help developers straddle the wirelessly linked worlds of software and hardware. Others already playing in this space include: relayr, with its Wunderbar IoT starter kit and cloud platform for sensor data (this European startup raised an $11 million Series A round, earlier this month); Spark Labs with its Spark Core IoT dev kit and SparkCloud platform; and — also straddling the dev/consumer maker space — SAM: a wireless electronics kit with a drag-and-drop software interface for generating code to automatically link the blocks.

How does Imagination’s Creator Ci40 differ from existing IoT kits? Voica flags the ecosystem system support for main Linux distributions and Google’s Brillo OS as one differentiator. “Creator is one of the few dev boards selected by Google to be part of its Brillo golden reference program — these boards will be the equivalent of Nexus phones when it comes to Brillo, receiving regular updates and patches ahead of others,” he notes.

He also says the prebuilt open source software framework is optimized for IoT, whereas not all other dev boards can say this; noting, for example, that the board includes the 802.15.4 wireless standard not just 802.11 Wi-Fi or Bluetooth standards as he says some other boards do.

Likewise, the hardware has been optimized for IoT too — rather than just reusing existing phone chips, as some others kits have, which he says can lead to increased power consumption (“like we’ve seen in smart watches”).

“We’ve designed a chip that has been optimized for IoT, selecting an optimal feature set that will be useful for this market (e.g. hardware multithreading),” he adds.

Free access to FlowCloud, the cloud platform for storing sensor readings to the cloud, is another differentiator he flags up.

Assuming the crowdfunding campaign goes to plan, Imagination is planning to ships kits to backers by April 2016. The Creator Ci40 board on its own is priced at £35/$50 to Kickstarter backers. A full kit which includes the dev board plus 2x Clicker expansion boards and 3x Click sensor boards costs £70/$100 to early backers.

 


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Sony-Backed Mesh Sensor Kit Looks To The Crowd

16:43 | 14 January

After crowdfunding a minimalist e-paper smartwatch last year, another Sony-backed ‘special project’ is currently passing a donations bowl around on Indiegogo — as the electronics giant continues to try to nurture new ideas via an internal seed acceleration program. And by allowing the employees working on these internal projects to seek external crowd-support for their ideas.

This latest Sony-backed project, Mesh, has raised almost $22,000 so far — just under half its crowdfunding target — for a DIY sensor platform designed to let people create their own connected devices by using a series of Bluetooth sensors which talk wirelessly to an iPad app where their function is configured via a drag and drop interface.

The initial hardware Mesh sensors, called Tags, will include an LED light, a motion-detecting sensor, a wireless button and a GPIO Tag for developers/advanced uses which includes digital and analog input/output to connect other sensors or actuators such as light sensors, motors etc.

There are also software Tags within the Mesh companion app that can be incorporated into the mix, to — for instance — incorporate alerts based on weather services, or plug in specific tablet hardware such as the camera, microphone or speaker to the connected project.

Mesh Tags are connected and configured via a companion iPad app with a simplified interface, aiming to make creating connected projects accessible to non-engineers. There is also a Mesh SDK so that developers can create their own software Tags to work with the Mesh hardware if they want to build more advanced custom projects.

What kind of connected projects could Mesh users create? The team offer examples such as a photo capture system that is triggered when a door is opened to snap startled selfies, or a notification sent when an particular item is picked up. Or Tags augmenting physical games with sound effects generated by movements. And so on. The idea being that Mesh Tags can be combined in multiple ways to support lots of different connected project concepts.

If they hit their funding, the team say they plan to ship Mesh kits to the U.S. and Japan, initially, in May. A basic kit starts at $105 to Indiegogo backers, or the GPIO Tag can be bought on its own for $55.

The concept is cute enough, albeit not original — it’s treading similar ground to the likes of the SAM wireless sensor kit, or on the developer-focused side relayr’s WunderBar or the health- and fitness-focused BITalino. But what’s most interesting here is the sight of a consumer electronics giants turning to crowdfunding and startup-style interior organization to try to rekindle its creative mojo.

The team behind Mesh notes on its Indiegogo campaign page that it is “a small team of passionate engineers at Sony’s seed acceleration program”. Sony formed a new business unit focused on fast-tracking new projects that don’t fit the mould of its existing businesses last year, according to Bloomberg. This new division includes its seed acceleration program which allows existing employees with entrepreneurial ideas to pitch for venture funding from Sony. The first batch of pitches was held in June, according to the news agency.

Mesh has evidently made it through the first wave of Sony’s internal pitching process and through product prototyping to the point where the team expresses confidence in its ability to manufacture and deliver the product in the first half of this year — assuming, that is, they raise their targeted $50,000 in crowdfunds. They have 53 days left to pull in the full funds.

With the Sony brand behind them, they are obviously able to present a more reassuring pitch than the average crowdfunding campaign can, noting that: “Sony’s world leading manufacturing and quality control resources stand behind this project”, and telling supporters that: “We can assure the manufacture and delivery of MESH… Our team will use the resources of Sony to manufacture and deliver your order.”

On the flip side, you could question why a project backed by a multinational consumer electronics corporation needs to raise donations from web users, given those aforementioned sizable corporate resources. That’s really a sign of our crowd-hyped times. And a measure of Sony’s own relatively downbeat fortunes as it looks to transform its business to better compete with rivals such as Apple and Samsung.

Crowdfunding is used by startups to build community and generate marketing around a potential product idea, rather than simply just to raise capital. It’s also a great way for makers to glean free feedback — and that sort of crowdsourced product development and intel is the real goldmine for Sony here as it seeks to reset its internal product compass.

“We would love to hear any feedback from you on how to make MESH even better. We want to see what you will create!” the team adds.

So this is not about turning any single startup idea like Mesh into a gigantic business, but a gigantic business learning how to come up with lots of new, promising ideas.

 


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