Ideation: Cape Fear, Home Automation, and Hardware Hacking
Here’s a macroeconomic idea, tuned for this region and our demographics: To ride the next big wave of Internet technology, which many people are calling the “Internet of Things“, we should educate, foster and invest locally in home automation.
I know it sounds sort of pedestrian — you’re now visualizing the man in The Graduate who says, “One word: Plastics!” to Dustin Hoffman — but few opportunities are so wide open right now, so good at bringing together different disciplines and markets, and so well-adapted for our Wilmington and Cape Fear region. I’ll explain why.
Here’s what’s emerging in this area of higher-tech home automation, and how similar it is to the wave of garage-based software hacking that created the Silicon Valley. The other day I was listening to a podcast about the book Programming Your Home: Automate with Arduino, Android, and Your Computer, in which author Mike Riley said that he and other “makers” are now — finally — seeing a critical convergence of:
- Very small, very low-priced commodity computing devices, such as the Arduino, which comes with sensors you can hook up to anything
- Hackable controllers such as those that can be built on top of Google’s Linux-based mobile operating system, Android
- Modular, open, “service-oriented” programming models like REST and SOA that make connecting things together a snap
Projects such as the ones described in this book, plus the community around O’Reilly’s magazine MAKE, nerdy performance art like Robot Wars, and even this recent, fringe phenomenon of “bio-hacking” (“Biohackers And DIY Cyborgs Clone Silicon Valley Innovation,” Fast Company) attest to the availability and convergence of programmable real-world systems.
The plastics this time is “open source hardware”. Hardware hacking and “maker” projects are lighting up all over the place for fun and profit – in schools, in micro-manufacturing (“The Internet and Things: How Manufacturing Could Get Better With a Dose of Networked Data”, the Atlantic).
In practical terms, people can now hack hardware systems, devices like phones and remote controls, and household objects (the mailbox, the refrigerator, the phone, the old PCs, the kids’ toys, the sprinklers, the television, &c) in the same way that they hacked their way into server software a generation ago, basically assembled the Internet, and changed everything. You can buy a 25 dollar Linux computer about the size of a Wheat Thin, tell it to send you a text when the garage door opens, tell it to send a voice mail to the pharmacy when your prescriptions run low, have it log the amount of time the lawn guy spends at your house, and all of these pieces can be put together, monitored, shared….I’m not good at thinking of applications, but I can see how wide open it is.
And you can see how good a focus it would be for our area, given these regional attributes and strengths:
- Dominance of real estate and associated services, featuring lots of service sector workers, construction, remodeling, handymen
- An inventory of very expensive homes that create a market for these services
- The university, colleges, availability of training, also a relatively heavy tech presence
- A DIY culture – everything from traditional freelance and small business entrepreneurs to tattoo parlors, car mods, all those lawn guys.
- A film industry focused on production
The idea is that customized home automation services take advantage of 1) our particular workforce – blue-collar, home-focused 2) our home-focused market, and 3) our well-educated, technical, pragmatic, and independent-minded partners and collaborators. The Internet revolution itself came about because of just such a combination of easy, cheap, and combinable. Next time the lawn guy comes by, he may have created his own little hardware system for monitoring how much time he spends in your hedges, and it may be mounted to his weed whacker. Let’s hope.