How the Internet of Things Caught Up With the Past


Smart Retrofitting

A lot of smart devices out on the market want to replace your current accessories. The Nest thermostat will replace your thermostat. A class of smart lights will replace your normal lights. But what if you don’t necessarily want to replace your current product?

Here’s a couple possible cases why that might be:

  1. You’ve already spent a lot of money purchasing a new, non-smart product that’s set to last for decades.
  2. You find the existing smart devices too expensive for your liking.
  3. You think you don’t need all the functionalities of a top-of-the-line smart device.
  4. A combination of #1 and #3: you could opt for a non-flagship version of the smart device, but that would mean replacing your high-quality original with a low-quality smart device.
  5. You like the brand, style and design of the non-smart product. There isn’t an option for a smart version of the design/brand that you like.

Fortunately, there’s a class of products that solves this exact problem: smart retrofitting. 

Bringing the Past Into the Future

The premise of smart retrofitting is based on consumers who want to integrate smart features into existing products, without entirely throwing them out. This could come as a socket that attaches to light bulbs to give them smart capabilities, or an attachment to the back of a watch that allows it to function as a smart watch.

In some cases, they’re also well-suited for customers who want to try out certain aspects of smart technologies before fully committing to a larger purchase. The modularity of smart retrofit lends well to that spirit.

This article serves to highlight a few products in this category. I’ll make regular references back to the 4 cases we’ve seen at the beginning, starting with…

SMARTWATCHES

You’ve seen them before. There was a lot of hype about smart watches last year, and now it’s expanded to fitness trackers (Fitbit) as well as the usual suspects (Apple Watch, Moto 360, Samsung Gear). Here’s how they look like:

They all look very nice, but we’ve got a problem: the watch-buying category exhibits a huge case of issue #1: You’ve already spent a lot of money purchasing a new, non-smart device that’s set to last for decades. Alternatively, you could say that #5 is a big reason too: There isn’t an option for a smart version of the design/brand that you like.

(This is more of a situation considering expensive, luxury watches rather than $15 digital watches, but if you love your $15 watch, then this applies just the same.)

What do you do if you’ve got a nice, flashy watch but still want a taste of the smart life on your wrist? Throwing away your high-quality watch is not an option. What do you do?

SMART RETROFIT: CHRONOS

As the Bloomberg article title above shows, Chronos is a disk that fits into the watch you’re already wearing. It doesn’t offer the full functionality of, say, an Apple Watch, but allows you to find the middle ground between having your usual (beloved) watch and something more connected.

Specs are fitting for a product that fits underneath a wristwatch: 33 mm across and 2.5 mm thick. It weights “next to nothing.” You won’t find a graphical user interface on this thing, but it does have a sophisticated vibration function that you can set for up to 8 different types of notifications (among other things). You can set those specialized patterns up with an elegantly designed, purposefully native-looking app on the phone.

But most appealing of all (save for the option of not throwing out your watch) is the $129 price point, currently pinned at $69 in its pre-order stage. Either way, a lot less expensive than buying a high-end smartwatch outright.

SMART LIGHTS

Lights are notably less hard to replace than high-end watches. Normal bulbs usually don’t exceed $10, and people tend to have a lot of them around the house. But a few of the issues we’ve noted still do apply.

For one, the starting price of some of the most notable smart bulbs available are quite expensive. Take a look at the Philips Hue, for example: it’s pretty, but it’s also pretty expensive to try.

What if you already invested in LEDs that are supposed to last 25 years? What if you wanted something a little less than $70 a pop? What if you like the style and glow of incandescent bulbs, but still want smart functionalities?

SMART RETROFIT: EMBERLIGHT

The emberlight socket does exactly what you think it does: it screws onto a regular light bulb, and it gives that lightbulb smart light capabilities. That means that you’ll be able to control the lights using your phone, and connect it to various other devices through IFTTT.

This is fitting for those who don’t want to throw out a bunch of LEDs to make way for a room full of connected lights. It’s also useful for those who want a lower price of entry than that offered by other established companies: the socket is only $49. And because it operates independently of a hub, $49 is all you need if you plan to only try out a single socket. Its modular nature allows you to scale up whenever you need.

SMOKE DETECTORS

Yep, this is Nest. Specifically, this is the other thing that Nest makes when they’re not making their thermostat.

Why might you want these smoke alarms? Think about it: when was the last time you’ve had a smoke alarm go off? You might have physically tried to push the button. Perhaps you couldn’t reach it. Perhaps it was the night. Perhaps you were on the other side of the house. Either way, a true hassle when it’s not a fire and only smoke from cooking/steam from the shower.

The advent of smart detectors is twofold: they allow you to turn off the noise when it’s not right, and they’ll alert you in more ways than one if it is indeed a fire. Your phone will ring. You can have it automatically call a contact. You can have faster access to emergency contacts, and you can do this all when you’re away from home. Certainly a welcome thought if you’re worried about the stove half an hour after you’re out from the house.

Here’s the replacement problem, though: your smoke detector lasts forever. I know mine does. What do you do if you have a perfectly fine smoke detector that you’re doing okay with?

SMART RETROFIT: ROOST

This is Roost. It’s a battery, not a detector; it’s designed to go into existing smoke detectors. It seems to be the best shot on the market in terms of retrofitting an old detector with new capabilities. What it lacks in interconnectivity between devices (among other things) it makes up in its comparatively low price.

$99 is the price for the Nest Protect. But the Roost smart battery is only $35. That’s the basic capabilities of a smart detector for about a third of the price.

CNET does a pretty good job summarizing the benefits and flaws of this battery: “You won't get as many smarts with the Roost Smart Battery as you would with a wholesale connected replacement, but at $35, it's a viable and cost-effective option for simple, retrofit smarts.” Moreover, it might give you trouble if the alarm is “hardwired and the 9V is acting as a backup.” But from the looks of its polarizing Amazon reviews, it’s either really good if it works and really bad if it doesn’t.

SMART CARS?

Believe it or not, this actually exists! If you’re not in the mood to shell out tens of thousands for Apple’s future smart car (or if you simply can’t wait), you can get Automatic at a relatively inexpensive price of $100.

SMART RETROFIT: AUTOMATIC

We’re skipping straight to the smart retrofit here because it’s pretty much the only feasible way for most people to get smart driving capabilities. I mean, I suppose you can buy another car if you really want to…but I doubt that’s something you would do.

What does Automatic do? I pull the following summary from another article: “Automatic is a small car adapter that you plug into the on-board diagnostics port of your car to get all kinds of data about your vehicle.” This includes engine problems, fuel efficiency, and GPS location. Not bad for a $100 plug that fits in most cars made past 1996.

BEDS

I don’t think there’s any smart beds currently available. More specifically, I don’t know of any mainstream beds out there that touts “smart capabilities” as a main feature. It seems to me that, even in 2016, the main reason to buy a bed is still to find something comfortable to sleep on. That leaves us in a strange position where there is nothing to compare our smart retrofitting device to.

SMART RETROFIT: EIGHT

Like Automatic, this is also one of those moments where you might think “wow, I can’t believe this exists!” The closest thing is a sleep tracker called Sense, but you don’t put Sense on your bed. Sense collects all the data from an attachment to your pillow.

Eight takes the direct route: an attachment directly to your mattress. In this sense, both Sense and Eight count as smart retrofits, where Sense is sort of like a smart pillow and Eight is like a smart bed.

At $100, Eight retails for slightly less than Sense. Both tracks sleep patterns from the movements of the bed/pillow, and displays them visually in an app on your phone. With Eight, you can also integrate temperature data to automatically adjust the temperature (with a smart thermostat, for example) or turn on a fan. One would assume that Sense has similar functions.

SPEAKERS

Perhaps your speakers are not connected to Bluetooth. That’s strange, because a lot of speakers are connected to Bluetooth nowadays. In fact, if you look on Amazon, quite a lot of portable speakers are Bluetooth compatible by default:

But in case you didn’t want to discard your older, perfectly functional speaker system, however, there are options out there.

SMART RETROFIT: Google Chromecast Audio

It is Google that swoops in with a smart retrofit this time, with a puck-like device that connects to your speakers. Similar to the Chromecast, which arguably gives your television a smart retrofit, the Audio will allow your speakers to receive Bluetooth connected music from a ways off.

In this case, you probably don’t even need peripheral integrations to make use of the device. You’d just use it as you would with any modern Bluetooth speaker – predominantly from the phone or laptop.

The Bottom Line

We found smart retrofits for watches, lights, cars, smoke detectors, beds, speakers, and TVs. It seems like you can retrofit pretty much anything nowadays. We know there are more – what did we miss? What’s your favorite?