Of Internet-connected Crock-pots, cars, smartwatches

The CES show floor shows how we've arrived at the Internet of Things

LAS VEGAS -- The oft-used phrase, "Internet of Things" is one emerging tech jargon abstraction that average users are still noodling over in order to better understand and appreciate it.

Here's one reporter's attempt to give it some meaning.

Wi-Fi-enabled Jarden Crock-pot
A Crock Pot with Wi-Fi access was shown at the Belkin booth at International CES.

Let's start with some concrete examples in the consumer electronics realm.

At its booth at the International Consumer Electronics Show this week, Belkin showed off a Wi-Fi-enabled Jarden Crock-pot. The Crock-pot uses Belkin's WeMo technology to connect the slow cooker's IP address to the Internet through a home Wi-Fi router. The company also showed a Wi-Fi-ready Mr. Coffee automatic coffee maker.

Prices haven't been announced for either appliance.

Users can control both devices over the Internet, to turn on the coffee or heat up Irish stew from pretty much anywhere in the world, just as can already be done with a Nest thermostat and other devices. The Wi-Fi capability allows an office manager to turn on the morning coffee pot in the break room before arriving or a catering firm to fire up the cooker at a remote location.

Dozens of fitness wrist bands and smartwatches are also on display at CES.

For instance, the $100 Fitbit Flex can monitor your heart rate, vibrate to wake you up or advise that your last night's sleep was restless and disrupted. Other devices, like the new $249 Pebble Steel smartwatch, are connected through Bluetooth to an iPhone or Android smartphone acting as a hub for using Wi-Fi or cellular to reach the Internet. Conceptually, a person's bodily functions could be distributed to a doctor for further treatment or used to compare to a fitness database.

Amid the chaos of the CES are thousands of vendors and tens of thousands of visitors looking to view an estimated 20,000 new products.

The products on display could hit store shelves this year, or might not blossom into consumables for up to a decade. Most are targeted at consumers, but Internet-connected devices, or "things," are already running in industrial sites to control electricity generators, water pumps, traffic lights and more. Some don't need to connect over the Internet at all; they can rely on a local network.

For several years, the tech world has used small or embedded processors and computing devices in cars, smartwatches, tablets, PCs and smartphones. ARM, for instance, said here that it works with nearly 250 device makers with 1,000 ARM licenses to run ARM microcontrollers, tiny devices that are just 2 mm x 1.9 mm, that help keep the "things" they are inside of smaller than ever.

More recently, short-distance (such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth) and long-distance (such as 4G LTE, which is 10 times faster than 3G) wireless networks have vastly improved in functionality. The networks are faster, of course, but also focus on preserving battery power, as with Bluetooth Smart, based on the Bluetooth 4.0 specification.

There are also more than 1 million smartphone or tablet applications in each of Google's and Apple's app stores, and some of those Android apps even work the latest smartwatches.

The Nepture Pine smartwatch, priced at $335 and due out in March, features a 2.4-in. color touchscreen that will run most Android apps, allowing users to, for example, play the popular Angry Birds game in a relatively tiny form factor. The watch's multiple radios that use Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and even 3G wireless make it even more functional.

That may sound fantastic, but most analysts think the trend will be toward the development of much smaller, more fashionable smartwatches that can lure in more buyers, especially women. The tradeoff is that smaller watches likely need their own apps; many smartwatches now support fewer than 20.

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