LONDON – A year-old startup called Electric Imp Inc. has developed a Wi-Fi node in a memory card physical format that it hopes will become a standard technique for assigning IP addresses and linking to the Internet to establish a Wi-Fi-mediated Internet of Things (IoT).
Along with selling small cards initially priced at $25 per card, the startup will host data and offer browser-based services that will allow consumers and enterprises link and control their equipment via these IoT nodes.
Prior to cofounding Electric Imp (Sunnyvale, Calif.), CEO Hugo Fiennes managed Apple’s hardware team for the first four iPhones, then became its iPhone architect. He left Apple in May 2011 and worked briefly at Google before resuming his career as an entrepreneur. In the 1990s, he founded Empeg Ltd. to make in-car MP3 players (see Engineers drive craze for MP3 audio players). Empeg was sold to SonicBlue in November 2000.
Along with Fiennes, Electric Imp’s cofounders are Kevin Fox, director of user experience, and software architect Peter Hartley. Fox designed the Gmail Web interface for Google while Hartley worked with Fiennes at Empeg. Fox worked as a designer at Yahoo and Google and was a senior product designer at Facebook and principal user experience designer at Firefox browser developer Mozilla.
In a two-hour interview with EE Times via Skype, Fiennes laid out Electric Imp’s IoT product strategy.
From left to right: Electric Imp founders Peter Hartley, Hugo Fiennes (holding card) and Kevin Fox.
The starting point for Fiennes' IoT vision came when he attempted to rig bathroom lights to respond to arbitrary inputs like Google’s share price. He quickly realized that many companies offered home automation systems based on a variety of radio standards, including Zigbee, but nearly all were single-vendor solutions rather than open platforms. Moreover, most were expensive.
"There is a Wi-Fi-enabled set of scales for sending your weight back to a Web site so you can track progress," said Fiennes by way of example. "It costs $180."
Electic Imp's innovation combines standardization on Wi-Fi and on a physical format based on the SD memory card socket. But it also offers a system partition that helps reduce costs for product developers. The startup hopes this approach will enable a fast ramp of available IoT-enabled objects, Fiennes said.
"We've put it in a user-installable module. The user buys the card and just plugs it into any device that has a slot," Fiennes explained." All a developer needs to do is add a socket and a 3-pin Atmel ID chip to their product. That's 75 cents: 30 cents for the ID chip and 45 cents for the socket." This assumes the availability of 3.3 volts. "But given that most things you want to control from the Internet are electrical, we think that's reasonable," he said. If not, developers can include a battery.
Since the module can be installed by a user, developers won't have to worry about FCC and CE certification since Electric Imp’s cards have already been certified for both, Fiennes added.
However, product developers do need to determine what aspects of their "things" they want to link to the card socket. The most obvious is an on-off relay, but Electric Imp's 6-pin interface on its card supports a variety of control and data interfaces and is configurable. It allows pull-up, pulse-width modulation (PWM), I2C and SPI interfaces for sending commands along with data transmission and retrieval.
Check out their website. You have to program them in a language called Squirrel. Squirrel looks to be great for writing flashy demos. But we have a bunch of existing ARM code in C and its not going to get rewritten in Squirrel. Have to see if they allow C language access.
My understanding is that all Electric Imp nodes will have a unique ID and a unique IP address so there should be no conflicts with Wi-Fi nodes in notebook and tablet computers and smartphones.
Instead of having a couple of Wi-Fi nodes hanging off your domestic router you will have a couple plus however many Electic Imp cards you buy and enable.
how do you plan to mitigate the all ready installed wifi module in products when consumers buyt and plug into an existing laptop or tablet phone...
I would think a software install to switch all chosen applications to only run through the sd card when installed would be needed to stop issues with multiple nodes on one machine.
A handful of other startups have been pushing low cost Wi-Fi for IoT apps, one of them recently bought up by Microchip. But I don't think any have hit the consumer market so squarely as these guys.
I remember the CEO's earlier MP3 startup got a Page 1 story on EE Times back in the day.
Frankly I am not sure the CE world is quite ready for IoT yet. They may be 3-5 years ahead of their time--except for DIY engineers who I imagine will love this.
I say the next with a certain negative feeling. I'm impressed with this approach. It's very smart but I think the idea could perhaps become so powerful that it would take away part of the fun of developing Internet enabled devices to many product vendors out there. This seems to be pushing for an industry standard. Smart indeed.