The idea is to build motes – tiny computers that broadcast a radio signal – that are cheap enough to deploy everywhere but just smart enough to “self-organize” into powerful networks that can sense and convey information like whether milk is spoiled or a bookshelf overloaded.
Dozens of companies are working on it, but there could be an increase by the end of the year with the adoption of a standard called Zigbee, being negotiated by a consortium of companies that includes Ember and bigger players like Honeywell, Motorola, Philips and Samsung. The standard gets its name from an idea engineers are hoping to emulate: the zigging and zagging of bees, which are individually simple organisms that work together to tackle complex tasks.
On Zigbee, data crawls along as slow as 20 kilobits per second, about one-fiftieth the speed of Bluetooth. And the 802.11 family of wireless standards, better known as Wi-Fi, can be many times faster than Bluetooth.
But slow and steady has its virtues. With more complex networks, each “node” on the network has to be within range of a wired, expensive hub. With “mesh” networks like Ember, both the messages and the components are simple enough that each node can act as a relay station. In theory, the price would allow each node to be placed within broadcast range (about 100 feet) of another. A message could simply jump from lamp post to lamp post, all the way to headquarters, with no need for expensive hubs or wires.