LAS VEGAS » The smartphone is no longer just a portable computer in your pocket. It has become the remote control for your life.
Want to flip off the living room lights, unlock your front door, or get a reading of your blood pressure? All of this can be done through mobile apps that work with accessories embedded with sensors or an Internet connection.
For several years, technology companies have promised the dream of the connected home, the connected body and the connected car. Those connections have proved illusory. But in the last year app-powered accessories have provided the mechanism to actually make the connections. That is partly because smartphones have become the device people never put down. But it is also because wireless sensors have become smaller, cheaper and ubiquitous.
Big companies with strong brands have been heavily promoting the new uses for these gadgets. General Motors advertises its Chevy Malibu Eco with a man showing his parents how he starts the car with a smartphone. A major selling point of the popular Nest thermostat is its ability to turn up the furnace from miles away with a cellphone.
"Now that, increasingly, consumers have a device with them to monitor virtually anything they do with the Internet, why not offer that capability to monitor and remote control?" said Ross Rubin, an analyst at Reticle Research.
The idea of turning off the lights with a smartphone may seem gimmicky, but consumers are warming to applications, said Bill Scheffler, director of business development for the Z-Wave Alliance, a consortium of companies that make connected appliances. The situation resembles the time when power windows started catching on for automobiles, or when television makers started offering remote controls, Scheffler said.
"It used to be that people would say, why does anybody want a remote control for a TV if you can get up and change the channel?" he said. "It’s just progress." Companies like AT&T, Black and Decker and Honeywell have started selling app-linked products, he said.
At the International Consumer Electronics Show, which has attracted more than 150,000 people here this week, dozens of companies are showing off connected accessories they can hook up to their home appliances to make them work with smartphones, and many are also displaying wearable devices that can help people monitor their health on their phones. Some of these products are being provided by large companies. AT&T, the wireless carrier, said that in March it will begin selling a wireless security system called Digital Life that will allow people to use tablets or phones to monitor cameras, alarms and even coffeepots.
If a burglar trips a motion sensor in the house, for example, a user can receive a text message, then call the police. Customers can choose to expand AT&T’s wireless service to appliances like lights, door locks, thermostats and security cameras, which can be controlled and monitored through the AT&T mobile app.
Ralph de la Vega, chief executive of AT&T Mobility, said in an interview that home security was a big opportunity to increase revenue. Only 20 percent of homes have security systems, he said, leaving millions of homeowners as potential buyers.
"I think it dramatically changes how people feel about their home and how secure they feel about being outside the home," de la Vega said. "I think it’s an easy sell." The company has not announced prices for the service.
Ingersoll Rand, which makes industrial products, offers a $300 starter kit and software for people to connect their homes. It includes a lock, a light and a wireless "bridge," or base station, to connect the devices to the Internet. They can be controlled with a smartphone or tablet app called Nexia Home Intelligence. Customers also must pay at least $9 a month for a subscription; they can choose to buy the appliances and the bridge separately.
Products by several other companies take advantage of a smartphone’s sensors and connection to the Internet to monitor consumers’ health. IHealth sells monitors for people to track their blood pressure with an app. At the electronics show, it introduced a wireless glucose meter, called the Smart Glucometer, that lets people with diabetes determine their blood sugar. A user puts a blood sample on a test strip, pops it into an accessory attached to a smartphone, and an app gives a reading of the blood sugar level.
Adam Lin, general manager of iHealth, declined to say how many products the company had sold, but he said it was in the "six-figure" area. IHealth products have appeared at Apple, Target and Best Buy.
In addition to people who are interested in their health, health insurance providers might embrace monitoring products. Lin said iHealth was discussing with two insurers whether to provide its products to patients, which would help reduce their doctor visits.
A small startup, AliveCor, has created an iPhone case that when grasped records an accurate electrocardiogram on the iPhone screen via its app. The company has attracted financing from Khosla Ventures, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm.
Nike, Jawbone and Fitbit sell wearable electronic devices for people to track their movements with smartphones. Fitbit, based in San Francisco, sells a pocket pedometer called the Fitbit One, which can track a user’s steps, floors climbed and sleep. Its newest product is due in spring, the Fitbit Flex, a step counter and sleep tracker that is worn around the wrist. It synchronizes with a smartphone app to give users updates.
Woody Scal, chief revenue officer of Fitbit, said the company sells its devices in 10,000 retail stores in the United States. Its Fitbit One is the best-selling sports device on Amazon.com. He said one reason that wearable fitness gadgets have become popular is that the sensors have shrunk and battery life has improved. That helps make the products slimmer, more stylish and easier to use.
Scal said wireless fitness devices were becoming popular because they address basic needs for consumers, unlike another trend seen at the show, enormous televisions.
"In the end, I don’t wake up in the morning, look myself in the mirror and ask whether my TV has enough pixels," he said. "But I do wonder how I’m going to get enough exercise, eat better, sleep well or manage my weight despite all the other things going on in my life."