Can Linking Money to the Internet of Things Make It a Real “Thing?”

Xconomy New York — 

With a few exceptions, the long-promised revolution of gadgets that know stuff about you and use that data to do stuff for you has been running nowhere on a hamster wheel.

Yes, there are sexy, smart thermostats—for those who can afford them—that will automatically make homes toasty warm this winter before you leave work. Despite the rise of Nest, selling the general public on connected devices has not gotten much farther than smartphones and activity trackers. As seen with September’s fiscal implosion of New York-based Quirky, getting consumers onboard with the would-be Internet of Things trend is a hard sell.

There may be a way to sugar the pill—by throwing money into the mix, according to John Lunn, senior global director of developer and startup relations for PayPal and Braintree. That was the thrust of his spiel at last week’s The Next Web Conference (TWC) USA in New York.

He was not talking about more investments in such technology, though. Lunn said tying payments and order taking to the Internet of Things—in other words, semi-automated shopping—could make this technology more intrinsic to the needs of consumers.

Many devices linked to the Internet of Things, Lunn said, monitor what the user does—he believes there are additional functions they can take on. “There are devices that sit around the house, whether it’s Nest or Canary or some other thing, that are providing us information,” he said, “but I want more.”

Specifically, Lunn said there is a budding opportunity to make mundane tasks the work of connected devices. On Monday, word came via Engadget that Domino’s plans to introduce a simple button (paired with a mobile app) in December that British customers can push to place a delivery order of their favorite pizza.

It is probably just a matter of time before Domino’s Easy Order button crosses the pond to the states. Some companies in the U.S. already offer similar ordering services. Amazon has its Dash Button, which customers can use to order a resupply of select products, from baby food to coffee. And for folks who want to kick back at night and cuddle up for a bit of “Netflix and chill”—well, there is a button coming for that too.

The plans can be found online for this button people can build at home to quickly "set the mood" for a night of video viewing. (photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth)

The plans can be found online for this button people can build at home to quickly “set the mood” for a night of video viewing. (photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth)

Netflix posted plans online for The Switch. It shows customers how to build and code a button at home that mutes their smartphone, orders pizza, dims the lights, and turns on Netflix to binge-watch “Jessica Jones” (or whatever is in your queue)—all with a single push.

These one-button solutions may be sprouting up more, but Lunn said he wants the Internet of Things to go further. “I don’t even want to hit a button,” he said. “How can I get things that I own to start doing stuff for me?”

That would include making purchases without awaiting his approval. For such an idea to truly take off, he said, the masses would have to become comfortable with letting their devices make decisions for them, especially for tedious tasks. “Nobody in this room enjoys buying toilet paper,” Lunn said. “Obviously you need it, but why spend time buying it?”

So far, the masses have been reluctant to rely on the Internet of Things.

Quirky chased the idea of connected devices pretty fiercely, and spun out subsidiary Wink with its Wink Hub to control a mix of gadgets installed in smart homes. One year ago, then-CEO Ben Kaufman proclaimed we would see the demise of the thermostat. He also threw some shade at the science fiction trope of robot butlers taking care of homes in the future—believing connected devices were the way to go instead. Robot butlers may be creepy and awkward, as Kaufman put it. But smart homes have not fully materialized either.

The Wink Hub might be one of the few surviving elements from Quirky's Internet of Things ambitions. (photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth)

The Wink Hub might be one of the few surviving elements from Quirky’s Internet of Things ambitions. (photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth)

Even with General Electric as a partner in its endeavors, consumer adoption of the devices Quirky hyped, from sensors that detect flooding in homes to a smart egg tray, did not meet expectations. The company scrambled to get the public interested, but eventually had to call it quits in bankruptcy.

There were certain use-cases for the Internet of Things that Lunn did not embrace either. For instance, he said a founder from Facebook once posited the notion that in a few years, no one would use or have kitchens at home. In the proposed scenario, all meals would be delivered to people’s homes. “I could see that from a sort of crazy, California, Silicon Valley kind of world,” Lunn said. “But as a European, I actually like cooking and inviting people around.”

Meal delivery is nothing new, with or without mobile apps and connected devices, but in recent years the options have expanded, he said, to include services such as HelloFresh, which sends out weekly boxes of meal ingredients and recipes curated for the consumer. Software-based digital assistants on mobile devices could potentially learn the daily patterns of their users and automatically order meals based on the day of the week, personal tastes, and other factors, but that could be going too far, Lunn said. A more digestible plan might have the digital assistant propose ordering options to the user.

Naturally, Lunn said, PayPal could have a role to play in securely controlling the way connected devices access the user’s money—what he called giving machines permission to go shopping. It is possible today to set up an automated system to order food to be delivered, he said, but the process is neither easy nor pretty. The rapid evolution of connected devices and their software,  though, may quickly clear such hurdles. “You can get your things to start shopping for you,” Lunn said. “The question is, are you ready?”

Quirky trotted out this robot butler last year to try and prove connected devices were less creepy. The public has yet to fall in love with either idea. (photo Joao-Pierre S. Ruth)

Quirky trotted out this robot butler last year to try and prove connected devices were less creepy. The public has yet to fall in love with either idea. (photo Joao-Pierre S. Ruth)