Life in 2020: Your smartphone will do your laundry

vitality.top.jpgVitality's pill caps, on display at Mobile World Congress, include wireless chips that track whether you've taken your medications -- and e-mail you reminders. By David Goldman, staff writer


BARCELONA, Spain (CNNMoney) -- By the end of this decade, your smartphone will park your car, make you toast, and, yes, it will do your laundry.

We probably still won't have flying cars in 10 years, but your pills will tell you when to take them, your home will save you money on your electric bill, and your tea kettle will let your kids know you're okay.

The reason: embedded connectivity.

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, companies like IBM (IBM, Fortune 500), Qualcomm (QCOMM), AT&T (T, Fortune 500) and Ericsson showed off their vision of a not-too-distant future in which every item in your life, from your refrigerator to your fridge magnets, will soon connect to the Internet or communicate other Internet-connected gizmos.

Here's how it would work: Electric devices like washing machines, thermostats and televisions will be manufactured with chips that allow them to wirelessly connect to the Internet. Non-electric items will either come with low-energy, Bluetooth-like transmitters that can send information to an Internet-connected hub or radio frequency identification (RFID) tags that can be sensed by Internet-connected near-field communication (NFC) readers.

Think that's crazy? It's already happening. On the market today, there are televisions that can be set to record shows from a smartphone, pill bottles that make phone calls and clothing with RFID tags. IBM developed software that currently controls 1,500 completely connected homes around the world.

"What we're doing is creating the Facebook of devices," said IBM Director of Consumer Electronics Scott Burnett. "Everything wants to be its friend, and then it's connected to the network of your other device. For instance, your electric car will want to 'friend' your electric meter, which will 'friend' the electric company."

Your typical morning in 2020

The possible uses for this kind of ubiquitous connectivity are too long to list. So, just based on the products displayed at Mobile World Congress as well as a similar near-future-minded connected home experience set up by Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) at its Redmond, Wash., headquarters, let's envision your typical morning in 10 years.

You wake up and check your smartphone. It tells you to wear your blue suit because it knows you have a meeting, and it correctly guesses that your gray suit is at the cleaners, because your home's RFID sensors aren't picking it up.

You make tea, like you do every morning, so your teapot sends a signal to your phone, which texts your children that you made tea, letting them know that you're doing fine.

Since your home knows you're brewing tea, it thinks that now is a good time to remind you to take your pills. It sends a message to your phone, you take your pills, and your pill bottle sends a message to a wireless hub that you took them. That's available now: On the Mobile World Congress expo floor, AT&T showed off the Vitality pill bottles that send data over its network. If you forget to take your pills, your pill bottle can e-mail you a reminder.

As you're preparing to leave, your smartphone tells you to wear a coat, because it's cold outside, and it tells you to get a move on, because the traffic is bad on the highway. Since your home knows your typical routine, when you close your door, your lights automatically turn off, your shades go down, your thermostat turns the temperature down and your car starts up.

Your car tells you to take the local streets because of bad traffic on the highway. And since it knows you were up late last night (your TV said you were watching Leno -- who's still on in 2020, by the way), your car orders your regular latte at a Starbucks along the way. As you approach your meeting location, your car reserves a parking spot for you at your local garage.

What needs to happen first

Though this kind of morning is already possible -- and beginning to happen -- for a small number of people, there are a number of obstacles in the way to making this a reality for everyone.

First and foremost, prices need to come down. NFC and RFID devices are quite cheap, but some of the transmitters and receivers necessary to, say, tell you when it's time to water your plants are prohibitive.

And just because Home Depot (HD, Fortune 500) is selling a washer/dryer set that's Internet-connected doesn't mean you'll shell out the $3,000 you'll need to buy them when your non-connected washer/dryer works just fine. Get that to $1,000, and you might think about it.

It also needs to be convenient for people to use. Right now, it's possible to set your DVR, lock your car doors, and order a coffee from your phone, but you need separate apps for all those tasks. But a universal app would get messy in a hurry: How do you find the button to play your stereo? Intelligent search and user interfaces will need to be developed.

Privacy, of course, is a concern, and the data connections will need to be secure enough to convince people to share literally everything about themselves in the cloud.

Lastly, there's that issue of openness: Will your Apple TV will connect with an Android smartphone?

But if and when everything does come together, the future -- previewed this week in Barcelona -- is looking pretty cool. To top of page

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