Surprising Ways That Everyday Products Are Getting "Smarter"

When it comes to technology, “smart” is the new black: there are smart phones, smart cars, smart billboards, smart meters, smart grids, smart traffic lights. Everywhere you look, previously limited objects are getting hooked up with a microchip and some custom coding and becoming more interactive, more useful and sometimes more green.

For example, smarts are being embedded into billboards so that the content of ads can change based on who is looking at it. In October in Tokyo, electronics giant NEC made headlines worldwide when it debuted billboards that use facial recognition to figure out the ages, gender and ethnicity of individuals in the crowd so it can tailor ads accordingly.

Click HereLikewise, IBM is working on several types of smart billboards. One uses RFID readers to scan for data in the wallets of people in a crowd. The billboard reads smart credit cards and cell phones to discover gender, age and shopping preferences, using that data to present tailored ads, similar to the mall scene in the movie Minority Report. The company has also already demonstrated smart billboards that alter themselves based on color recognition technology.

Smart power meters are another area where intelligence can have a huge payback. The smart meter tells the home owner things like peak usage and least efficient appliances. Smart meters can often be accessed over the Web or by a smart thermostat. Home owners can then change their habits and automate tasks. They can, for instance, program their homes to automatically dim lights or turn off heating or cooling based on a variety of metrics.

Get enough smart meters together and put the corresponding microelectronic smarts at the power plant and in the turbines, and you have yourself a smart grid. Today's electrical grid was the engineering marvel of the last century. The grid tries to keep itself at the ready to supply power whenever someone flips a switch. But smarter monitoring and load balancing is needed because today the world wastes enough electricity annually to power India, Germany and Canada combined, IBM says.

Smarter traffic lights, combined with smart cars and smart phones may one day soon solve one of the banes of modern living, the traffic jam. Most traffic lights have sensors but they could do more. BMW recently was involved in a trial program where networked smart traffic lights communicated with its smart cars. The lights told the cars about traffic congestion so the cars could kick in the anti-idling feature and conserve fuel. The lights could also adjust their timing to better move traffic around the city.

As every day objects grow smarter and communicate with consumers and each other in novel ways, solutions to seemingly impossible problems arise. And that's nothing short of brilliant. 

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