The Singularity is Nigh

Spark Nabs $4.9 Million to Turn Your Kitchen Into ‘The Brave Little Toaster’

Soon, refrigerators and lamps will be too smart for their own good.
This is the unasumming little object that turns your anything into a Smart Anything. (Image via Spark)

This is the Spark Core, the unassuming little object that turns your anything into a Smart Anything. (Image via Spark)

Most early attempts at Internet of Things (IoT) devices, like smart cutting boards and rudimentary wearables, haven’t proven their worth enough to become as important to us as our phones and laptops. But as of this morning, IoT startup Spark has raised $4.9 million to bring us smart objects that might actually be useful.

Until now, Spark has focused on selling home kits that let you take everyday objects like lightbulbs and cutting boards and hook them up with sensors and wifi. The new cash will help Spark move on from selling one-off DIY kits to providing thousands of cores for companies that want to use Spark to power IoT products.

“The problem is how to actually bring it to market,” Spark CEO and founder Zach Supalla told Betabeat. “What are the technical challenges you face going from one of something to hundreds of thousands of them?”

The Spark Core — the chip at the heart of their connected devices — already serves as a brain for sprinkler systemsplanters and dog bowls. But the problem with many early attempts at smart home appliances is that they’re premature, rushed attempts by companies jumping on the IoT bandwagon. Spark wants to develop their cloud software to make IoT objects useful enough to actually use.

Mr. Supalla points to GE’s Brillion Oven as an example. It’s a smart oven that you can turn on and begin preheating right from your phone, which is convenient, except for the fact that you can’t use it outside your personal network. If you can only preheat an oven from your couch, you’re probably just going to get up and do it yourself every time.

This is the same problem we see with wearables like Fitbit, which people tend to abandon after the novelty wears off. In order to transcend the cool factor and become something useful, you can’t just have, for example, lightbulbs that turn on and off using a button on a phone.

“What connected lights should do is know where you are in the house, and also fade on slowly with the sunset,” Mr. Supalla said. “In order to do that, you need a system that doesn’t just respond to your phone. It has to know a few things.”

This is the phone app that lets you start speaking to your coffee table. (Image via Spark)

This is the phone app that lets you start speaking to your coffee table. (Image via Spark)

This is the next step for Spark: developing cloud software that connects IoT objects to central applications, like a swarm of worker bees controlled by a single hive mind.

“So you’d have a single cloud application with tens of thousands of connected lightbulbs — the central brain of connected products,” Mr. Supalla said. “You’d have one application running them all.”

If that evokes images of a robot dystopia where a Singularity event causes a networked artificial intelligence to dominate humanity, then we’re all on the same page. Mr. Supalla laughs at a hypothetical “Skynet” scenario, but still acknowledges the serious risk of security breaches.

“Security is paramount, Mr. Supalla said. “Everything in our system is encrypted.”

When it comes to security, Mr. Supalla says that the cloud is both the boogyman and the blessing. Spark Cores have so little on-board memory that it’d be difficult to install malware on individual devices like lightbulbs. When things are centralized in the cloud, you can update software, treat problems and keep a close eye on the system.

So once the software is safe and ready to use, what does Spark hope other companies will do with the Spark Core?

“One thing that keeps coming up in conversation on our team is that all over my house, there should be buttons to reorder things when they run out,” Mr. Supalla said. “My medicine cabinet should have a button for when I reorder deodorant and my coffeemaker should have a button for when I’m out of coffee.”

After all, once you’re in the warm embrace of the machines, and your home is as smart as can be, why leave?

Follow Jack Smith IV on Twitter or via RSS. jsmith@observer.com