Everyday gadgets go 'smarting' off

Regular old dumb stuff is getting smart and connected.

You can buy a backyard telescope loaded with Global Positioning System, or GPS, technology so it can point out which stars you're viewing. At one university, each parking meter has a chip and antenna so you can call it with your cell phone and buy more time.

And then there are the touch-screen sewing machines that can download images to embroider, gas station pumps that run Microsoft Windows, and shipping crates that can call their owners for help if they're lost.

A lot of technology companies focus on making computers more powerful and Internet connections faster. But a major trend is pushing in another direction -- toward getting cheap computer chips and limited networking capabilities into products that never used to have such technology. It lets companies turn commodity products into premium products that cost more and stand out in the marketplace.
The trend is analogous to the electrification of products 100 years ago, when inventors found ways to use that technology to change everyday items. Hand-turned drills became power drills. Iceboxes became refrigerators. The same thing is happening now, but with computer chips and tiny radio transmitters.

And there's a fascinating twist this time: When you add information and communications to a product, it doesn't just improve that product -- it allows that product to become part of a network. Which means those products can talk to other products, or to Web sites, or to you through your cell phone or PC -- creating layer upon layer of new possibilities.

The parking meters, for instance, are at the University of California, Santa Barbara. IBM devised the system and will try to sell it to other campuses and cities. In the near future, a "smart,'' networked parking meter might be able to talk to all the other parking meters in the neighborhood and feed that information to a Web site. That way, as you drive to an area looking for a place to park, your cell phone could tap the parking Web site and display a map showing open spaces.

You might even be able to push a button and reserve a space. The meter could flash a "reserved'' sign and refuse to accept payment from any other cell phone for five minutes. After that, you'd lose the space.

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