Electrical outlets are practically begging to be forgotten. They’re often discreetly tucked into corners, hidden behind furniture, or buried beneath a tangle of cords few dare to touch. They’re commodities that, like so many other objects deserving of that title, are only remembered when they aren’t around — otherwise they simply accept your laptop chargers and television cords and air fresheners before disappearing once again. Modern life would be a whole lot dumber without these basic outlets, but the objects themselves are about as “smart” as the candle wax they helped replace.
That’s starting to change. Companies like Belkin have been developing “smart” outlets like the WeMo Switch, which can connect to the Web and control electrical flow based on myriad external stimuli, while others, such as LivingPlug, have developed products like INLET that are just smart enough to make sure your kids don’t get electrocuted when they shove paperclips and forks into your walls. Your outlets might become just a little bit smarter after all.
“Perhaps our biggest goal, in a way, is that we want people to realize that the outlet is more than just the duplex,” says INLET co-creator Sam Leichman. “It can be more useful and it can add more to the living environment.” INLET is the first step towards Leichman’s and his partner Charley Curran’s attempts to build a smarter outlet, and currently focuses on child safety features and the ability to mitigate “phantom energy loss” caused by devices drawing energy when they aren’t in use. It’s not quite as smart as the WeMo product line, but it’s not quite the dullard you’re used to, either.
Though Leichman hopes that INLET will change the way people think of their electrical outlets — his goal is to make it so that “just as you wouldn’t think about having a cellphone without a case, you wouldn’t think about having an outlet without a cover” — he notes that such a change isn’t likely to happen in his lifetime. There are simply too many buildings with traditional outlets, too many people who don’t care enough to replace them with a smarter solution, and too little attention given to electrical outlets in order for there to be a large change. Duplex outlets have been good enough for over a century — you can’t just flip a switch and make them go away. Pun intended.
Which leaves Belkin, LivingPlug, and every other company hoping to work with electrical outlets with just one option: Creating literal “plug-and-play” products that build atop traditional outlets without being able to replace them. While other companies hoping to bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds are hoping to move beyond their own hardware and focus on building cloud-based platforms, companies working with electrical outlets will be forced to remain accessories for the foreseeable future. It’s fitting that a category meant to turn the Internet into “the new electricity,” as Berg CEO Matt Webb puts it, is unable to use the Internet to improve its counterpart.
But that doesn’t mean that electrical outlets are doomed to remain neglected in the dark. Like smart locks and connected light bulbs, these accessories are trying to bring commoditized devices to the forefront once again. You probably don’t care about your locks, or your light bulbs, or your electrical outlets until they stop working — companies working to improve those objects are hoping that they can make ’em just smart enough that they’ll be worth offering your attention. I’d say that they’re trying to “illuminate commodities,” or “unlock the future,” or “spark change,” but that’d just come off as trite, wouldn’t it? So I’ll just leave it at this:
These companies are trying to build excitement for objects that have been afterthoughts for an incredibly long time. While that might not be as exciting as making a cuckoo clock react to tweets, it’s certainly worth at least a bit of attention.