Creating a smart home currently requires either linking every connected device one-by-one or adding sensor tags to old appliances to make a cohesive IoT network, but there might be an easier way. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon developed a concept for a hub that, when plugged into an electrical outlet, tracks ambient environmental data -- essentially becoming a sensor that tracks the whole space. With this in hand, savvy programmers can use it to trigger their own connected home routines.

Synthetic Sensors: Towards General-Purpose Sensing

The researchers introduced their sensor nexus -- dubbed Synthetic Sensors -- this week at ACM CHI, the human-computer interaction conference. As the video demonstrates, just plug it into a USB wall port and it automatically collects information about its surroundings, uploading it to a cloud back-end over WiFi.

Machine learning on the device parses results into recognizable events, like recognizing a particular sound pattern as "dishwasher is running" -- making them "synthetic" sensors. Folks can use them as digital triggers for other IoT behaviors. For example, one could use "left faucet on" to activate a room's left paper towel dispenser -- and automatically schedule a restock when its supply runs low.

There's one sensor missing from the device's suite, though: A camera. Its creators are sensitive to privacy issues, which is also why raw environmental data isn't uploaded to the cloud -- just the analyzed results. The Synthetic Sensor is still in a prototype phase, but it's a promising replacement for the jumble of individual tags needed to hook up old appliances or proprietary smart devices