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Turn your dumb speakers into a smart connected sound system

A new generation of IoT devices will inexpensively upgrade your dumb tech.

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Between a future in which every device will be connected and a near past in which none were, there is the murky present. Some of our stuff is smart, but most of it is still dumb.

Typically, new technologies replace old technologies, and it takes a technological generation for that happen. But one of the big potentials of IoT is that cheap add-on sensors can make "dumb" devices smart, essentially upgrading them for a connected world.

A San Francisco startup called iothinks is the latest to try to bridge the gap. The audiophiles behind the company started with a question: What separates a regular sound system from a smart sound system? In essence, the answer is a tiny computer and some Wi-Fi. Their solution is a small connected module that plugs into any standard audio system, giving users the sound features of a modern smart home without replacing a single speaker.

We're starting to see lots of inexpensive solutions that follow a similar "upgrade it" philosophy. Devices like Neurio and Smappee can be installed inside the breaker box in a house or apartment to monitor energy usage. Over time the devices learn to recognize the electronic signature of appliances and electronics, which helps you track usage.

Your car is also primed for an upgrade. Chances are your car has some smarts, but it's probably not ready to take on IBM's Watson in a trivia showdown. Enter the OBD dongle. Startups like Zubie, Mojio and Automatic take data from the car's OBD port (if your car was made anytime in the last couple decades, it'll have one) and derives insights about things like driving patterns, fuel consumption, and vehicle well-being for the driver. The dongles cost around $100.

And of course there are all kinds of solutions to turn basic TVs into internet surfing smart machines.

One reason a smart upgrade for an old sound system is so appealing is that lots of older gear is still considered world class. iothinks, which is up on Kickstarter today for $111, works by outputting to standard audio formats, like optical cables and traditional headphone jacks, while simultaneously communicating with your phone, the Internet, and other smart devices over Wi-Fi.

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As result, iothinks can stream music from many different sources, like a phone, streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and SoundCloud, or podcasts. Users control it all with the iothinks app.

A smartphone and a cheap Bluetooth receiver provide some of that functionality, but iothinks does some things that beefier smart devices like Amazon's Echo do. For example, it has a voice for reading notifications, emails, the Sunday paper, or anything else its user would like to hear.

As it learns more about you, iothinks also begins to cleverly anticipate needs, playing just the right song or flagging timely information without being prompted. It'll read weather alerts shortly before a user leaves for work each day, say, or arrange an evening playlist based on a user's favorite wind-down music. Users can also override this and customize their own behavior instead.

And if there's one thing smart device manufacturers love, it's giving you way too many options for controlling your house's lighting scheme. iothinks can play music to a matching light show by syncing with smart lights like Philips HUE.

It also works with IFTTT, a popular web interface that lets users create custom interactions with many other smart devices like Google Nest, Belkin WeMo and August Smart Locks. Developers can go further to create their own programs with the iothinks API.

iothinks expects units to ship in November. The Kickstarter campaign will run until April 5.