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Appcessories: real-world accessories controlled by your smartphone

New appcessories bridge the gap between cyberspace and ‘meatspace', turning smartphones into universal controllers. But can it last?
Your smartphone can fly a copter but can it roast your Sunday joint? Er... yes

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You can now sell a thing without including a controller

A new phrase entered my techie lexicon recently via my younger daughter — 'meatspace'. It means the real, physical world, the opposite of cyberspace. She said everyone's been using it for, like, weeks, although my techie entrepreneur son, who's an old man of, like, 31, had never heard of it. It turns out, if I may be erudite for a moment, to have been coined in 1984, along with cyberspace, by William Gibson in Neuromancer (thank you, Wikipedia). And since 2000, it's even been in the OED, which is, like, 139 (says the same fine source).

Anyway, I love the idea of meatspace, aka 'meat world'. There's a whole new category of product that's formed out of the mist over the past year. It's called the app-enabled accessory, or appcessory, which is a meatspace product — a thing in a box as opposed to an app — but which has an essential part missing, namely your phone or tablet, which works as a universal controller for all your appcessories, by way of simple apps you download when you buy the product. 

Just look at the new App-Enabled Accessories section on both the online and meatspace Apple stores to see what I mean. You can now sell a thing, which might be a blood pressure gauge, a golf swing meter, a sleep aid, a game, a toy, a baby monitor, a sound mixer or a thousand other handy gadgets, without including a controller or an interface for the user, and, although the thing is incomplete, everybody cheers because everybody has a smartphone (in the appcessory world, usually an iPhone, occasionally an Android but rarely both) with them all the time, so it's more convenient and, hence, a win-win for both manufacturer and consumer. Appcessories are a big, growing sector for energetic young companies. There are even appcessory exhibitions — one is called Appletics.

I give talks all over the world these days on the history of futurology and the lessons that can be drawn from it on how we predict developments today. One of my tenets is that the future is always a straight-line extrapolation of what we have now — there's almost never anything truly new — but crucially, there's always a twist. It's never quite what we expect. The appcessory is a prime example of that twist. Just as we expected of the future, we have hundreds of new gadgets to do useful jobs — but they are all controlled via the same pocket radio-phone-computer. 

Who'd have thought? And that there would be so many of them? Among the appcessories that have arrived for review at the time of writing: the Focusrite iTrack Solo Mic Preamp, £130 (focusrite.com), which turns your iPad into a recording studio; Philips Hue app-controlled lightbulbs, £180 for starter pack (meethue.com), a set of app-controlled lightbulbs for your house; the iGrill Bluetooth cooking thermometer, £75 (igrillinc.com), which transmits the temperature of your Sunday joint to your iPhone; the MyZeo Personal Sleep Coach, £120 (myzeo.co.uk), to monitor and improve sleep patterns via your phone; and the Smart Control model helicopter, £55 (highlifeshop.com), flown remotely from your iPhone.

Interestingly, no sooner has the app-enabled product emerged than the more head-banging form of futurist is saying it's already on the way out. As a Wired writer says, "We need a new paradigm, something which breaks out of our long love affair [ie about 18 months] with apps." The tide of smart gadgets, the argument runs, has barely begun, and soon we will be interacting with hundreds of them every hour, from parking meters to film posters, so our phones will be overflowing with apps, and we will need a new one-size-fits-all gadget to unify the flow of information from all these interconnected things. This, it is said, could be smart, internet-connected, augmented reality glasses, about which I'm sceptical because, to the frustration of the more militant futurist, people hate anything that hints at them being turned into cyborgs. Anyway, if one thing's for sure, the discussion is to be continued. 

Jonathan Margolis's daily tech updates can be seen at twitter.com/SimplyBestTech.

Lucy Thackray

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