The Internet of Things Is So Easy, We Built Our Own

A simple "Internet of Things" machine can tell where in the world is Barack Obama.

A simple "Internet of Things" machine can tell where in the world is Barack Obama. Carolyn Kaster/AP

For less than $100, we built a Barack Obama Detector for your desk.

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"The Internet of Things." I love this phrase; it seems simultaneously simple and impossibly high tech. "Big Data," another hot topic of our day, sounds as unapproachable as it probably is. But the Internet of Things has a beguiling DIY feeling about it.

In last week's National Journal magazine, Brendan Sasso wrote about the rise of Internet-connected appliances and household objects , outlining some of the security concerns coming to light as these devices become more popular.

As an amateur electronics nerd, I wanted to show another side of this technology—that far from being the sole province of Silicon Valley, Internet Things are easy to build yourself, at your own kitchen table.

Last year, I bought an Arduino, a small computer about the size of a deck of cards. First developed in Italy in 2005, the Arduino (and successors such as the Raspberry Pi) have brought what I like to call "disposable computing" to the masses.

They're so cheap—about $25 for the basic model— that you can afford to buy one, program it to do exactly one task, and set it loose without tying up a more expensive computer such as your laptop. People have used Arduinos to put on Christmas light shows , make cute printers and build power outlets that tweet energy usage .

To show how easy it is to make a new Internet Thing, I set out to build something politics-related: A President Obama Detector that sits on your desk.

Essentially, this device had to A) divine the president's location, probably through his public schedule; and B) communicate this visually to the user.

All in all, assembly took about an hour, although I spent some time beforehand setting up the remote server. My materials included an Arduino Uno , an Arduino Ethernet shield , a bunch of 10mm diffused white LEDs and a box kindly donated by National Journal graphic artist Libby Isenstein .

See—not so hard!