Inside the French Postal Service's IoT God Mode

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LAS VEGAS—"Voyeur" is a French word, but surely it means the same thing in France as it does here, right? No respectable business would want to be associated with it, I always assumed, least of all a postal service.

But as I trudged up a flight of stairs at CES here on Friday afternoon with a code unscrambling filter in my hand, I realized how wrong I was.

My destination was a movie theater built into the booth of La Poste, the French postal service. This was no ordinary theater, though. The screen was embedded in the booth's floor, and the audience stood on a catwalk above it, looking down through the rectangular filters that we were given on the way in. Almost immediately after the movie started, it was clear that this was going to be the most unique thing I experienced all week, even at a trade show known for its quirks.

The film was designed to present La Poste's vision of the connected home and the Internet of Things (IoT), called simply Le hub numérique (Connected Hub). La Poste is fully aware of ZigBee and Amazon Alexa and all of the other devices and services that can make smart home products talk to each other, but its vision is far grander: the postal service wants to build another layer of integration on top of all of the competing protocols that can unify every single consumer IoT device and control everything through a single app. In other words, it wants to create an IoT God mode.

The movie I was watching provided a practical demonstration of La Poste's ambition. It's filmed entirely with a camera angle perpendicular to the ground, so all you see are the tops of the heads of a French family as they go about their day. Each time they interact with an electronic device, from a video game console to an alarm clock to a PC at the father's office cubicle, a little blurb of text appears next to them, explaining what data their device is sending to the Connected Hub. The refrigerator, for instance, sends the expiration date of the milk within it, while the lamps shows how many hours remain until a bulb burns out.

But here's the rub: all of the text blurbs in the movie are scrambled, which means if you want to read them to understand what data a device is sending, you have to hold your rectangular decoder over it. The metaphor is unmistakable, though quite clever: La Poste is positioning its Connected Hub app as the missing piece of the puzzle that lets you get the information broadcast from every IoT device in one place. (La Poste did not discuss what it's doing to protect users' data, though the app has a fairly standard privacy policy).

The concept is not new, of course. Amazon has the same goal with Alexa, as does Google with its Assistant. But as the movie came to a close, I couldn't help but feel that the software engineers at the French postal service, of all companies, had nailed the concept of the connected home better than any demonstration I've seen. Even though the app is still in its early stages, it can already display an immense variety of data. Assuming you have the requisite sensors, it can show your home's energy consumption, monitor your physical activity, alert you if the ambient air quality is unhealthy, close your windows, and turn any device that's connected to a smart electrical outlet on or off.

You can do many of these things with third-party Alexa skills, but you can't visualize it all in one place—you'd have to ask Alexa to read you that information once you get home. (Although that will be changing with the Huawei Mate 9, the first smartphone with Alexa built in). Let's face it, home automation is mostly for nerdy enthusiasts, and it's much more efficient to browse data from dozens of sensors and devices in a smartphone app than by asking Alexa.

One problem with the Connected Hub is familiar to any emerging technology: it requires device manufacturers to get on board. Right now, there are a few big names in the IoT space that support it, like Withings smart scales, Fitbit fitness trackers, Netatmo cameras and weather stations, and even Parrot drones. All of these were on display outside La Poste's CES theater, and spokespeople I talked to eagerly espoused their admiration for the Connected Hub concept.

The far bigger problem for Americans, though, has nothing to do with technology. It's simply the fact that this is the brainchild of the French post office, which obviously only operates in France. Can you imagine the United States Postal Service coming up with an idea like the Connected Hub? I can't. The difference is partly due to the fact that La Poste is semi-privatized, so it has an obligation to its shareholders to make money. It's also due to what Axelle Lemaire, France's minister of digital affairs, described as the "ethos of French innovation."

"Data culture is very strong in France," she said during an interview at CES. "It's finally cool to be an entrepreneur."

And as La Poste demonstrated, apparently it's also cool to add a little voyeurism to your entrepreneurship.

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