Upgrading to a Wifi-Enabled Life

19 Oct 2013 • Estimated reading time ~ 8 min

Hardware is the new frontier for startups, as rapid prototyping technology has become more accessible to individuals. Microcontrollers are becoming accessible to web programmers. Ninja Blocks integrates sensors particularly for the home that will makes it easy to connect devices together and online. CAD something, upload it online, and have a three-dimensional prototype at your door. The Internet also makes it easier to outsource manufacturing, although that world is certainly a mystery to someone who's primarily worked in digital products. Kickstarter and Indiegogo have become places for the more promising projects to be funded by other individuals, and enable entrepreneurs to get capital without having to go to a VC. As internet-enabled devices are pretty easy to create with either WiFi or using a cell network, and the era of the smartphone that will be the control for everything around you has finally arrived, both entrepreneurs and larger manufacturers are taking notice. One of the first problems people are apt to take notice of is how most appliances at home aren't all too smart.

Lighting is one of the first things we've seen to become internet-enabled. My apartment has mostly Philips Hue LED bulbs, which are also sold at Apple stores as accessories for your tablet or smartphone. From my iPhone, I can control my lights-- not only turn them on/off, but adjust colors and dim them as needed. Coupled with IFTTT, the lights turn blue when it's going to rain and I like them on a bit after sunset-- there are ton of other recipes that you can put together or use for your own home. The only problem is that it does confuse housesitters, so we had to put together a guide to our apartment, which hopefully isn't as pretentious as it sounds. Other alternatives in this space include LIFX, which made waves a few years ago when it was able to raise $1.3 million through Kickstarter. iLumi is similarly backed by Kickstarter, though at a smaller magnitude, and is via Bluetooth. [Insteon]'s9 been around, dimming lightbulbs from iOS and Android devices for a while now. I'm sure you can find an alternative for your own particular problems around lighting.

Sonte's tackling controlling your windows-- not through automated blinds, which we've seen in various hacks and more expensive installations, but through a film over your windows. which you can control through your phone. They've been Kickstartered in June, and hopefully will be shipping soon (to my place, please!). You can also put them over mirrors as well, and create projection surfaces wherever. Why have a TV if you can get a pretty awesome projector? The Hulu and Netflix diet is already pretty horrendous.

Of course, Japan's obsession with toilets has given way to creating various autonomous toilets with lots of buttons and switches. The next step, obviously, is a Bluetooth-enabled toilet called Satis that you can control with your Android device-- though this is sold in the U.S. and sounds amazing. However, it seems just a tad over my price range for a toilet and has been reported to be hackable. Prime for April fool's, I suppose.

Though I don't have a Satis in my bathroom, I definitely have a [Withings scale] that gives me data on how my body's doing. Withings now has a more extensive line that includes a blood pressure monitor, baby monitor, and an activity tracker to empower you with data to help you. Their app works pretty well, and I love how everything works together fairly seamlessly without too much help. Nest's thermostat is one of the most beautiful thermostats that I've ever seen, and would love to outfit my home with them, but I currently live in a place with 4 thermostats. At $250 a piece, that's a pretty penny to upgrade. I love that it learns from how you just easily use it to figure out a schedule, instead of having to fiddle with programming the various thermostats. Nest also recently launched a smoke and carbon dioxide alarm which looks pretty sweet considering the alarm system that I'm stuck with. Moving onto the kitchen where that smoke alarm would be of most use, I recently am eying this cutting board that can help you portion out ingredients for your cooking from Sharp. It doesn't seem like it's ready for mass-market yet, but it would be a shiny addition to my kitchen. I'm a bit more ambivalent about a Milkmaid in my fridge, to let me know when the milk's gone bad-- I'm not sure how useful it'd be. Seems like a fun crowdsourced product though, by Quirky and GE. I've heard of bands that would go around jugs and other containers to judge how much things are used via accelerometer and other sensors, and I can easily reorder or see on my phone how much I have left.

I absolutely love my Sonos in the kitchen, living room... pretty much anywhere. yes, that includes the bathroom. There are other competitors in this space, such as Bose who just recently announced their SoundTouch system. I've tried daisy-chaining my Jamboxes, and took a look at Squeezebox (before it was discontinued), but Sonos does everything I want well: playlists combining Spotify, Hype Machine, my Apple library, and tons of other sources, playing to one or multiple speakers simultaneously, waking me up with music or a scheduled daily dance party, and playing my record player or AppleTV throughout the apartment. Mind, it's a pricey investment on some decent speakers, but you can also enable your own set of speakers through a Connect, and the system's relatively flexible for your own setup. There's also a pretty fierce battle along the control-everything lines. Usually this means a connector between your device and the plug, such as Belkin's WeMo switches that you can control from their apps. WeMo also created light switches, motion detectors, baby monitors, and obviously will continue creating modules that make sense to monitor your energy use as well as provide convenience. I'm also excited for Smart Power Strip to be Kickstarted soon. One of the bigger creators of entire home automation systems is Crestron, which now has apps to control more specialized devices. Fibaro is also in this space along with a bunch of others, but it can also use GPS to trigger certain things like your heating system.

A bit more low-tech and outside your home, but fairly cool, is [Outbox]. When I was traveling a bit more, I used this awesome service to get my mail and scan it for me. I know, it sounds crazy. But it was nice to not worry about missing mail when I was away, and it was easy to request pieces of mail that I wanted or advertisements that weren't scanned. I desperately want USPS to partner with them, so mail wouldn't even have to be sent to my apartment and maybe they wouldn't run such a deficit.

To secure all of this tech, we've had cameras for quite a while. For a mobile-enabled generation, Piper looks like a beautiful app coupled with a camera and environmental sensors to let you know if things have changed or if it's detected audial or motion changes. Of course, that is subject to the actual security behind the tech, though I'm not quite sure who would want to steal my stuff.

Giving access to certain people is still important, and I preordered a Lockitron ages ago. At my current place though, it doesn't fit any of the locks. So I had to cancel my order. It was pretty sad, considering it would be awesome to give access to friends or family when I'm out of town or just out at lunch. You can also take revoke access. I also loved the idea of their bundle with Doorbot, though I don't know if that promotion's going on anymore. Doorbot would show you who is at your door, so you could open the Lockitron if they didn't have a smartphone or what not.

It's quite clear that phones are the access points to control things around you, at least in the United States, anyway. Of course, this dynamic could change in other markets, where phone usage differs. It feels like a long time coming, and I'm so excited to see what else comes in this ripe market for really interesting products to make my life easier. The confluence of home automation and the sharing economy will make things almost as easy as a full household staff taking care of you... or at least accessible to more people than it ever has been before. This may be a shiny market and moment for startups, but the end goal is to really help clear more time so people can focus on creating things and hopefully advance humankind by doing other things.