The smart home is up there with flying cars and wearable computers in the future tech pantheon, but home automation is still mostly the province of the mega rich and the uber techie. Consumer electronics companies have made some half-hearted efforts at making our appliances smarter in the last few years—pretty much every TV now comes with some hellish YouTube browser, and Samsung, for example, makes a washer and dryer set that you can control with a smartphone app—but for the most part, home automation is a category that’s brutally technical, hopelessly fragmented, and, above all, really expensive. SmartThings, a startup that recently blew past its $250,000 Kickstarter goal, is aiming to let consumers make their current stuff smarter with a range of low-powered, smartphone-controlled sensors. And they’re aiming to do it for cheap.
The company, founded earlier this year, has taken on the noble but ambitious mission of bringing home automation into the smartphone age, combining cheap sensors and slick apps to make a smart stuff platform that you don’t need a computer science degree to figure out. Each SmartThings system is based around a hub that you connect to the cloud via your router (a cellular version is also in the works), as well as a slew of sensors that monitor things like motion, moisture, and temperature and smart plugs that can regulate power to lamps, blenders, and other appliances. Those sensors, in conjunction with a host of mini-applications, dubbed SmartApps, let you not only monitor your home remotely, but also program it to behave certain ways in certain situations.
Here are a few examples: Outfit your bed with a SmartThings accelerometer, and, when it recognizes you’re up for the morning, it can tell the smart plug attached to the coffee maker to turn on the juice, starting your pot of joe before you’ve even set a slipper’d foot into the kitchen. Put that same accelerometer in your mailbox, and you can get a notification on your phone the minute the day’s haul has come in. Attach a moisture sensor to your pet’s water bowl and you can know when it’s empty, or fix a tiny location tag to its collar and you’ll get an alert when it leaves the yard. These are just a few of the automations the company already has SmartApps for.
The effect of all this low-threshold automation, the company’s founders explained to me, is something of a revelation. "After you’re exposed to it for a few days, you start to suddenly see all the offline objects in your world with this sort of newly critical eye," Alex Hawkinson, one of the founders told me. "You look at your front door and say, 'My god, this has been a piece of wood since the Middle Ages.'"
As Hawkinson suggests, your smart home can get even smarter when you pair SmartThings with current off-the-shelf home automation gear. The platform’s being designed to work with connected door locks, thermostats, smoke alarms and more, right out of the box. And this type of blanket functionality is crucial for smart, simple home automation. "Consumers won’t want little individual apps for every little thing in their lives," Hawkinson rightly says. "It’s much more powerful when you can yolk those all together into one environment."
In one example of how the cloud-connected SmartThings platform could be used to not just program off-the-shelf devices but do so intelligently, Hawkinson offered a vision of a sprinkler system that is scheduled to go off on certain days—unless the weather forecast predicted rain with some certainty, in which case the sprinklers would skip that day and let mother nature do the watering instead. This type of conditional programming is what’s most exciting about SmartThings; if they get it right, the platform has the potential to be a sort of IFTTT for everyday stuff.
But it wasn’t really a yearning for a breakfast-making, intelligently sprinkling super house that gave SmartThings its start. It was a much more mundane (and familiar) domestic problem: frozen pipes.
Hawkinson was at his cabin in the mountains, he told me, which had lost power, causing all the plumbing to freeze and the pipes to burst. He was sitting there on the floor with a hacked-together temperature sensor and an ethernet cable, and he thought there must be a better way. "I had this a-ha moment: Everyone’s carrying smartphones, and there’s plenty of bandwidth in the air, so why can’t these individual things, like the temperature sensor and a lot more—why can’t they be directly connected to the Internet?" Thus Smart Things was born.
And the pet lovers and coffee drinkers of the world seem to be ready for it. Nearly 3,000 backers have currently pledged over $550,000 to the project on KickStarter, and there are still 17 days left in the campaign.
Most of the pledge packages are sort of starter kits that will give users the central SmartThings hub and a handful of sensors to work with—$150 or $200 packages with enough sensors to endow one or maybe two dumb devices with smartphone-age intelligence. And for some users, it’s likely that a single device (or, more specifically, a single pet peeve about a single device), is all the automation they’ll need. James Stolp, one of the team’s founding designers, says that SmartThings is perfectly suited for tackling the "discrete daily problems" and "points of friction" in our everyday lives, without requiring a huge investment or significant technical know-how.
But one of the most exciting prospects about SmartThings is just how cheap it is to scale up. Once you’ve got your hub set up, additional sensors only cost around $25 or $30 a piece. Eschewing the power-hungry Wi-Fi for a secure, low-power mesh networking standard called ZigBee, SmartThings sensors can run on a single watch battery for a few years—even while checking in with the central hub every 10 minutes or so. The sensors have a range of a few hundred feet on their own, Hawkinson told me, but each individual sensor automatically acts as a repeater for your SmartThings network, so you can easily bring your whole house in the fold, from basement to attic—and the sensors are cheap enough that you could actually do so. Of course, no true smart house would be complete without a futuristic control panel, and to this end, SmartThings just announced that they’re teaming up with Instacube, a digital photo frame for Instagram (and another huge Kickstarter success), to let the Android-powered cube act as an additional interface for creating and monitoring automations.
Things like monitoring pipes and dimming lights are definitely useful, and for some people those conveniences will be enough to make SmartThings attractive. But the team understands that this combination of cheap sensors and easy-to-use apps could engender an explosion of new ways for people to interact with their stuff. To that end, the team has made SmartThings an open platform, letting tinkerers come up with their own connected devices and allowing them to design their own SmartApps for controlling them.
During last month’s summer Olympics, one of the makers who’s been working with the company in these early stages built a device that shows how far SmartThings can stray from the strictly utilitarian. The Patriotic Party Machine scanned the Internet for U.S. medal wins, and poured a shot of liquor depending on the achievement (Goldschlager for a gold medal, Jose Cuervo for silver, and Jack Daniels for bronze). The rig also hoisted a flag and played the national anthem whenever a medal was earned, for good measure.
These types of fun applications are an essential part of the SmartThings platform, the team explained. "One of the things we’re really seeing," Stolp told me, "is that it’s not just the practical devices [people are excited about]. Once somebody can actually program the physical world, it becomes this emotional connection with stuff you already have a connection to—but now you can talk to it."
The trick, of course, will be making good on their plug-and-play promise. "The magic is going to be making this all super elegant and easy to use for a regular consumer," Hawkinson told me, and he’s exactly right. This sort of thing lives and dies with out-of-the-box ease of use, and only time will tell if they can deliver. But that time isn’t all that far away; the company says they’re currently entering the certification phase for their hardware and are on track to start sending Kickstarter supporters gear as soon as December. Just in time to automate the Christmas lights.
You can read more, or put some money down for a starter kit, over on the SmartThings Kickstarter page.