A year ago, two MIT Media Lab graduates raised half a million dollars on Kickstarter to create Twine, a cigarette-pack-sized chunk of Internet magic that promised to turn any object in your home into a web-connected, interactive "smart product." Want your basement pipes to send you a text message when they’re in danger of freezing up, or your garage door to ping you if you forget to close it? No problem: With Twine, building your own personal "Internet of things" is supposed to be easier than programming a VCR. And now that the product is available for purchase, it looks like creators John Kestner and David Carr have very nearly delivered on that ambitious promise.
How do you get a non-hacker to even understand a device like Twine? With product design that would make Steve Jobs proud. Kestner, who studied industrial design as an undergraduate, tells Co.Design that "we wanted to wrap the functionality in something that didn’t read as an electronic object." Twine is packed with sensors that detect temperature, moisture, and position, but it’s as light, small, and unassuming as a pack of gum. "It’s just a solid chunk of connectivity," Kestner says. "We settled on elastomer [for the outer case]—it feels great to the touch, and reads as durable, friendly, and decidedly non-electronic."
But Twine is also intriguingly mysterious: Flip the rubbery, featureless box over on its back and two instructions reveal themselves: "Place this side up," and "go to Twinesetup.com." From there, configuring Twine feels like an adventure instead of a chore. Wow, it just connected to the Web by itself … Now a little light is turning on … Whoa, now I can see an image of it in my Web browser, sensing the temperature … What will this thing do next?
Building this sense of wonder and delight right out of the box is essential to making Twine feel useful. If you think of it as a little magic box that can do anything—kind of like a Swiss Army knife crossed with a Tamagotchi—you’re more likely to find its open-ended possibilities inspiring instead of intimidating. After all, there’s no instruction manual. Once your Twine is set up, the dashboard in your Web browser invites you to set up "rules" (which are actually simple programs) for telling it what to do. I just moved into a new house with a cold basement office, so I used the simple drop-down menus to program my Twine to send me a text message saying "Get a space heater, doofus" whenever the temperature drops below 70°.
But you can get much more creative than that. Twine’s forums are already filling up with clever ideas from other users. My favorite: A parent who uses Twine’s magnetic switch to send him an alert if the kids break into the closet where their Christmas presents are hidden.
That’s Twine’s real genius: its complete non-jetpackiness. It doesn’t look or feel futuristic. Hell, it’s hard to distinguish it from the average garage door opener. Which makes it so much easier to imagine its capabilities—which are undeniably futuristic—actually becoming the new normal.