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  • 09.16.15

CUJO Is More Than A Web Security Avatar—It’s Part Of The Next Wave Of Emotive Tech

“There’s a desire in the design world for emotion and a little bit more humanity,” says Max Burton, principal at Matter.

In some ways, using a guard dog as a nom de guerre for a connected security device makes perfect sense. A canine sentry keeps a watchful eye and will howl and snarl if a burglar enters your home, alerting you to a potential threat. Physical intruders and anomalies are easier to detect, but what about hackers and digital breeches? CUJO, a new device designed by the San Francisco innovation firm Matter, tackles network security through a doglike avatar and channels the new wave of Zero UI in the process.

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Our dwellings are becoming more connected thanks to a fleet of innovative smart home products splashing into the market. Not to sound too alarmist, but anything that connects to your Wi-Fi network is a potential gateway for hackers. According to Einaras Gravrock, the founder of home tech startup CUJO, 70% of connected devices have around 20 security flaws apiece.

“In the near future, every device, every wearable will have an IP address,” Gravrock says. “What does that mean for security? I think that people are generally wary [of connected technology]. This is a big change, and culturally [it is] going to take a while for us to grasp it. Security needs to be reassessed generally.” He thinks that one solution for safer technology at the domestic level lies in monitoring the actual Internet network, and he enlisted Matter to shape the product’s physical presence.

“It’s an object you don’t really want to celebrate in your home, not something you want to emphasize, but you want an awareness that it’s working,” Max Burton, principal at Matter, says. “You want feedback about that.”

When the company presented the concept to Gravrock, the team stressed the importance of an approachable design by asking him if the device should look more like a remote control or an elegant Scandinavian glass carafe. (Right answer? The latter.) To that end, CUJO’s silhouette is shaped like a decorative bowl and doesn’t feature anything in the way of switches or buttons. Instead of flashing different hues of LED lights to signal the device’s actions, Matter opted for a graphical change in the interface. “This is very abstract and very subtle,” Burton says of the device’s metaphorical inspiration. “It could be cheesy if taken too literally.” All you see are glowing “eyes” that relay how secure your network is at the moment.

The device tracks how much data, the type of data, and where it’s going. If it detects an anomaly, it will alert you on the physical product as well as through an app notification. It has three modes: Eyes down means that there’s very little activity; the next level of alert is eyes up, which means it’s scanning and your network is active, packets are leaving, and there might be some danger due to malware; eyes wide open means that someone is actively trying to access your network–for example, if all of a sudden your thermostat starts sending image files to an IP address around the world. CUJO stops that data transfer and lets you know, but it doesn’t interrupt the device’s service.

While CUJO protects connected tech from data breeches and does so very elegantly, to Burton the mission behind the product and its physical attributes signal deeper design and technology conversations.

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“CUJO is not the answer here, but in a way, we’re giving up a lot of liberty with smart devices and our basic freedoms as individuals,” Burton says. “We don’t know what’s taken from us [data wise] and how it’s used. I foresee a bill of rights for individuals to not be abused and be allowed to have their identity remain private.”

In addition to sparking awareness of who is accessing our data and how often, CUJO also represents a generation of products that eschew screens for ambient interfaces. “Right now, there is a screen everywhere to the point of absurdity,” Burton says. “We’ve got a screen on our computer, tablets—every device could potentially have a screen. We’re hoping to get to a point of technology not looking like a piece of tech.”

Personifying technology and making its form more approachable is becoming an industry priority. For example, the decidedly nonrouter-y Wi-Fi router from Eero and the Jibo household assistant that looks more like a table lamp than a smart device, both honorable mentions in the 2015 Innovation by Design Awards.

“Technology was originally cold, technical, and not very human,” Burton says. “What Apple has done over the course of the past decade is make tech simple and human, but at the same time they’ve pursued—and maybe rightfully so—a modernist ‘less is more’ ideology of Dieter Rams. I think that pendulum has swung to its extreme. There’s a desire in the design world for emotion and a little bit more humanity. Apple products are simple and human, but they’re a little bit on the cold side. What we’re witnessing is a return to fun and playfulness and emotion.”

Moreover, the product represents how small companies can—and must—make a statement through industrial design. “People love to see small companies succeed against giants, and it’s possible for a company to succeed with technology, creativity, and initiative,” Burton says. “This is an Indiegogo campaign, but there’s a large community of people who want to participate and help in the invention of new things. Small companies need amazingly good design to have presence in the marketplace.”

CUJO launched on Indiegogo this week, and units start at $49. Shipping is expected by March 2016.

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About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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