Home Techonomics

Happy New Year, everyone!

As our minds here at ourhaus turn toward organizing, getting ducks in a row and improving on ourselves and surroundings, innovative products that help us do so begin to beckon.

A well-appointed home is one that is not only comfortable and beautiful, but runs efficiently and with the smartest technology available. This topic of home automation is getting hot and the inherent cross-section between design beauty and function is near and dear to my heart. When I am not blogging about or working on home renovations and style, I am designing user interfaces (UI Design) and interactive media (stemming from my background in graphic design). Many of my colleagues and I are always buzzing about products that use very current technologies and have incredible user-interface designs that melt the barrier between people and technology, making tasks easier and goals achievable. It's what I strive for in my own work.

Here are some must-have home devices that have caught our attention over the past year. It's pretty awesome that these are no longer "future predictions", but products and solutions that can be part of our homes and daily lives right now. And it seems, everyone wins with these.

"The learning thermostat"
Founded by Tony Fadell

Isn't this beautiful? And simple? Yet it does so much of the necessary hard work to keep your energy use minimized. We hate programming our thermostat and it seems that when we override the program for a custom temperature, it never quite works well—and we end up throwing off our plan to conserve energy and save money on our energy bills. According to Nest, a correctly programmed thermostat can save you about 20% on your heating and cooling bills. That's no small potatoes!

Needless to say, Nest is high on our 2013 list for sure.

Nest programs itself as it learns your patterns of heating and cooling usage, when you do so, as well as when you are away from the house. As an added bonus, a green leaf appears on the screen to show you when your temperature setting is actually saving energy. Nest says that changing the temp just 1 degree can save up to 5% on your energy use. There is nothing like a device that can learn your patterns to better serve you and also provide you feedback so you can adjust your behavior accordingly for desired results.

As if that isn't cool enough, the experience loop is completed by the ability to control nest from your smartphone and iPad, as well as review your energy usage report on the web app—all via beautifully designed data visualizations and infographics. This allows you to adjust your house temperature going forward if you want to save more money or learn why and when your consumption was so high and what you can do about it. Smart. Smart. Smart.

"Listen to your world, talk to the Internet"

Developed by two MIT media lab grads—David Carr and John Kestner—and funded on Kickstarter, Twine is a small square, rubbery device with wifi capability and built-in sensors. It has the ability to notify you—via Twitter, text, email, or Pebble Smart Watch—on the status of various environmental conditions it "senses" in your home.

What is so great about this little device is its adaptability. It comes with built-in functionality, sure, but it is left somewhat open-ended so that users can adapt it to the things they want to track and be notified about around their home. Twine comes with a built-in temperature sensor and a motion/vibration/impact sensor (accelorometer). So, you can be notified when your laundry is done or if it is nice and warm at your vacation house. You can also addon additional sensors easily. Add the moisture sensor and Twine can text you if your basement is about to flood. Add the magnet sensor and attach to a door so you can get a Tweet when the mail is delivered or a text when your dog escapes out of the back door again!

Twine is controlled by their Spool web app where you introduce it to your WiFi network and set up rules—then it gets talking to you. The application instantly detects Twine and the sensors it has (both on board, and any new ones you add on). No programming is necessary. You simply set up certain "rules" for it to read and alert you when those "rules" have been detected or violated. Such as: "WHEN moisture sensor gets wet, THEN text me: "Basement is flooding again!".

You can check out David and John's other products and work on their company site, Supermechanical.

Pet Tracker

We've considered this multiple times for our dog Lucy who has the tendency to, let's just say, catch a scent and kind of wander off looking for it. Not once, but twice, we have gotten calls from people who have found her separated from her dog hiking group. We've cringed to think what could have happened if she hadn't run into those nice people who looked at her dog tag and called us.

The Tagg pet tracker is a subscription-based GPS service that links to a physical collar device worn by your dog. The dog's location and activity information is accessible by a mobile app so you know where Fido is at all times. It's a pretty cool extension of the home automation model, especially if you are as nervous about the effects of implanting chips in dogs as we are (aside from health controversies, chips also do not alert you directly or tell you where your dog is via app).

by Philips

I love this concept. Sometimes you just want to control your lighting without installing a hard-wired, expensive system that is overkill for most of us. This one is as easy as just picking the lighting and lamps you want in the system and screw the light bulbs in. Fire up the app and you're ready to control them. I like that this product is scalable. You can choose the number of bulbs you want in the system based on the size of your home and customize them to your own mode of living.

The Hue home lighting system consists of: Philips LED light bulbs (that can display a wide range of white tones to full spectrum color), web and smartphone apps that allow you to control your lighting, and a "bridge" device that allows the apps to talk to the bulbs via your wireless network:

The apps provide an easy-to-understand gateway to controlling the system. With the Hue app, you can select from a series of pre-tested Light Recipes designed for specific activities like relaxing or concentrating on a task.

This feature is pretty fun: you can take or select any existing photo on your phone—say, that gorgeous sunset on your last vacation—and have Hue adjust your lighting to the specified colors to create a lighting mood. And speaking of vacations, you can adjust your Hue lighting from anywhere if you decide you want more lights on at night, as an old timer would have done.

Interestingly, there is an online Hue community generating A LOT of coloring and light recipes from photos and even Kuler that are shared. So, if you haven't been to Paris yet and you want to emulate a night setting for dinner, there you have it in the shared "recipes".

by Scanomat

Why, yes, the iPhone CAN make coffee...when paired with this machine. OK, I admit, this one is pretty aspirational. But I am a devoted coffee drinker. I love it. It is one vice I will not be giving up anytime soon. And if this company is telling me I can brew coffee out of a sleek, minimalist counter top appliance by the touch of the iPhone screen, I'm listening. I'm intrigued. (But for now, I've still got my feet firmly planted in French Press love land). Scanomat makes some serious commercial automatic cappuccino machines, but this one is the sleekest and most high tech by far that fits just as easily in a modern home as it does at a restaurant or hotel.

The impressive kick to all of these devices is they have been designed to be quite simple and clear to use. These selected products aren't just about impressive technology and the feats of engineering that they are—the creators have thought the product all the way through to the end-user: you and me. You may think that should be a given (it should), but that has not always been the case with household products and consumer electronics. It is really great to me to see the demand become higher and higher for products that are clear and intuitive to use and that are beautiful to hold and live with. I hope this approach becomes the norm.

The other impressive factor that really must—and is—becoming a given is how the experience comes full circle in the ability to control the devices and track their results through web and smartphone apps that we are already accustomed to using. The visual data they deliver is made more accessible to the average consumer through excellent information design, data visualization, and intuitive user-interface design. This will give these products an edge in the marketplace. It also places the power and control of these devices (and of our homes, our health, our goals, etc.) into our own hands.