3 Questions for Tom Coates on his Talking House

July 2, 2013 | Author: Derek Powazek |

Tom Coates and his House of Coates tweets

The Industrial Internet has been described as the latest act in the broader Internet’s evolution. But while computing power, analytics, and distributed sensors are just beginning to unlock the power of industrial machine data, the broader consumer-focused Internet has been tapping the power of interconnected machines for some time.

To get a perspective on how quickly linked-machines are being adopted and creatively employed at the consumer level, we spoke with Tom Coates, a San Francisco-based product designer who is obsessed with the benefits of interconnected machines. So much so, he’s using sensors and networked services to give his house a voice, at least on Twitter. His House of Coates Twitter account is an amazing and often hilarious window into the future, tweeting things like:

  • “It’s just hit 68 inside – that’s rather lovely. I’m pretty sure Tom will be happy about that.”
  • “Hey @tomcoates, I just noticed some movement in the sitting room. Is that you?”
  • “Just checked on the grumpy ficus. Soil seems wet enough for him. It would be nice if he stopped complaining, but I wouldn’t bet on it.”

We spoke with Tom about what he’s building with his House of Coates.

Give us an overview of the hardware and software you use to make your house talk.

I use a variety of bits of hardware – for me the major concern as a designer and early-adopter in this area is that I can hook up the hardware with other products and services. We’re at such an early stage with this stuff that it feels important to me to be able to experiment and explore – to find out what particular things are useful or interesting and contribute positively to my life. So far no hardware manufacturer has really done an amazing job on the service layer, so I won’t buy anything that restricts me just to their ecosystem.

Most of my lights in my house are currently plugged into WeMo switches. I can turn them on and off via an iPhone app. Later this year they’re also doing proper light switches that you can mount on walls, and I will definitely be buying a few of those. WeMo – like many other bits of equipment that I use – connects up with IFTTT.com, a rules-based online service that hooks services up together. If I turn the lights on, then WeMo sends a ping to IFTTT. They, in turn, then post a tweet on my behalf. It’s a little fiddly to set up – but no more than editing Facebook’s privacy settings. It’s just about within the reach of a normal human.

I also have a WeMo motion sensor in my sitting room that looks for movement. When it notices some movement, it posts an @-reply to me on Twitter, so I get notified wherever I am pretty much immediately. It asks me if I’m in the Sitting Room. I often find myself replying to the house. It feels rude not to.

If I’m not in the house and I get a message like this, then I can check on who is in my house by using my Dropcam. This is a little off-the-shelf product that costs about $200. I can, again, view the video feed from it on my iPhone. If it’s dark, I can turn on night vision, or (of course) I can just turn on the lights from anywhere using my WeMo set-up.

By the big plant in my Sitting Room, I have a Twine. This is a slightly odd little product from a company called Supermechanical. They were a Kickstarter project. It’s essentially a little battery-powered box with a couple of inbuilt sensors in it and a port for plugging in a few others. I use it for capturing the temperature of my house, vibration, and whether or not the plant has been watered recently. I have the temperature set up so that it tweets when the house crosses a threshold – allowing it to narrate when it gets too hot or too cold. I have the vibration sensor set up to shout at me if there’s an earthquake, but often it just gets confused when someone slams down on the sofa too hard.

Then I have a little Withings bathroom scale which also hooks up with IFTTT. I used to report my weight directly onto the Twitter account as an experiment, and I can see how doing that might make some people feel more motivated to shed the pounds. In my case, it just made me a bit embarrassed, so now it just reports that I’ve weighed myself and lets me decide for myself whether or not I want to publicize the figure it presents.

Finally, I have an iPad on my fridge that runs Panic’s Statusboard software. It mostly just shows me odds and ends of information about my environment, but it also has the whole house’s Twitter feed on it, so I can see at any time what’s going on.

Next up I’m looking at some of the networked door locks, like Lockitron or August. I’d get a Nest if it made sense for me to do so, but honestly, my house isn’t really designed for it (there’s a separate thermostat in each room, so the cost would be prohibitive). I’m also looking at a few other more niche ideas with my business partner, but I can’t talk about that yet.

There really is a lot you can do with this equipment at the moment, but it’s still early days. I use my house as a bit of an experimental testbed to see what works and what’s interesting. Certainly, no one company has got it allright so far, so my experiments continue.


Why Twitter?

Connecting up data sources, web services, and physical devices has been a bit of an obsession of mine. I’ve felt strongly that there were some very important things going on in this area for a while now, but in terms of the products coming to market, it’s often felt like it was still a bit of a weird niche – with interaction design experiments and prototypes being more common than actually useful products.

A couple of years ago I started thinking specifically about basic simple problems that we often have with mainstream products and whether the network could just make something like a dishwasher, fridge, or oven more useful, fun, or simple to use. And one of the things that I came to very quickly was the sense that at the moment these objects have no effective way to communicate with their users – so often they just beep or flash a little light.

My sense is that if you’re communicating trivial information then you’re probably wasting your time, and if you’re communicating important information then making annoying noises to people nearby is probably the worst possible way to do it. I’d much rather have the objects communicate with me in the way that I get the rest of my real-time communication. For me, that’s Twitter. For other people it might be SMS or E-mail or whatever.

Having said that, there is one particularly good thing about Twitter – the house can tweet away to itself, and if I don’t happen to be looking atTwitter at the time, it doesn’t interrupt me at all. If it’s important though, it can post a comment @tomcoates, and I’ll see it immediately. And if I get concerned at any time (while I’m traveling for example) and want to check in on the house, I can just open up Twitter and see immediately all the stuff that’s been going on there. It works surprisingly well.

And, of course, currently it’s fun to have it just communicate in public. I can imagine a time in the near future when it greets my friends when they visit, and sends them a DM of my wifi password.


What does the future of connected household devices look like?

I think we’re clearly at a point where the cost to put basic Internet connectivity into home devices is approaching trivial. This changes the question for me from “what amazing thing can we do with the Internet in this fridge?” to “can we add enough value to this item to make it worth a $5 increase in cost?”

My sense is that this means that the standard model for putting the Internet in something (you stick a screen on the front that you can run an email client, Twitter, and a web browser in) is no longer necessary. That approach – I think – was about performing “Internetness.” It’s how you advertise that the object you’re buying has that new fangled Internet thing in it – and it’s really important if putting that stuff inside the fridge adds $100 to the cost. But let’s be honest – who owns a really expensive fridge with a screen on the front who doesn’t also own an iPad or a touchscreen of some kind? And where would you rather read your e-mail or your tweets? On your fridge or on your phone?

It’s an approach that simply doesn’t make sense – particularly when you think about how long you keep fridges. The normal upgrade cycle is around fifteen years. Would you want to use a fifteen-year-old laptop every day? Then why on earth would you weld one into the most visible part of your kitchen?

A friend of mine, Matt Rolandson from Ammunition, has a very simple rule of thumb for this stuff. It’s so obvious that you’d think everyone would take it as read, but they don’t. It’s that you only add the network into a device if it amplifies the tool’s core purpose. Twitter and e-mail aren’t the core purposes of a fridge. So you shouldn’t add them.

Instead, cheap sensors and actuators inside objects can give users insight into their objects and how they’re working, as well as give them the ability to control them – potentially from a distance. So now you can be informed by your washing machine when it has finished, you can check how long your dishwasher has left to run from your phone, and when something starts to go wrong with your oven, the manufacturer can call you immediately to arrange a service.

Plus all the complicated bits of UI that don’t really work on existing devices can be pulled off and put in iPhone and iPad apps. Your oven can works like it has always worked, but at Christmas you can set it to come on early to start cooking your turkey from an interface that can be easily upgraded and improved – on your touchscreen device.

Imagine the telephone as it was 20 or 30 years ago – clumsy and mechanical,with no interface for storing your favorite numbers. Now think of Phone apps on modern devices – storing all your friends’ details, details available on every device you use, showing you recent calls in a visible way, with calls able to be muted or shared between multiple people with little more than an OS upgrade. That’s the kind of move we’re seeing now – the hardware at the bottom, functional and efficient, but distinguished from everything else by the quality and responsiveness of the service layer, supported with all the benefits that software and the network can provide.

It’s not a very sexy name, but as a guiding principle I like to think aboutChris Heathcote’s conception of “Mundane Computing” for stuff like this – it’s not the jetpacks that we were promised perhaps, but it could have a very tangible impact on people’s lives. And as ever more devices and services get connected, the things you can do in the space between them – on the service layer – just explode. The future always starts with small changes that build upon one another until the world at the other end is almost unrecognizable. At least, that’s what I’m counting on.

Tom Coates is the co-founder and principal of Product Club, a San Francisco-based new product development company working around the Internet of Things. He was previously head of product at Yahoo Brickhouse, where he developed the location service Fire Eagle, and before that worked at the BBC and at Time Out in London. He talks to his house.

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