Plugging into the Internet of Things

Imagine if your furnace let you know when needed a tune-up, or if your home theatre saw you coming and turned itself on. According to Marc Jensen, managing partner and chief technology officer at space150, the Internet of Things is already beginning to connect us to the built environment using communication technology. I sat down with Marc to learn more about his experiments with home automation and how we’ll interact with buildings in years to come.

Anna: What was your first experiment with home automation?

Marc: About ten years ago, as I was packing for a holiday snowboarding trip I realized my house was cold. My furnace was dead. Luckily I was able to make a call and get it fixed that night. But what if it had broken the next day? I would have come back to two weeks of burst pipes and who knows what else. So I took an old laptop and pointed it at a thermostat when I was out. I could look at it remotely and know that if the temperature was okay, everything was working and I had power and heat. It gave me peace of mind to know everything was secure. That transitioned into an early IP camera. I could pan and zoom remotely through a mobile phone. Kind of janky, but better. In 2011, Nest was released and it was exactly what I wanted − to be able to check in and control my home remotely.

Anna: So your motivation was more safety and security than saving energy?

Marc: Security was the catalyst for me getting into home automation, but soon after I realized the efficiency benefits. That’s the great thing about technology exploration. One area of interest starts the journey or adoption of technology, but learning along the way opens your eyes to things you hadn’t thought of. For example, soon after playing with security technologies I realized that Nest could solve the heating inefficiency problems of my older home (built in the 1940s). With Nest, I don’t feel bad about turning the thermostat up when I’m around, because I turn it way down when I’m not. I spend less on energy than I used to, and am much more comfortable in my home.

Anna: What gadgets and apps have you played with besides Nest?

Marc: I control my lights remotely and set their schedules with WeMo. It syncs with my phone, and integrates with a really cool service called IFTTT (“If This Then That”). If I leave the area immediately outside my house, the lights go on. And then they also have a motion sensor to turn on the lights automatically or trigger any number of other events. If you live in the Midwest, you understand this winter was incredibly cold. I put a small electric heater in my bedroom, and used WeMo to operate that remotely too. The app shows how much energy it uses and knows how much my electricity costs, so it lets me know the price to run it. It’s something that could be calculated manually, but they made it easy and automatic.

I also use Kumostat, which is a little module that sits on top of my router and connects to tiny sensors (about the size of two quarters stacked on top of each other). I’ve got a sensor on my garage door, the front door, and the back door. The app shows me any time the doors have been opened since I switched the sensors on. I’ve left the garage door open a few mornings, and gotten an alert. So again, safety and security. They also report temperature and humidity, so they can be used to do a lot more than just motion detection.

For me, these tools are a look into the future. Everything is going to be connected, there’s no doubt about it, and I like seeing it before it happens, and being part of the evolution of this all.

Anna: How do you see this technology’s potential to save energy?

Marc: Nest is a great example. Programmable thermostats aren’t new, but nine out of ten people never programed them. For early internet-connected thermostats, the price was prohibitive and the experience wasn’t great. Why is Nest so successful? They came with a nice user interface and rather than needing to be programmed, it learns. That’s a huge mindset shift. Our lives aren’t regimented. We don’t leave and come home at the same time every day. Nest is flexible and you can operate it in real time. If you’re be working late or coming home early, you can just adjust it on the fly from your phone.

I think automation - rooms turning on when you're in them and turn off when you’re not - will happen. Right now, it’s a lot of “set this to make that happen,” but in the future things will just happen. As we get near our homes, they’ll respond automatically instead of us setting everything manually. In a number of ways, there are programmers hidden behind the scenes doing stuff nobody sees. I’ve always promoted interfaces that artists or just normal people would use. The best tools in the world don’t mean anything if they don’t get used.

And Nest took away that barrier. There’s a reason Blackberry isn’t leading anymore. They once allowed you to do something that was impossible without them, but now you can do that, and much more with other devices.

Anna: Are you seeing any industry trends towards human-building interaction?

Marc: Money talks, but comfort and convenience are powerful factors. When people see me use my Nest, they notice that my house is more comfortable and my quality of life has improved. It’s not just about saving. I may use every bit of energy that I did before, but I’m actually much more comfortable. A certain market segment, myself included, is really interested in saving energy. That’s not a high priority for everyone, but if you bundle savings with increased comfort, convenience, and security, you have a powerful and convincing combination.

Anna: How do we move past the early adopters and get people with those other hooks?

Marc: I think a lot of it depends on how it’s positioned. The term “home automation” never really sunk in with the mass audience. To me, “smart home” sounds better, and more accurately describes what’s possible. In the technology adoption lifecycle, you’ll have the early adopters that pave the way, experiment, and help companies refine their offerings. I think to really go mass market, it’s not just about energy savings, it’s about convenience, comfort, and security. 

Anna: On a larger scale, do these trends integrate with the Internet of Things?

Marc: Absolutely. There are a few different projections, but by about 2017 or 2018, the number of connected devices (the Internet of Things) will be three to four times larger than all our phones, laptop, and desktop computers combined. It’s going to be massive. Even the things that seem silly to be internet-enabled will be, because why not? The same technology that goes into your phone, the WeMo, and the Nest will go into everything else. The price is falling so fast, it’s going to be trivial to create all of these connected devices. The companies that win will create the best connected services.

Anna: How do you imagine that playing out in a home? What will be connected that isn’t now?

Marc: When you’re a homeowner, things go wrong and you have to either fix it or pay to get it fixed. It may not make a lot of sense for a fridge to be connected to make each day better, but think about it. If something goes wrong, it can send an alert. Or if it’s unresponsive, you’ll know to check on it. Smart appliances that alert you if something is wrong will be an easy sell.

Take bridges and cars. Even though Minnesotans generally know how to drive in winter, we still get in accidents when we hit black ice. Imagine an internet-aware bridge in an internet-aware car or smartphone that knows that temperature and humidity are producing slippery conditions and alerts you with a message as you approach. 

Five years ago when mobile was emerging, it was all about the device. “Everything’s going to be on my phone!” Today, the majority of people have smartphones and it’s clear that it’s the future of computing. And now deeper networks and functions are emerging that couldn’t have happened before we all had smartphones and understood how they work. I think the internet of things is going to be way bigger and way beyond that. When the cost of technology goes down, adoption goes up, and that’s when the truly interesting things happen. When everything’s aware, a whole lot of services will emerge that we can't even foresee yet.


Related posts:

Behavior and Usability: At the Interface of Human-Building Interaction

The Process Approach of Human-Building Interaction 

Leveraging Human-Building Interaction 

Photo credit: Marc Jensen 

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Tags: behavior, communications


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