Amazon Echo – A Boon to Baby Boomers
When the first Amazon Echo device was released back in June of 2015, we questioned whether it would really take off in the mainstream. At that point Alexa was basically a glorified Bluetooth speaker that could control the lights and add items to an Amazon shopping list. But over the past couple years we’ve all seen new functionality, and some amusing-yet-compelling use cases, thanks to Amazon’s TV ad campaigns.
Since then, sales numbers skyrocketed, and especially over the past year – survey estimates this past summer put Echo sales at more than 10 million units. And now there are all sorts of Echo spinoff devices, like the Echo Dot, and the newer Echo Show, a video-enabled version.
Never be without your lyrics again — Echo Show, $150
More than two years after adding a few Amazon Echo devices around the house, I still have mixed feelings. The low-level creepiness of knowing she’s always listening never quite goes away, but thanks to some special skills I’ve set up (more on that later) the Echoes are useful enough that they’ve kept their rightful places in my house.
The true test came when my uncle stayed with us for a night over the Thanksgiving holiday. We gave him a quick introduction to the Echo Dot on the nightstand, and showed him the commands for controlling the Philips Hue bulbs scattered around the house. As we turned in for the night, we heard Alexa reciting the news headlines in his room.
I awoke the next morning to find my uncle browsing Amazon while using Siri to text message his friends about the Echo. “I gotta get an Amazon Alexa, period. She’s great, exclamation point!”
He put down his phone and turned to me. “This morning I asked her if she could play me Willie Nelson and she just started playing Willie Nelson! I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off though.” I heard Red Headed Stranger still quietly playing from the other room, and stuck my head in the doorway. “Alexa, SILENCE!” My uncle resumed browsing on his phone. “I might need to get a couple of these.”
And with that, and as-important developments like Comcast’s voice remote, I think we’ve officially reached the point where speech recognition devices are advanced and intuitive enough to actually be useful to the average person. These days it’s easier to use voice commands than to squint at phone screens and use tiny virtual keyboards, especially for the older generations. Even my Mom, who back in 2005 threatened to disown the entire family when we surprised her with a cell phone upgrade, is already on the Echo bandwagon.
A few of the services that currently work with Echo devices
What about privacy?
With all the devices now listening in around the country, we’d be remiss not to mention privacy. Sure, it can be a little unsettling to own a device nearby that may or may not be recording your conversations – speaking of which, did you hear about that Google Home bug that caused some devices to record 24/7 and store it all in the cloud?
At least a few times a week, I’ll see the Echo in my living room light up randomly, without the “wake word” ever being spoken. If you ask “Alexa, is Jeff Bezos spying on me?” she’ll respond coolly, “I only send audio back to Amazon when I hear the wake word.” Really, in this day and age, what device isn’t collecting information about our habits and trying to find a way to make sense of (and monetize) all that data?
For most of us, it really comes down to how useful a device is versus how concerned we are about the data we might be sharing with it. Security breaches are a part of life these days, when even buying a can of paint can result in the headache of having your data compromised and your card reissued.
Turns out it’s increasingly not that hard to overlook privacy concerns — when the product makes life easier. Sure, I worry that my data will end up in the wrong hands. Do I worry enough to unplug all my devices, stuff them into the closet, and go back to the dark ages before Alexa turned on the lights for me? Nope. But if I were engaged in more behavior that Jeff Bezos and Uncle Sam would find interesting, I might feel differently.
One thing is for sure, when it comes to Alexa: I feel for people whose actual name is Alexa. When I run into human Alexas, I always ask them: So – how’s it going? The answers vary, but in general, they either don’t own the device, or they’ve changed the wake word….
Somebody Please Apply CALM to OTT Video Before I Jump Out of My Skin
How many times has this happened to you: You’re streaming video to your TV, using an OTT device (like a Roku or Chromecast), over a network app that you’ve authenticated with your cable or satellite subscription. It’s been a long day, and you begin to drift off – then BAM! you’re yanked back into consciousness by a commercial that is approximately 400 times louder than whatever show you were watching, before your heart leapt out of your chest and ran away.
If you’ve ever wondered why the commercials on OTT video are often so over-the-top loud compared to the commercials on TV, as it turns out, you maybe HAVE seen this movie before. Because variable loudness on broadcast commercials has been “a thing” for more than a decade. Here’s the background:
Back in 2010, we saw the first legislation aimed at too-loud commercials (which arguably have been the bane of viewers since the beginning of TV). It all started when Representative Anna Eshoo (D-Calif) asked her brother to turn down the TV after a loud commercial interrupted a family dinner. In true brother fashion, he told her to just make a law against loud commercials (seeing as she was the legislator and all).
So she did, and on September 29, 2010, the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act was unanimously passed in the Senate.
The CALM Act requires broadcasters and MVPDs (Multichannel Video Programming Distributors) to ensure that the average audio of TV advertisements isn’t louder than the program itself. The FCC began enforcing the CALM Act on December 13, 2012, encouraging viewers to call and complain about loud commercials that violate the rules.
By equalizing the average volume between content and commercials, the CALM Act aims to prevent advertisers from rupturing your eardrums in an attempt to get your attention. Though it creates an extra layer of complexity for MVPDs, this is a very good thing for the viewing experience (and isn’t that what matters?).
This is all accomplished using the A/85 Recommended Practice: Techniques for Establishing and Maintaining Audio Loudness for Digital Television set forth by the ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee).
But this new solution wasn’t without pushback from unscrupulous advertisers. After the CALM act took effect, some advertisers started using silence or very quiet audio to offset extra-loud passages, so on June 4, 2014 ATSC amended the algorithm to close that electronic loophole. The current algorithm uses “gating” to exclude silent or extremely quiet parts of commercials when calculating the average volume.
As a result, commercials on TV today aren’t as obnoxiously loud as they used to be. If only we could say the same for streaming video!
Unfortunately, the CALM act only applies to broadcast television – it does not extend to content that is distributed over the Internet (even if that content is tied to a cable or satellite subscription). Currently there is no proposed legislation, and no end in sight, for the ultra-loud commercials that interrupt our streaming background noise.
This is an issue that begs to be revisited, because of the steady shift towards online viewing since the CALM act took effect in 2012. Nowadays, just about every cable network makes their content available through a website and an app, and payTV subscribers are viewing more of their TV content over-the-top – but the viewer experience is still marred by earsplitting advertisements. Subscribers of SlingTV started complaining about loud commercials back when the streaming service started back in 2015, and back then SlingTV acknowledged it as a “known issue” that was actively being addressed. Two years later the commercials are louder than ever.
We have to wonder what kind of conversion rates these obnoxious advertisements are getting. Presumably there is a payoff, or advertisers wouldn’t go to so much trouble to crank up the audio on their commercials. But surely we aren’t the only ones that scramble for the mute button, then roll ours eyes and add the offending brand to a mental list, titled Stuff I’ll Never Buy Because of Terrible Ads.
The Sad Saga of the Coolest Cooler
Here’s an update on the “Coolest Cooler,” one of the top-funded Kickstarter projects of all time. In case you missed it, the Coolest Cooler was a Bluetooth-connected cooler with a built-in blender and charging ports, which debuted on Kickstarter in 2014 for around $200. This connected cooler was a runaway success, attracting 62,642 backers, and overshooting its fundraising goal of $50,000 by more than $13 million.
Unfortunately, the campaign creator, Ryan Grepper, evidently didn’t do a great job of researching production costs for larger quantities, and certainly didn’t anticipate such an enthusiastic response to the Kickstarter campaign. Coolest Cooler cost significantly more to make and ship than backers paid for it, so the company (Coolest, LLC) lost money on every cooler it shipped to a Kickstarter backer.
That’s when the company halted shipments of the coolers to Kickstarter backers, and instead started selling the Coolest Cooler through Amazon and other retailers for $400 — double the Kickstarter price tag — while also trying to get another $15M in funding. Understandably, more than half of the early backers are both frustrated, and still waiting for their orders to be filled, almost three years after the expected ship date.
The Coolest Cooler made headlines again recently when its Grepper reached a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice. Under the terms of that agreement, backers who complained to the DOJ before April 15, 2017 will receive their coolers by October 13, 2017, and everyone else will get their coolers “as Coolest LLC amasses sufficient funds from sales to afford the manufacture and shipping costs.”
This is rough for everyone involved – the naïve inventor who didn’t anticipate the actual costs, and the early backers who supported the campaign and are still waiting for their coolers.
And it’s only made worse by the passive-aggressive (emphasis on the passive) statement from the founder, Ryan Grepper, following the settlement agreement:
“The backstory, in case you had not heard, some Backers felt we were promising a shipping window, and when that didn’t happen, complaints were filed against us with the Oregon DOJ. Others felt there must be financial shenanigans going on, which were just conspiracy theories, as we were clear through the entire process that the cost of the Coolest ended up more than what we asked or collected per Backers. Still, no one wants to feel taken advantaged so more complaints were filed and, unfortunately, this really hurt all remaining backers because it put us at a virtual standstill.”
It really begs the question: How is one supposed to enjoy a nice beach picnic with the Coolest Cooler, if you actually get one, after getting the runaround from this guy for years? Wouldn’t you just want to take a baseball bat to the damn thing?
“I really want to throw this cooler off a cliff but I’ll just drown my sorrows instead”
Backing any hardware product on a crowdsourcing website carries risk – sometimes the “working prototype” is all just video editing, and backers end up paying for development costs instead of the product that was advertised as being ready for production. Typically, this turns into a situation where unforeseen challenges extend the timeline indefinitely, and backers never receive the product they paid for – otherwise known as “vaporware.”
And sometimes, as was the case with the Coolest Cooler, there is actually a real product — but the introductory price is set so low that when demand goes through the roof, the company finds itself unable to support production. This is the saddest situation of all.
Lest you’ve managed to sidestep this awkward situation, yet still are market for a cool cooler, consider Leslie’s advice: Forget the Coolest Cooler. Get a Yeti! Extremely well made, great customer service, built for endurance, no silly dithering over prices.
Juicero: Squeezing every last dime out of a bad idea
In case you haven’t heard about Juicero yet, consider yourself lucky. This Wi-Fi connected juicer (which is essentially a Keurig machine for juice) has been making the headlines again lately, after investors began complaining that they were misled by the founder.
Basically, Juicero is a countertop device that squeezes juice from a packet into a glass. It operates on a razor-and-blade business model — only you get gouged for the razor AND the blades, and the blades only have a shelf life of 6 days.
In an interview with Recode last fall, the company’s founder, Doug Evans, told the story of Juicero. Evans was one of the founding partners of Organic Avenue, a cold-pressed juice company – until 2012, when a partner bought out most of the equity and, in his words, told him to “go take a walk.”
Doug Evans, the veggie visionary behind Juicero.
In telling the story of how he came up with Juicero, Evans goes so far as to call himself the Steve Jobs of juice — “I’m going to do what Steve did. I’m going to take the mainframe computer and create a personal computer, I’m going to take a mainframe juice press and I’m going to create a personal juice press.”
Here’s how Juicero is supposed to work:
Juicero ships out packets of “chopped fresh fruits and vegetables” to its customers on a subscription basis, where subscribers get a refrigerated delivery of packets once a week. The packets need to stay below 41 degrees, so they must be refrigerated at all times (but can’t be stored in the freezer, as that can “compromise flavor and nutrient density.”)
These packets fit inside a $400 (originally priced at $700) device that sits on your counter. The Juicero then scans a chip embedded in the packet to make sure it’s not expired (the machine refuses to press packets after they hit the expiration date – but fear not! The Juicero app will send you notifications every time you have a pack about to expire.)
Once you put a pack in the machine, it squeezes your fresh juice with 3 to 4 tons of pressure (enough to lift two Teslas!) And dispenses it into your glass (this process takes about two minutes). Each packet costs $5-7, and packets contain anywhere from 3 to 8 ounces worth of juice, depending on the flavor. Juicero is currently available in 17 states.
According to the founder, it takes a lot of specialized technology to press juice out of Juicero packets. As he described it to Recode, “there are 400 custom parts in here… there’s a scanner; there’s a microprocessor; there’s a wireless chip, wireless antenna.”
Here’s how it actually works:
Funny story, some of Juicero’s backers discovered that the packets could be squeezed just as well by human hands. A reporter from Bloomberg performed a test, which found that although the Juicero press yielded a half ounce more juice, squeezing the packets by hand was 30 seconds faster. Either the reporter from Bloomberg is freakishly strong, or Juicero’s claim about 3-4 tons of pressure is a load of pulp. It also seems that rather than freshly chopped berries and greens (as the marketing implies), Juicero bags contain something more akin to liquefied slime. Naturally, Juicero’s response to the revelation that its packets can be squeezed by hand was to require you to show proof that you own the machine before allowing you to buy packets.
Now investors are (understandably) frustrated, after being promised a machine capable of squeezing large chunks of fruits and vegetables. And you might ask, who actually invested in this product? Unbelievably, Juicero secured around $120 million dollars, with hefty buy-in from companies including Alphabet (Google), Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Campbell’s Soups.
Why Juicero is a terrible idea
Now that the “3-4 tons of force” claim has been debunked, we’ve learned that this bulky and pricey machine pretty much does the equivalent of opening a juice bottle. Only it will refuse to work if your juice is a minute past the expiration date (good thing you can use your hands!).
Speaking of food safety, we also wonder about the contamination issues that often crop up in our industrial food system — what happens if Juicero gets a batch of contaminated spinach? What happens if the packets get delayed in transit and the ice pack melts? And if Juicero goes out of business now that the jig is up, and they stop selling packets, what in the world are you going to do with that monstrous machine?
IFTTT IT Works, Don’t Mess With It (Update)
A couple years ago, we wrote about IFTTT (If This Then That), a glue service that connects smart home devices and web services. In a nutshell, IFTTT gives services and devices a way to talk to one another, and then allows you to write simple scenarios (or “applets”) using a “trigger” from one service and an “action” from another. For example, changing the light color (action) when your weather station detects rain (trigger.)
We’ve been using IFTTT on a near-daily basis since 2014 – and over the course of these past few years, the IFTTT experience has changed quite a bit. So we thought it was time for an update of our own (and maybe a small rant).
Big changes to the business model
It’s been our longtime hope that IFTTT would bring more features to its users through a paid subscription plan. Yes, we would happily shell out $10 a month to be able to set up synchronized alerts (for example making lights turn red AND calling my phone if the greenhouse is overheating — currently the only way to accomplish this is to set up multiple instances of the same trigger).
Back in 2014, that seemed like a sure thing. IFTTT’s founder, Linden Tibbets, even came right out and said that they were looking towards charging consumers for a premium service in the coming months. He also mentioned opportunities “on the channel side” — which turned out to be the direction IFTTT took.
Alas, we never did get the premium subscription we hoped to see. Instead, in February 2016 IFTTT launched a $199/month subscription plan for its service partners. IFTTT also allows applets to run directly from those partner apps now, so users can access a curated selection of applets without ever downloading the IFTTT app.
And our hope for synchronized actions? IFTTT can do that now, but only partners have that ability, not consumers. So now BMW has its own applet that makes Garageio open the garage door, turns up the Nest thermostat, and turns on the Philips Hue lights when the car pulls in the driveway – but there’s no way for the user to use different hardware or customize the applet. For consumers wanting to do more with IFTTT, there is another option – the “Maker” channel, released in June 2015. This channel lets users create applets using any device or service that can make or receive a web request. For example, I was able to get IFTTT pulling the data from my Dexcom continuous glucose monitor, and then I set up various alerts for low and high glucose thresholds – calling my phone, turning on lights, putting a notification on the Comcast X1 box, etc.
However, the Maker channel still doesn’t allow multiple actions per applet; I had to create separate applets for every trigger/alert combination – which, in addition to being a pain, makes for a long list of applets that need to be updated if you decide to make changes.
So how’s that partner subscription working out?
In the early days, services were added to IFTTT for free, often with no development work on their part – IFTTT just connected to apps and devices with open APIs.
Now that IFTTT is asking services to pay for its platform, some have been vocal about their support for the new IFTTT while others were cut off for refusing to shell out the cash. The founder of social bookmarking service Pinboard even wrote a blog post about why he chose not to sign on, citing “squirrely terms of service” and that IFTTT “wanted him to do their job for them, for free.” Of course, in that same blog post he also compared IFTTT to a sewer pipe, so read into that what you will.
Interestingly enough, there are several key partners that are NOT paying to be part of IFTTT’s platform (Philips Hue for example) – and IFTTT is keeping mum on how many of its approximately 360 partners actually subscribe. (Our napkin-math says that even if ALL of them signed on, they’d be making about $621K/year. We’re not financial geniuses, but that nonetheless seems a bit low for an ongoing concern.)
When asked in an interview with Fast Company whether Philips was willing to pay for the platform, George Yanni (Head of Connected Technology) was noncommittal at best. He mentioned that he “wasn’t sure how the process would go,” and that Philips has enjoyed a “long, very successful partnership with IFTTT, where we’ve both gotten a lot of value and publicity out of it, so we’ll just have to discuss with them to see how best we do that going forward.” Sounds to us like IFTTT might have a problem getting its most popular services to pony up.
While it remains to be seen whether IFTTT’s new business model is actually paying off, we can say with some certainty that the user experience is going downhill. Which brings us to a quick summary of the gripes we have with IFTTT:
1. Too many name changes to keep track
Since 2012, IFTTT has renamed itself more than a gangster on the lam. Over the past 5 years, we’ve seen the terminology evolve from “tasks and add-ins” to “recipes and ingredients” to “applets and services.”
There was also an awkward, short-lived phase in 2015 where IFTTT changed its name to “IF” and released a trio of companion apps – “DO Button” “DO Camera” and “DO Note.” The idea behind these apps was a button widget that you could set to do something in another app – for example, to automatically send a text to let your spouse know you’re leaving the office, or to make your phone ring in the event you need to excuse yourself from an awkward conversation. IFTTT soon reversed course again (perhaps realizing that maybe people didn’t want to download 4 separate apps -!) and re-rolled the DO functionality into the main app (which is back to being called IFTTT now.)
2. The process isn’t as easy as it used to be
When setting up triggers and actions, IFTTT used to have shortcuts to your favorite services, which made it easy to create new recipes – oops! — applets. That top spot has since been replaced with “popular” services, followed by a long list of all available services.
This is almost certainly designed to encourage more discovery, but that backfires when the list is so cluttered that it’s easier to use the search box than scroll to what you need.
A few of the many services you’ll scroll through to find what you actually need
3. Midnight rides and other glitches
It seems like IFTTT is generally less reliable since migrating to its new platform, possibly because it’s a challenge for service partners to keep up with changes to the API. There was one week in January where many of the applets we set up stopped responding to triggers altogether. Likewise, the Automatic car adapter initially worked quite well with IFTTT (we like to use it for logging business miles, or to be notified that the car just left the grocery store, so it’s too late to add anything to the list.)
Currently, IFTTT and Automatic are hit or miss – sometimes alerts happen promptly, and sometimes they get stuck and come sailing over the transom several hours later. (This is much like Leslie’s now-rogue doorbell-cam, which now rings more than a half hour AFTER being triggered.) Waking up at 2 a.m. to a notification that my car is halfway across town is an eye-roller, yet I’m always compelled to go make sure it’s still in the driveway.
4. We still can’t help but use it
Despite being irritated at the direction IFTTT is going, I still use it every day. In fact, it saved me a lot of pain just this morning, when I awoke at 3:30 a.m. to a phone call from a robotic voice somewhere in the Silicon Valley, warning me that my seedlings were about to freeze. Unbeknownst to me, the circuit powering the greenhouse heater tripped, and the temperature inside the greenhouse was steadily dropping while I slept. If not for the alerts I set up, I surely would have woken to a greenhouse full of frozen tomatoes and peppers. It saved our seedlings last year too. So despite the frustrations, we’ll keep living with IFTTT (at least until something better comes along).
Weird IoT Candidates of Late: More Solutions Seeking a Problem?
Sometimes — heck, we’ll go as far as oftentimes — technology solves a problem and improves the quality of our lives, by, say, automating mundane tasks, or keeping our loved ones, and our stuff, safe. But just as often, inventing high-tech solutions to deal with everyday issues just makes life more complicated. For example:
Rubato: The clock that intentionally tells you the wrong time
If you’re having a hard time concentrating, perhaps distorting your sense of time will help! Rubato is a wall clock that is controlled using a smartphone app, which does something called “Smart Time Manipulation” – essentially speeding up time while you’re getting started on a task, and then slowing down once you’re in the zone, until it catches up with normal time again – giving you “more” time to be productive. To us, this represents another questionable application of the word “smart,” for starters. It’s sort of like a more complicated version of setting your watch 10 minutes fast so you have a shot at actually leaving on time, and is probably equally likely to attract just as much procrastination as before. The best thing about this clock is the name: Rubato, in musical terminology, is Italian for “stolen time.” It comes in two versions, Poco (small) and Molto (large).
Smart Duvet: A self-made bed (starting at $464)
This is an interesting one: Smart Duvet is basically a glorified air mattress that goes inside your duvet cover. A smartphone-connected pump fills it with air, magically spreading out your duvet and “making” the bed. This is done on a schedule that you set, or whenever you hit the “make bed” button on the mobile app. If this seems like a good idea to you, consider a few caveats: The Smart Duvet won’t fluff your pillows for you. It can’t grab a top sheet or blankets, so unless you sleep under just a duvet, you’ll be climbing into a short-sheeted bed every night. It also appears you’ll be sleeping under a duvet filled with air instead of down – so you should probably turn up the thermostat. And of course, you’ll want to center your duvet on the bed so it doesn’t end up askew (or on the floor) when the Smart Duvet inflates – while you’re at it, just give it an extra tug and save yourself the 500 bucks. Really. Also, you probably should not purchase the Smart Duvet if you own a cat, dog, or other pet prone to routinely disobeying the house rule that is “no cats/dogs on the bed!” On the other hand, if paired with a smart camera, the combo could make for some fresh YouTube material of startled, flying cats and dogs….
CHiP: The Keurig of cookies ($129 plus dough … pun intended…)
Every so often we see a product that makes us weep for the future of the human race. This one qualifies. CHiP is a “smart cookie oven” that bakes “cookie pods,” which are available via subscription. You can use the smartphone app to make your cookies chewy or crispy, and then you’ll be notified when they’re ready to eat. Each cookie costs between $0.88 and $2.25, depending on whether you choose “Classic,” “Select,” or “Premium” – the latter includes mouth-watering flavors like Red Velvet Beetroot White Chocolate. (Beetroot?)
In case you’re wondering, you can also use your own dough in CHiP, and even program the machine to remember the settings for your favorite family recipe. But the company recommends using cookie pods for the best cookie experience, including “virtually no clean-up.” Just put CHiP next to your recliner and you’ll never have to get up again!
Dog Parker: A climate-controlled, Internet-connected place to park your dog.
The Dog Parker is an interesting subscription service being tested in Brooklyn, where business owners can get a leg up (heh, heh) on the competition by going beyond the friendly water bowl on the ground by the door. The Dog Parker is a climate-controlled, Bluetooth-connected, members-only doghouse. Once you sign up for the $25/year membership, you can view available Dog Parkers in your vicinity using the smartphone app (and reserve one up to 15 minutes in advance). Once you slide your membership card and park your pooch, you can use the mobile app to monitor the cameras inside the Dog Parker to make sure your dog isn’t going berserk. On that note: Dog Parker recommends kennel training your dog for best results (no kidding).
Once you collect your dog, a UV light comes on to sanitize the Dog Parker for the next occupant. But we all know that some things can’t be fixed by UV light – so what happens if somebody soils the Dog Parker? According to the company, a cleaning crew makes the rounds every evening to scrub out all the Dog Parkers, and can also be summoned using the app if you find an odiferous surprise waiting when you open the door. (Or you could just suck it up and use the poop bags tied onto Rover’s leash.) Which brings us to some lingering questions: How long will you and Fido wait for the cleaning crew to show up? What if there’s a glitch and the Dog Parker runs a UV sanitize cycle on your dog? Does it have a Squirrel Filter? And whatever happened to putting him in your purse?
Stay tuned: Next time, an update on some of the technology that IS making our lives easier.
Crowdsourced Clunkers: Seemed Like A Good Idea At the Time?
For every brilliant crowdfunded tech idea, there’s a multitude of odd, intrusive, and giggle-inducing ideas that make us scratch our heads, but still manage to get some crowdsourced traction. Here’s a sampling of the ideas that currently have us saying “Hmmm, that’s… interesting.”
Moti: Behavioral science robot that helps you change your habits
First up is Moti, a robot companion that is supposed to help you build better habits. Here’s how it works: You pick a habit you’d like to develop, for instance drinking 8 glasses of water a day. (Careful, though! Each $99 Moti unit only works with one habit at a time.) You put the Moti in a place where you’ll interact with it while you’re practicing your habit, i.e. near the water filter. Then, when you fill your glass, you give the Moti a “satisfying push” on its big, lighted button (or via the app, if you’re away from home), which is supposed to trigger some sort of reward.
Here’s the thing. “Reward” is not defined, other than to say that it can serve up different rewards for each person based on “deep analytics” that it does on their behavior. (Note to Moti: A stack of $50s would probably work really well!) Maybe the idea is that just pushing the button is reward enough? (Not for us.) Or perhaps a truckload of bottled water and a yoga mat will be delivered to your driveway? Only Moti knows.
The description also mentions that Moti might get “angry, sad, or encouraging if you’re slacking off!” We can only imagine what this might entail (especially with that peppy exclamation point), and it doesn’t sound good. Actually, it sounds like the use of 8 words when one would’ve sufficed: “Nag.” As in “Moti might nag you if you’re slacking off!” Great! Can’t wait!
But again, to each their own – the project just launched, and is already about $20K over its $50,000 goal on Kickstarter, with 23 days left to go.
Alchema: Home cider brewing made really expensive
Another project, Alchema, aims to contain the earthy, frothy, fragrant, and often funky process of making hard cider into a connected countertop device that sounds kind of like a variation on a Keurig coffee maker.
A silver-colored plastic case hides the fermentation process from view, and includes a UV light that sanitizes the plastic pitcher before you start adding ingredients. Weight sensors communicate with an app to tell you exactly how much of each ingredient to add for each pre-programmed recipe, so you don’t have to measure or even think about what you’re making (presumably handy if it’s a repeat batch you’re concocting, after having just consumed the prior batch in one sitting.)
The $429 price tag includes 3 single-batch yeast packets; you can add more on to your order for just $1.33. (Or, you could go to a local home brew supply store and get yeast much cheaper.) A built-in hydrometer measures the alcohol content and displays it on the smartphone app. A pop-up notification lets you know when your cider is ready.
As we looked through the photos of Alchema’s prototype, questions kept … well, bubbling to the surface. For instance: A pressure sensor and auto release valve are supposed to do the work of a standard airlock, but are built into the outer case. Hence the entire setup looks like it might be very hard to clean, especially if cider foams up to the top of the vessel during fermentation (and in our experience, it usually does.).
In the press photos, friends gather around what looks like a pitcher of fresh fruit chunks in juice – a squeaky-clean substitute for cider mash. Again, we find ourselves wondering how impressive a party trick it really is, to whip out a big pitcher of unfiltered booze. Even so, there won’t be much to go around – the maximum yield is 2.4 liters, and much less if you start with whole fruit. Not a whole lot of payoff given the time it recommends for fermentation (1-2 weeks for craft cider, 1 week for mead or 16 weeks for wine.)
This product strikes us as a solution without a problem. Alchema commands a really steep price tag for hiding and automating the process of cider brewing, something that most home brewers are actually interested in observing. (Ever watch your mom get a sourdough starter from a friend, then get gleefully grossed out as it continues its journey?) This setup also makes it hard to keep tabs on your brew — so if your cider gets contaminated, you could have a not-so-savory surprise waiting for you.
To us, it still makes a lot more sense to spend a fraction of that money on some glass jugs with airlocks and a hydrometer, or on several cases of hard cider (if the idea of making your own is just too messy.) However, there does appear to be some demand — Alchema wrapped up its Kickstarter campaign last week, raising over $340,000 from 399 backers. A concurrent Indiegogo campaign is 430% funded, having raised another $345,000. We wouldn’t be one bit surprised to find that a lot of these backers are the same folks paying $50/pound for coffee.
TimeCap: Record every second of every day (and then figure out what to do with all that video)
Next up is TimeCap, a ”gorgeous wearable camera” that records your every moment and sends it to the cloud via your smartphone, using Bluetooth 4. It’s advertised as being non-intrusive, so your friends and family members will forget they’re being recorded at all times and act naturally. The maker describes it as a “jeweled brooch,” but to us, it looks more like an eyeball — available in green, or (even worse) red — and it’s hard to imagine wearing one as an accessory, ever, let alone every day.
It’s also hard to fathom the process of digging through 24/7 video coverage to find those precious moments we supposedly want to relive and share with our friends. Finally, the description says that the camera records “from the point-of-view of the person wearing it” but we’d like to point out that really it appears to be recording from the point-of-view of the wearer’s chest.
“I can’t wait to share your sweet nothings on social media.”
We also question how the resolution/cloud storage space would work, if and when these eyeball brooches start shipping. For instance, the video compression type and stream size when sending it “up” to the cloud aren’t specified — yet as two women who hail from the industry we used to call “cable,” we can never say too often that bandwidth is neither infinite nor free, and video remains the bulkiest online traveller. This is even more painfully true for mobile providers.
Moving on to the creepier aspects of this idea — does anyone really want to record every minute and store it in the cloud? Especially with all the security considerations that makers designing for the Internet of Things all too often put on the back burner?
“Are you seriously recording our conversation?”
Apparently yes. Astoundingly, with 8 days left the project is 563% funded on Indiegogo, having raised just over $112,000 toward its $20,000 goal. Yikes.
Cream of the Kickstarter Crop: Fall 2016
Every few weeks, I like to browse through the technology projects on Kickstarter – often a treasure trove of IoT ideas, from brilliant to head-scratching. Today, we bring you some of the most compelling ideas currently on Kickstarter (stay tuned for a roundup of projects on the “Hmm, that’s… interesting” end of the spectrum).
Dot – Contextual Smartphone Notifications
First up is Dot, described as a “physical push notification.” Don’t worry if you find that description confusing, so did we. In a nutshell, you stick Dots ($20 for one, $55 for a pack of three) around your house in locations where you typically do certain tasks with your phone. You can then set up each Dot to launch specific apps or actions based on your proximity (using GPS). For example: When you enter your car, a Dot on the dashboard can automatically launch whatever apps you like to use for navigation and music on your phone. You can also leave text messages for other people on Dots – so a Dot near the trash can text your kid a reminder to take out the garbage as he walks by (I’ll leave it to the parents to say whether this will actually work).
Dots also have a color-changing LED light that can be used as an indicator, much like the way we use Philips Hue light bulbs in the lab. Like the Hue bulbs, Dots will be integrated with IFTTT and able to connect with a wide variety of smart home gadgets. One of the more curious use cases on the Kickstarter page is sticking a Dot outside a roommate’s door so that it lights up when they’re inside, sort of like a church confessional, or, the IoT version of the old “if there’s a necktie on the doorknob” trick. So. This idea is creepy on a number of different levels – but we can think of plenty of potential applications that are not as likely to alienate the people sharing your living space. Worried about a dodgy hot water heater or rain seeping into a leaky basement? You can connect a SmartThings water sensor to IFTTT, and set the Dot to show one color for a-ok and another if you need to grab your waders. In my house, a Dot would most definitely be set up to act as a subtle temperature display for the connected greenhouse outside, showing different colors for different temperature ranges. With 6 days left on its Kickstarter campaign, Dot has raised just under $100,000, almost 5 times its goal of $20,000.
Sgnl – A Finger Phone for Real Life
Another project, Sgnl, aims to make the imaginary finger-phone a reality. Sgnl consists of a standard-sized watch band that connects to your phone using Bluetooth and contains a Body Conduction Unit (BCU) that turns the voice of the person on the other end of the “line” into a vibration. (No really!) This vibration travels through your fingertip into your ear, while an algorithm selectively amplifies the voice on the other end of the line so you can hear the call clearly through your finger, even in a noisy room. A microphone on the watch band allows you to talk back, all while your phone stays safely stashed away in your purse or pocket. Sgnl bands are compatible with both with smart and classic watches.
We’re intrigued by this idea, if only for the amusement of watching people stick their fingers in their ears while talking into their wrists. So are a lot of other people – its Kickstarter campaign has already blown well past its $50,000 goal, sitting at just under $813,000 with 22 days left to go. But as with all crowdfunded gadgets, there’s no guarantee that the product will ever see the light of day. As all “makers” know, coming up with an idea is one thing. Getting it through production and working perfectly as advertised is another.
It’s worth noting that Sgnl’s maker, Innomdle Labs, is a startup spun off of Samsung’s secretive C-Labs — this could be viewed as a good sign or a bad sign, depending on the state of the current prototype. It could be that Sgnl is well on the way to meet its expected ship date of February 2017, or it could be this crowdsourcing campaign was created to support additional R&D on a product that’s not quite working as expected. Until then, it probably can’t hurt to send Sgnl a little Benny Hill energy on the matter.
Stepp – Real-time Running Feedback
On the fitness wearables front, Stepp is a product from a company called VST Technology (not to be confused with Virtual Studio Technology) that claims to help you run better, including a few more metrics than the smart insoles we’ve covered in the past. Stepp integrates 3 sensors (two on your shoes and another on your hip), measuring things like swing speed of your legs and impact force on your knees and ankles. The idea is to paint a more informed picture of how you’re aligning your body as you run, picking up on subtle signs of fatigue before you risk injury. (Like there’s anything “subtle” about how running fatigue feels…)
Stepp also offers real-time coaching through its smartphone app, so it can cut into your music with advice for improving your form as you run. (according to the FAQ, audio alerts will be configurable so you can turn off annoying unwanted advice. No word, either, on whether celebrity and/or customized voices are an option. If that’s an option, Stepp, we’ll take the Jimmy Fallon, please.) At a retail price of $199, Stepp may to be a better alternative to the more-than-$200 it’d cost you later at your sports medicine practitioner/massage therapist/chiropractor. Anyway, the countdown is on here — with 22 days left to, Stepp is a little over half way to its goal of $70,000. We’ll be keeping an eye on this one.
Fathom One – Affordable Underwater Drone
It was only a matter of time before the drone craze went underwater, and Fathom One is the first plausibly affordable amphibious drone to launch on Kickstarter. At under $600, it costs about half as much as other underwater drones on the market.) Fathom One films in 1080p resolution and includes built-in high intensity LEDs; its casing is built to withstand pressures to under 150 feet. Wireless piloting and live streaming video are accomplished via a WiFi buoy, connected to the drone with a long extendible cable (which we presume would also be handy for fishing your drone out of the drink if something goes awry).
With 13 days still to go, Fathom One is already $30,000 over its $150,000 goal. If the response to this campaign is any indication, our social media feeds will soon be brimming with underwater drone videos. Feature suggestion: Add some cloud connectivity, Fathom One. Contact the people at Shark Week, so we can all take the hit from Señor Great White, from the comfort of our terrestrial locations.
Check back soon for our curated selection of crowdsourced clunkers – those Kickstarter campaigns that seemed like a good idea at the time….
The Connected Greenhouse
If you’ve read this blog before, it’s possible that you picked up on my interest in rigging up a whole garden with connected hose splitters and smart plant sensors – but until all those connected garden bits are cheaper to manufacture, that dream is somewhat cost-prohibitive (especially considering all the different plant varieties growing on our little ¾ acre urban farm).
However, this year the early springtime garden routine got much easier, thanks to a little IoT enabling. As part of the process of growing food from seed, I typically spend an inordinate amount of time every year trying to keep tomato and pepper seedlings alive until they can be planted in the ground. This year, an IFTTT-enabled (IF This Then That, also known simply as IF) greenhouse came to the rescue.
It started with a weekend of cursing at (and constructing) a kit greenhouse at the edge of the vegetable garden. Then, a Netatmo weather station, a WeMo switch, and a small waterproof heater completed the setup.
I set up IF recipes to control the WeMo switch in response to the greenhouse temperature, eliminating the need to turn the heater off and on every morning and night. Next, a barrage of IF alerts to notify us in case something in the system failed (more on this later).
Of course, the night we got all of this up and running, one of Colorado’s Famous Late Spring Blizzards rolled in, dropping almost two feet of slushy snow and knocking out our power for the entire next day. The Netatmo base station just sat there useless with its plug in the wall, while the battery-powered module in the greenhouse kept flinging out its data for nobody to see.
This brings me to an important point. If only the Netatmo base station had a battery backup, or if the Netatmo app had the capability of communicating directly with the module in our greenhouse, all that happened next could have been avoided.
Instead, the first few hours without power were mainly spent hand-wringing, trying to calculate how fast the temperature might be falling in the greenhouse, and wondering aloud about all the horrible ways a seedling rescue mission in a blizzard might backfire. Hours later, with no word from the power crews and the outside temperatures falling fast, my sister and I ventured out into the blinding horizontal snow to retrieve our seedlings. Side note, Leslie was lucky enough to be “stranded” in Hawaii on this particular day (good things happen to good people).
As soon as I opened the greenhouse door, warm air whooshed out. The plants probably would have been fine for several more hours, but the Netatmo module couldn’t tell us that. In the end, most of the seedlings survived the storm – but it would have been a lot easier had we been able to connect to the greenhouse module directly from the Netatmo app during the blackout.
Once the power came back on, the connected greenhouse quickly proved its worth. I set up a bunch of IFTTT recipes to help monitor conditions in the greenhouse and warn us if the temperature got too hot or cold, for example by changing the color of the Philips Hue lights or sending texts.
Another of my favorite new IFTTT recipes connects with Comcast Labs and displays an alert on the TV screen when the greenhouse temperature gets too high. This saved the day one sunny spring morning, when I became distracted by a breaking news report on my way out to open up the greenhouse.
So in summary, IFTTT is a useful tool in the garden as well as the home, and it’s a wonder that any seedlings ever survived in my care without it.
We first dabbled with IFTTT back in 2014, and we’re still finding new ways to use the platform as it integrates with more apps and devices. And we’ve got plenty more favorites to share from our box of IFTTT recipes – so stay tuned!
The Package Guard: A Shrill New Solution for Stolen Packages
If you’ve ever had a package go missing, a guy named Mike Grabham knows your pain. He hopes to stop would-be thieves with the Package Guard, a smart package alarm that launched on Kickstarter last week.
The Package Guard is a Frisbee-sized sensor that says “PLACE PACKAGE HERE” in big letters. You put it on your doorstep, and hope that the person delivering your package is in a good mood (here’s where the technology would fail for me – our neighborhood UPS guy generally prefers to throw packages from the driveway, and he doesn’t have great aim.)
Assuming your package ends up on the sensor, which connects to your home WiFi network, you’ll be notified via text message or email – and you’ll need to reply to that message before you can remove your package from the Package Guard. If someone tries to steal the box (or, more likely, if you forget to reply to the message before you grab your package), the entire neighborhood will be treated to the shrill sound of the Package Guard’s alarm – similar to a car or fire alarm.
Future plans for the Package Guard include integration with “major brands” of surveillance cameras (as yet undisclosed). This means you’ll be able to watch would-be thieves as they cover their ears and run away, and then share the fun on social media.
The Package Guard is priced at $80, but early bird specials on Kickstarter offer a 50% discount. And 50 (un)fortunate people can sign up for the $5 “Package Theft Victim Special” that covers shipping for a free Package Guard, as long as they can provide proof of a stolen package (police report, media story, or response from shipper.)
You might be wondering if a thief can steal the Package Guard and your package at the same time (we did). According to the FAQ it is “almost impossible” to steal both at the same time, because it’s very difficult to get a human finger under the device without getting it off balance and triggering the alarm. Sounds like a challenge to me (with earplugs of course)! Also, the device can be attached to hard surfaces on a “semi-permanent basis,” which we’re guessing involves a bunch of that double-sided foam tape stuff.
Incidentally, the FAQ on the Package Guard’s Kickstarter page consisted of only that one question when we first saw it. It’s been filled out quite a bit in the meantime, but we still have a few lingering questions:
First up, battery life – it appears to run on four AA batteries, which doesn’t seem like enough power to keep the Package Guard sending texts and sounding alarms for very long. When the batteries get low, does it send you a text?
And when you’re not expecting a package, do you bring it inside (and if so will it wake up the whole family by shrieking from the confines of the hall closet in the middle of the night)?
And what if you live in high-rise, condo, apartment, or any other kind of multi-dwelling unit, where each resident would need their own Frisbee-sized disk in the lobby?
We’re interested to see how this gadget turns out, if only because the mental image makes us smile. But will we be testing it out ourselves anytime soon? Until the UPS guy can learn to hit our front porch (let alone a target), it’s not going to work in my neighborhood. It’s not going to work at Leslie’s lab, either, because it’s in a high-rise with 58 units (and a pretty small lobby). Just sayin’…