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’…
Blippar now recognizes cats, other items without AR codes
Augmented reality app Blippar is hardly new (it’s been around since 2012, almost as long the lab!), but it’s back in the bright lights after curiously shifting its focus to features associated with machine learning.
Until the latest update, the U.K.-based Blippar was mainly focused on advertising and content for brands. In a nutshell, Blippar allowed customers to “blipp” (or scan) a logo on its partners’ products to get more information. So, kinda like a QR code, with gusto: Blipps can generate a variety of actions on the partaker’s mobile device, like launching audio or video clips, dialing a phone number, or connecting to a social media page.
Blippar gained quite a bit of traction with its initial concept, partnering with several large brands and media companies including Conde Nast, TIME, and Unilever. But over the past year and a half, and for reasons unknown to us, founder Ambarish Mitra shifted Blippar’s focus towards machine learning, even going so far as to move his team from the U.K. to the Silicon Valley.
With the most recent update, Blippar gained the ability to recognize objects that don’t include a logo – such as dogs, apples, and cars. And as Mitra puts it, in an interview with Re/code,, the technology is still in the early stages, like the brain of a six-year-old. It can recognize “car,” but not “Prius;” an item of clothing, but not the label.
So naturally, we took it for a spin to see for ourselves how the technology works.
When I aimed my phone at Raya the cat, sitting in the windowsill, a flurry of words swirled around my screen like a tag cloud. And initially, the app seemed to have some difficulty distinguishing between species. It got “mammal” right away, but seemed to think my cat was a dog (to its credit, she does play fetch and growl at the mailman.) Finally it caught on and started bringing up cat-related words like “curiosity,” “kitten,” and “tabby.”
An icon of a cat appeared on the screen and when I tapped it, more icons appeared with different actions – giving me links to buy pet food, watch cat videos, and donate to the Humane Society.
But, in contrast to most apps that tie into e-commerce, Blippar wasn’t able to read barcodes when we tested it (however, it did spout a bunch of words like “savings” and “finance” when I aimed my phone at a barcode.)
Next, I stepped outside to go see what Blippar made of the chickens. As soon as the flock appeared in view, Blippar blurted another jumble of words, like “farm,” “food” and “nature.”
Impressively, the app even seemed able to distinguish between the hens (which it called “beautiful,” and we have to agree) and the rooster, zeroing in on Caesar’s tail with the word “cockerel”:
Back inside the house, it thought it saw a “squash racket” in the kitchen and initially mistook a pair of scissors for a table knife, but then quickly got it right. When I pointed my iPhone at an orange, it immediately displayed an icon of an orange followed by a bunch of juicy descriptors:
In general, the app did a remarkably good job of recognizing anything I put in front of my iPhone lens. Until I got back to my desk, that is. When I aimed my phone at the glass of water sitting next to my computer, Blippar declared it happy hour.
“Vodka!” “Cocktails!” Even whisky and wine – it must have chimed in with every type of alcohol (and juice) — but didn’t once mention water.
It’s Thursday morning, Blippar
Thinking the Blippar app might be confused by the fact that I was drinking water out of a pint glass with the words “hard cider” on it, I filled a plain water glass instead. But as I focused on the glass of water with my work still in the background, it did the same thing.
It’s only water. Honest!
Then a glass appeared on screen with a bunch of options, and I thought Blippar might have some sort of crowdsourcing feature that could help it learn the difference between water and whisky. Alas, no, but it did give me the opportunity to shop for water glasses online, learn about how to safely dispose of a broken glass, and watch a video of how to pour the perfect beer.
Aside from the fact that I felt a bit like the app was peer-pressuring me to pour a cocktail at the beginning of a workday, the revamped Blippar is surprisingly entertaining – particularly when you take it outside for a walk – and we’re interested to see how its machine learning evolves over time, and what can be done with it.
We can think of plenty of possible uses down the road (for example – describing the view through the lens to visually-impaired people). But in its current state, Blippar doesn’t provide much more than entertainment and a few links to buy things online. Is Blippar just a blip on the radar, or will we see it expand into something more useful? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Starry-eyed surprise: The rise of wireless Internet startups?
By Leslie Ellis and Sara Dirkse
In case you’ve managed to forget the tragic tale of Aereo, brace for some flashbacks. Aereo founder Chet Kanojia announced last week that he is introducing a new Internet service – called “Starry” – that uses millimeter wave technology to wirelessly deliver Internet speeds up to 1GB. Kanojia aims to disrupt the business of broadband with this latest venture, a new take on fixed wireless technology.
“It costs the cable guys around $2,500 per home to deal with the construction costs of laying down cable,” said Kanojia on a Jan. 27 phone call with TechCrunch, setting the scene for his next big reveal. “And beyond cost, there are regulatory hurdles that slow down the process.”
We can’t really speak for the legal or regulatory challenges Starry might face (thank the heavens and – heh-heh! – stars), but it’s probably safe to assume that ISPs are already all over it. However, on the latest episode of Re/code Decode with Peter Kafka, Kanojia shared a more optimistic view. “Comcast isn’t going out of business,” he said when asked if he expected another legal challenge. “It is better for them to have a few small competitors in the market so that the government is satisfied.”
Potential legal battles aside, it appears Starry might face some challenges on the technical front too. Re/code’s Ina Fried put together a great analysis of some of the technical stumbling blocks that Starry might face, based on issues that plagued similar ventures in the past.
Here’s the basics: Starry uses technology called “millimeter wave band active phased array technology.” This being Translation Please, indulge us in doing what we endeavor to do.
Starry Beam rooftop module (Image credit: Engadget)
In a nutshell, Starry puts a bunch of little nodes called “Starry Beams” on rooftops in densely populated areas (this might ring a bell with anyone who used Aereo), and gives its customers little receivers called “Starry Points” to stick outside of a window.
Starry Point window receiver (Image credit: Engadget)
The Starry Beam shoots out millimeter waves in a bunch of different directions (this is what they mean by “active phased array”), and these waves bounce off of buildings and other obstacles until they reach your Starry Point. Aereo claims that they can transmit a reliable signal without line-of-sight from the node to the receiver, unlike previous attempts at fixed wireless Internet.
Aereo also offers the optional Starry Station, a $349 Android-powered router with a touchscreen that monitors its own connections, handles parental controls, and a bunch of other tricks.
The (optional) Starry Station (Image credit: Engadget)
According to Kanojia, this approach will save Starry, and its customers, a lot of time and money. “We can deliver faster broadband with no regulatory wait time and it will cost us only $25 per home,” he said on the TechCrunch call.
No word yet on pricing, other than that Starry will be a tiered service based on speed (topping out at 1 GB up and down).
Chet isn’t alone in the landscape of wireless startups targeting larger ISPs. Two San Francisco-based companies, Artemis Networks and Webpass, are working together on a similar service. This one is particularly interesting because Artemis claims to have invented a way to use interference as a channel for transmitting and receiving data – so the more interference, the better the connection. (It all sounds so … Hedy Lamarr!)
We can’t wait to see this one in action – and according to Artemis founder Steve Perlman (yes, that Steve Perlman — former head of WebTV, Rearden Steel and Moxi), we might see it in Boston later this year (assuming the FCC gives the nod).
Plus, Chet’s just an interesting guy to keep an eye on. He started out in cable, founding Navic Networks in the early 2000s. Remember? Microsoft bought Navic in 2008 for a reported $250 million; Chet’s been throwing wrenches at the industry that launched him ever since. Which makes us wonder: Who pissed Chet Kanojia off so bad?
Hmm, that’s interesting…Our latest take on the IOT
One of my favorite duties in the lab is to keep track of the various internet-connected gadgets that pop up on crowdsourcing websites, trade shows, and around the Internet. These generally fall into two categories: “The world needs this” and “Hmmm. That’s… interesting.” (Quite often, the latter is our polite way of saying “that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of.” But we never want to be unkind…so we stick with “interesting.”)
We encountered a slew of new connected gadgets in 2015, from awe-inspiring to downright unsettling. Here are some of the head-scratching highlights of this year:
Hello Barbie, $75
Hexo+ Selfie Drone, $1,349
This one is equal parts cool, silly, and unsettling. Hexo+ is a camera-equipped drone that uses pattern-matching technology to follow a given target – think “selfie hovercraft.” The idea is, you can use the app to make the drone follow you at a given speed and distance as you’re shredding some singletrack. Or it can hover around you as you dangle off the face of a mountain. Or catch a wave. You get the idea. This way, you can document your outdoor prowess without bothering your friends to photograph you — or break your neck taking selfies. Other potential uses include investigating insurance fraud, stalking (eww), and following your child to the bus stop. The mind reels!
VVFly Intelligent Snore Stopper, $56
This ear-mounted device from Chinese company VVFly is designed to stop the wearer from snoring, in addition to tracking sleep time and quality. VVFly uses bone conductivity to tell when the wearer is snoring, and then discourages them from doing so with “soothing, gentle voice” in their ear that rouses them just enough to stop the racket. Which is theoretically better than the alternatives: “YOU’RE SNORING!”, or, the elbow treatment. Until they fall right back asleep, of course! We’ll stick with last year’s anti-snoring bed, or just our pointy elbows.
ICPooch Video Treat Dispenser ($100, plus mobile devices)
This device is a prime example of how a gadget can be equal parts brilliant and impractical, depending. The ICPooch treat dispenser was invented by 14-year-old Brooke Martin, and quickly blew past its fundraising goal on Kickstarter. ICPooch provides a two-way video stream between people and furry friends using the companion mobile app (you’ll need a tablet for your pet in addition to your own mobile device in order to do video). You can also dole out treats from afar, using a “drop cookie” button on the app. The dispenser itself connects to WiFi, so you can control it from the app even if the dog’s tablet gets buried in the backyard during your absence.
The concept has a lot of merit — it’s hard to be away from our pets, and ICPooch is a novel way to interact with our furry friends from afar. On the other hand, those of us with very food-motivated pets might think twice about having a fragile screen as the gatekeeper for the dog treats.
This smart garbage can, the brainchild of students at Newcastle University, is designed to analyze and improve trash and recycling habits in its users. Here’s how it works: You throw something away. A camera in the lid of the trash bin takes a photo of your trash. This photo is then sent via Amazon Mechanical Turk — a crowdsourcing marketplace that coordinates human intelligence for tasks that aren’t easily done by computer — to be analyzed by an actual human being (plausibly in a developing nation), to see how much of your trash could have been recycled or composted. While we fully support the mission, we can’t imagine many people paying to have their trash dissected by another person. Oh, and did we mention? BinCam uses Facebook as its platform, so you can easily share (or worry about your trash can accidentally sharing) photos of your garbage with your whole social network.
Um, yeah, no thanks.
Check back next time to see our favorite picks from the best of IoT file!
Refreshing the Stream
Now that Colorado’s epic Indian Summer is officially over, we’re into the season of long nights and TV marathons. And this year, there’s a treasure trove of new OTT content options and refreshed devices to choose sample. Here are some of the new arrivals you might want to check out as we hurtle toward the holiday shopping season:
Apple TV ($199)
Apple TV finally released new hardware this fall — for the first time since 2010 — sticking with a hardware design nearly identical to the last version.
The box is just a fraction of an inch taller, and they’ve given the remote control a refresh too, adding a landscape orientation for gaming. Like all the other devices in this list, the new Apple TV includes a voice search feature – here in the form of the beloved (and/or detested!) Siri.
Google also released an updated version of its popular Chromecast streaming player this Fall, with the same low price point as the original but with a very different design.
The new Chromecast is a complete circle that dangles from a flexible HDMI cable, making it easier to fit into tight HDMI ports. It comes in three color choices (red, black, and yellow) and has three WiFi antennas, for a more reliable connection (the original had but a single antenna).
The new Chromecast also includes a feature called “Fast Play,” which begins pre-buffering videos before you press the play button to cut down on loading times.
Roku 4 ($130)
Roku’s latest flagship device is capable of playing videos at 4K resolution, and also includes a few other features to help sweeten the deal — which is good, because many of us haven’t shelled out for Ultra HD TVs yet, and the 4K content selection is still pretty limited. Our favorite new Roku trick is the way it can page a lost remote control from the Roku 4 box – a big help in houses with dogs, kids, or greedy couches.
The OTT (over-the-top, or available without a pay TV subscription) content selection really took off this year, as did the selection of streaming content available to cable subscribers. HBO and Showtime are now both available as a la carte streaming services ($15 and $11/month, respectively) — a scenario that just three years ago seemed about as likely as a unicorn ride. Here are some other new updates to the streaming content scene:
Playstation Vue ($50/month)
Playstation Vue is a live streaming service that came out in March, but was only available on Playstation consoles . It finally announced expansion to new devices on November 12, starting with Amazon Fire TV devices and expanding to Chromecast in the “near future.” The base package is twice the price of Sling TV, and carries about twice as many channels.
Hulu’s “No Commercials” plan
Hulu started in 2008 with free, browser-only content supported by ads – and when Hulu Plus launched in 2010, it kept the commercials while other premium OTT services streamed ad-free. Hulu finally introduced a “No Commercials” plan, for $12/month, while keeping the $8 plan available for those of us who don’t mind a break in the action.
*There’s always a catch! Be sure to check out the fine print for a handful of shows that are not available commercial-free.
On October 28, YouTube launched its own ad-free streaming service called YouTube Red, for $10/month. Red gets rid of the commercials, and also allows subscribers to download videos for offline viewing. YouTube Red also includes a few features that are often requested by users, including the ability to play content in the background or with the screen turned off – making it easier to use YouTube as a music player, for example. And on that note, the YouTube Red subscription includes access to Google Music’s streaming catalog of 35 million songs (and vice versa, if you’re already a Google Music subscriber). Heads up, Netflix: Google is gunning for you (again!)
To be sure, OTT video has changed a lot (understatement) since we started the blog 4(!) years ago – and while we’re not seeing a lot of new entrants to the device or service categories these days, we’re still seeing plenty of improvements to the user experience. Stay tuned for more updates, including our annual roundup of brilliant and “oh, that’s… interesting” ideas from the Internet of Things.