Remote-controlled power strip
Smart Home Hacks is a Cool Tool

A quirky approach to home control

It's fascinating to see the wave of remote home control (sort of like "automation," but not really) products that are coming to market. I recently stumbled across a display of products from Quirky at my local Home Depot.

The Quirky line is part of General Electric, and some of their devices are quite unique, befitting the name of course. For example, they offer an automated egg keeper that will notify you when individual eggs are approaching their expiration date. (At $70, I'm skeptical about the economics of this, however.) Another fun device is a piggybank that tracks how much money it holds.

All Quirky products use Wi-Fi to connect to the Wink service. You need the Wink app to configure and use the sensors. ('Quirky?', 'Wink?' -- I guess all the sensible names were already spoken for.) The mishmash of names makes (add in 'GE' too) make it a little hard to find the app, so here's a direct link.

To associate your sensor with your device and account, there's a really interesting setup process that I've never seen before. A bright blue LED on top of the sensor flashes some sort of signal, and the app on your iOS device turns the screen white and flashes too, then you direct the two flashes towards each other and, somehow, they sync up. It's very odd, but works great, and kudos for a process that anyone can follow easily.

Curiosity got the best of me and I purchased the "Spotter" multi-purpose sensor. It's about the size of hockey puck and can be powered by battery or the included AC adapter. It's very unique (are you sensing a theme, here?) in that it has four sensors combined into one device. It has a temperature/humidity, sound, light, and movement sensors. The cost was $50, which isn't a bad deal considering how much this device can do.

However, experienced home automators will find the Spotter a little perplexing. None of the sensors are able to report their status. Instead, everything is based on triggers. That is, you can't read the room's temperature, you can only set up an action that is triggered when a specific minimum or maximum temperature is reached. You can set up multiple triggers, though, so that helps some.

In fact, all of the sensors only support narrowly defined triggers. For the sound sensor, you can define actions for when the ambient sound becomes quiet or when it gets loud. The light sensor supports going from dark to light, or light to dark. The movement sensor is unusual in that it measures movement of the sensor itself--it is not a motion detector for the surrounding area. Quirky's use case for this is that you can mount the sensor on a door and get notified when it has been opened or closed. (The battery-power option is likely necessary with this scenario, too.)

The limitations come into play because you can't adjust these triggers in any way. For example, here in the big city, the built-in sound threshold for "loud" is too low. For the first day, I was bombarded with notifications every time a car drove down the alley by my garage. However, on day two, the notifications became less frequent. I don't know if this is because the sensor "learned" about its environment, or if it fell offline, or what. Again, the lack of ability to even see the status of a sensor using the app makes this more a of guessing game than it should be.

The available actions are either to send an email or a Push Notification. The email messages come from a dummy address at quirky.com, which is a nice ease-of-use touch, but will also be a little confounding to those of us who like total control.

Overall, there is very little documentation, and no API, about how to really put the Spotter to use in a more feature-rich manner. Some D.I.Y. home automators will decide it's little more than a toy, but I would disagree with this assessment. I see this as a very capable solution for the mass market. I set my Spotter up in my garage so that I'll be alerted to anything suspicious happening out there. But, I think the real opportunity for Spotter is in applications like "aging in place." Installing a Spotter at your elderly relative's home would be easy, not at all intrusive, and could provide a lot of peace of mind about their status. (For info about this topic see More on Monitoring Elderly at Home )

The other Quirky device that caught my eye was the $130 "Nimbus" dashboard. It features 4 digital and analog(!) displays that you can use to show the status of various things. For example, how many email messages you have waiting, travel times, a stock price, and so on. Frankly, I love this idea and find this the most compelling thing that Quirky offers. However, the dearth of information about how it actually works prevents me from buying or recommending it. Based on my experience with the Spotter, I'd expect it to only work with a handful of services at best, and there's no indication that it can read data from the Spotter, which would make a lot of sense.

All in all, Quirky is on the right track. I only hope they open things up a little for the rest of us, or at least provide more pre-sales information so that buying in isn't such a leap of faith.

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