June 7, 2013 6:31 pm

The Innovator: The house that tweets

The advent of the smart house, in which the future is fashioned from a few sensors and a cheap WiFi webcam

Tom Coates lives in a house that tweets. “Hey @tomcoates, I just noticed some movement in the sitting room. Is that you?” it posts to @houseofcoates when a motion sensor is activated in the British designer’s San Francisco home.

It’s not the sort of giant leap forward in technology that would have got Steve Jobs donning his polo neck for a big announcement. But, sometimes, it’s the quiet developments that creep up on us that end up changing our lives.

Coates, co-founder of a yet-to-launch start-up called Product Club, spent a few hundred dollars on Amazon to create a simple system that allows his house to tweet to him when certain “smart” devices are used. He likens its quotidian updates – about the temperature, lights switching on or whether his plant needs watering – to posts from a friend abroad. “You don’t care about everything they’re doing but it’s nice to have a sense that they are there,” he says, noting that it also functions as a cheap burglar alarm.

This isn’t the first house to announce itself to the Twittersphere. Andy Stanford-Clark, an IBM engineer, “instrumented” his house on the Isle of Wight four years ago. Other structures brought to life over Twitter include Tower Bridge (“I am opening for the SB Gladys, which is passing downstream”). But I believe Coates is the first to give his house a personality, important for making any new technology accessible and human. This isn’t just a “smart” home, it’s a cute one, too: “I just turned on the Downstairs Lights. It was getting a bit dark,” says one tweet; another says: “Wow. It’s hit 77F! It’s getting toasty. I’d better open a window or something.”

Illustration of a tweeting house by Toby Leigh©Toby Leigh

What’s remarkable is that Coates created this house without soldering any circuits or writing a line of computer code. The technology is cheap enough to be cheerful. But what’s it really for? Folk in Silicon Valley are increasingly fixated by the vision of an “internet of things”, where objects can communicate with each other without human intervention. Big companies such as GE and Cisco have championed it for years for its promised productivity savings and safety improvements.

Yet in Coates’s house, the future is fashioned from a cheap WiFi webcam and a few sensors. But if more of us who already talk to our plants wanted to get our appliances chattering, there’s still another problem: we don’t speak geek.

Coates’s house harks back to one of the earliest web phenomena, in 1993, when a grainy camera trained on a Cambridge university coffee pot became the lolcat – funny pictures of cats posted online – of its day. Now, the coffee pot could connect to the web by itself through a plug adaptor that’s the price of a few lattes, and might soon be ordering its own beans. Yet today’s internet of things feels like the 1990s web – full of potential but disorganised and unruly.

Dozens of companies are selling internet-connected door locks, thermostats and light bulbs. Each has its own individual app. But no one has found a good way to link them all together and help people manage them, in the way that Google’s search engine allowed us to navigate the vastness of the web.

What I like about Coates’s set-up is that it doesn’t require elaborately chaining too many things together. His devices come from different manufacturers but are unified by posting to the same Twitter account, which makes sense of the noise.

One way to harness gadgets’ output is If This Then That, a straightforward web service that lets the physical world talk to the internet. It’s still a bit geeky but even I could make a light switch trigger a tweet or post to Facebook when I opened the fridge door.

Not everyone will want their house to tweet. But as it becomes easy and cheap enough for us to play with this technology, perhaps we can find out how to make the internet of things really useful.

Tim Bradshaw is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent. The Undercover Economist returns on July 6

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