Alert: Your Plant Needs Water
New Wireless Sensors Are Connecting Everyday Objects With People
By JESSICA E. VASCELLARO - Wall Street Journal
Imagine receiving an email when a load of laundry is completed, or a text message when a child opens the cookie jar one too many times.
Such notifications have become possible thanks to a host of start-ups that are adding intelligence and communications capability to objects and appliances, giving them many attributes of computers and smartphones.
The approaches, mainly in their early days, vary widely. Twine, a $99 device from Supermechanical LLC, includes a sensor that detects changes in temperature or vibration and sends alerts through a Wi-Fi connection. Users could place the small square device next to water pipes, for example, and receive a text message when the pipes are freezing. Or they could hook up a moisture sensor to receive an alert when plants need water.
Egomotion Corp.'s Tagstand sells stickers with embedded computer chips—based on a technology called near-field communication, or NFC—that can store and transmit small amounts of data. The stickers can be scanned by a mobile phone and programmed to complete tasks on the Internet, like posting to Facebook Inc.
GreenGoose Inc. of San Francisco, Calif., is selling similar technology to reward people for good behavior. Its $49 toothbrush sensor kit includes a small device that attaches to a toothbrush, an egg-shaped wireless base station that plugs into a Wi-Fi router, and a downloadable mobile game. When a child brushes her teeth, a cartoon monkey dances and jumps on the phone to encourage two minutes of brushing.
Founder Brian Krejcarek envisions future applications that motivate kids to take medicine, among other things. The technology brings "a bit of levity to something that otherwise kind of stinks," he said.
The new businesses say they are inspired by how smartphones have trained consumers to expect constant connectivity. That same constant flow of information can happen between people and objects, helping people automate routine tasks and checkups.
"So many things are silent and unconnected in the world that no one knows anything about them until later," says David Carr, co-founder of Supermechanical, which is based in Austin, Texas. An air conditioner, for instance, has no way to tell you that it is broken before it starts running up your electric bill, he said. Mr. Carr predicts technology like Twine will eventually be embedded into devices, taking home automation to new levels.
Electronics giants like Samsung Electronics Co sell Wi-Fi-enabled refrigerators and washing machines. Its refrigerator has a small screen that displays music and recipe apps among others, while the washing machine can send an alert to a phone when it is done.
But the upstarts are targeting enthusiastic hobbyists with a much broader range of use cases. They are doing so as the cost of sensors and other components continue to fall. At the same time, software developers have created tools to program them without serious know-how.
Users need two AAA batteries to power up their Twine and must set it up online via drop-down menus. The options allow users to indicate if they want to receive a text message when the temperature is below a certain level, for instance.
The wireless stickers sold by San Francisco-based Tagstand are also programmed online. Each tag has a chip linked to a Web address. Users can also link tags to an app Tagstand developed that modifies settings on their phone.
Jimmy Selix, a 33-year-old information-technology administrator from Minneapolis, Minn., programmed some Tagstand stickers to expedite tasks he performs frequently, like turning off his cellphone ringer during meetings.
Using the Tagstand app on his Samsung Galaxy Nexus phone, he programmed two tags. He scans one labeled "meeting mode" when he wants to turn off Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and the ringer during meetings and the "personal mode" one when he turns them on again. He has programmed a third to connect to the Foursquare check-in service to tell his friends when he arrives at his condo.
"I feel like I am living in the future," Mr. Selix said. Programming the tags—which cost him $15 for a set 15—was easy, he said, though the functions they perform are still fairly limited.