CRT Labs Gets It Done: Our 2017 Year In Review

2017 was a great year for CRT Labs and especially for the projects we’ve been cultivating. From meeting thousands of REALTORS® at various conferences, to publishing our first book, to winning awards, CRT Labs really was on a roll this year, and I’ve been really excited to write this wrap-up and see everything collected together.

We hit up a lot of conferences and other speaking events this year, including visiting dozens of associations, reaching out to REALTORS® all over the country and showing off our hardware and software projects. We continued our sponsorship of TechEdge, a series of one-day conferences designed to keep REALTORS® up-to-date with exciting technology trends in the real estate industry. We managed to speak at every TechEdge in 2017, talking about smart home trends, smart city initiatives, and the impact of blockchain on real estate.

Speaking of blockchain, Dave dove into the blockchain arena head first this year, and has been leading the way investigating the technology’s impact on the real estate industry. This impact goes beyond just simply using Bitcoin for transactions, and has potential to service multiple areas in the real estate world. Dave has been working on a prototype application of blockchain for associations which would help consolidate and streamline member information. Chris has also been hard at work on our Rosetta Home software, which has been showcased (and won a grant!) for its public data visualization. To go along with Rosetta Home, Akram has been finalizing our Touchstone indoor environmental quality sensor, and we had a small production run of boards in December and have begun testing them here in the labs. Together, these projects will work together to monitor and control the environment inside your home, and will make a great closing gift to give to clients.

Joe and Adrienne focused a lot on education this year, starting with the Smart Home Simplified series. These easy-to-read pamphlets tell you everything you need to know about a variety of smart home products. To supplement the Smart Home Simplified series, we also created display information for any association who is looking to set up smart home demo stations and needs placards and other information displayed for their members during demos. Chad and Adrienne will be speaking about these demo stations, along with Abby Creitz of NAR’s Information Services, at the Association Executives Institute in Charlotte in March 2018. Adrienne and Akram teamed up with the Library here at NAR to create a video display system using Raspberry Pi, and Dave and Adrienne helped the Library set up an iPad kiosk for members visiting the Library and Archives.

We also published our first book! A Pocket Guide to Cleaner Air: Plants for Commercial Spaces debuted in the summer and is the first in a series of small-scale books about indoor air quality and ways you can make the air you breathe cleaner and healthier. Adrienne wrote the book, along with Abby Creitz from Information Services, and Donna McCormick and Debbie Dell-Mayer in Information Technology. Joe designed the book, including one of the coolest book covers ever (in this writer’s completely biased opinion).

Chad, our fearless leader, was up front advocating for the team all year, speaking to everyone he could about all the great stuff happening inside the labs. He also had the wacky (at the time) idea to create a Plant Globe to display at the NAR Annual Convention in November. Chad also did a great deal of research into smart city and smart community issues, and is currently starting a project to revitalize his hometown in Iowa by helping turn their nearly-vacant shopping mall into a makerspace.

The Plant Globe installed at the Commercial Pavilion at the NAR Annual Convention in 2017 in Chicago.

It was a great year at CRT Labs, and 2018 is already shaping up the same way. We hope to see you at a conference, or to join us on a Facebook Live in the future. To get up to the minute details of the projects we’re working on, follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

More Hits Than Misses: We Review Our Predictions for 2017

To start out 2017, we decided to take a stab at some predictions for the year in technology. How did our team fare? We take a look back at our predictions, with a twist – each member of the labs took a look at someone else’s predictions and reviewed them! And we added Akram to the team this year, but he’s not off the hook – he’s giving us an overall rating of this year’s predictions.

AKRAM’S OVERVIEW:
In general, the CRT Labs team had some great predictions, with a lot of them ending up being true or at least, partially true. The general prediction about security and privacy being a major problem in 2017 turned out to be accurate all around the world. Several hacks, leaks, attacks, privacy concerns, followed by new and upcoming legislations show how important 2017 was in this regard. It also means that we should keep a cautious eye out with our 2018 predictions. While renewable energy technology didn’t gain the traction we had hoped it would, it definitely is being refined and researched,  and we’re looking forward to what the coming years hold in terms of solar, wind and hydropower technologies. While increased awareness in cryptocurrencies was not part of our prediction, several applications based on its underlying technology – Blockchain – were seen implemented on a wide scale and continue to evolve as more people become aware of its uses. Tesla’s self-driving truck did disrupt the trucking industry as per our prediction – the question remains on whether they will follow suit with autonomous buses within the coming years. Keep an eye out on the CRT Labs team’s predictions for the upcoming year – it is bound to be a very interesting one!

CHAD’S PREDICTION:
After solar shingles, there will be solar siding and solar window offerings for traditional consumers. This would mean that homes wouldn’t need consistent direct sunlight to harvest energy. Homes in traditionally less-sunny places could harvest solar as effectively as homes in the southwest. Home energy battery storage will make this an even more viable option as batteries look less and less like batteries and more like traditional appliances. Cities will also begin implementing systems that aren’t one type of energy harvesting. Solar, wind and hydropower will take great steps to become prominent in large and small cities. Cities will find creative ways to gather energy from these three methods that are both practical and aren’t highly visible. Portland is already generating hydropower using its water mains. Expect smaller form factors in all three areas for ancillary energy harvesting. Solar sunflowers and wind trees are examples we may see deployed on boulevards and parks in 2017. 

Chad had a lot of solar power-related predictions this year, sensing the rise of more renewable energies being used over traditional fossil fuel sources. Solar power was the fastest-growing source of new energy in 2017 for commercial settings, beating out coal, the usual leading new energy growth source. The Paris-based International Energy Agency “expect[s] that solar PV [photovoltaic] capacity growth will be higher than any other renewable technology up to 2022.” We didn’t see the big push towards solar windows and siding – the technology is still being honed, with a paper published in late October touting the academic research into solar film for windows and siding application. Unfortunately, we did see a decrease in solar usage in residential areas, with the introduction of new laws and regulations that favor other energy sources. However, the outlook of solar energy is still bright (pun-intended) for many, with Google’s Project Sunroof giving you an estimate if your home is right for solar energy by calculating the amount of power your home could generate compared to your current energy usage. – Adrienne

CHRIS’S PREDICTION:
In the managed smart home arena, we’ll see the telecommunications companies continue to grow in importance, and many of the “closed” managed smart home systems will loosen some of their restrictions, allowing consumers to bring their own devices. In order to secure the increasing number of internet-connected devices, the government will get involved in encryption and security requirements. Open-source software will continue to be incredibly important. Open-source distributed ledger applications such as Hyperledger and Corda will be among the first widely-used Blockchain apps, and open-source tools will also become increasingly important to journalists and citizen activists. Voice control, artificial intelligence, and deep machine learning will continue to redefine our relationship with devices, and self-driving trucks will disrupt the trucking industry (with cars and busses not too far behind). Monitoring the health of your home – CO2, energy efficiency, VOC, and water contamination – will see a rise in importance as rising CO2 levels and water contamination continue to make news.

I’ll highlight each prediction by Chris and then give my take. On August 1st, Senator Mark Warner introduced legislation that addresses internet of things devices and cybersecurity. It was read twice, then referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. There has been no action since. Groups like the FCC, FTC, and Department of Commerce introduced programs to establish best practices and start a cybersecurity framework. Asset management blockchain apps are just starting to be formed. Our own Dave Conroy developed several, including at least one using Hyperledger. And, we joined the Hyperledger Association this year! For the citizen activists and journalists, Twitter seems to have been the tool du jour, since a lot of the information coming at us is now coming in 140 character bytes (or is it 280?). As far as other tools, there weren’t a lot of new innovations this year. There’s been a lot of talk about VPNs being needed. One company that made great headway into the encrypted communications front is Protonmail. They released an amazing VPN client this year and an encrypted contacts client. We are seeing more voice assistants roll out, with Google’s latest Google Assistant work, as well as Google Lens and Apple opening up on artificial intelligence/machine learningTesla showed off their electric semi truck with a host of autonomous features. It’s iminent. Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, recently declared we are ‘quarters, not years’ away from self-driving cars, and Las Vegas has been testing self-driving buses. There have been a lot of studies published this year on the effect of CO2 levels on people and the planet. While explicitly, there hasn’t been a concerted push by national entities or groups on the monitoring of the health of the home, I believe Chris’ prediction will definitely be a strong one in the coming year. We believe in it so much we are creating hardware and software to approach the problem. – Chad

JOE’S PREDICTION:

In 2017 we’re likely to see an increase in the tension between our public and private identities. On the one hand, declaring exactly who we are — and where we are, and when we are there — is an essential part of customizing many user experiences. Concerns about surveillance, though, are prompting more people to use (or at least start asking about) Tor browsers, personal VPNs, and other tools that provide increased security and anonymity. Balancing the demands of both openness and privacy will be a huge story in 2017. (To learn more about Americans and their views on surveillance, visit the Pew Research Center.)

Joe was totally on-point, although many in the non-technical world may have missed some of the more subtle things that happened this year. On the bad side for consumers and internet users, Congress voted to allow ISPs to sell all your data, Equifax was hacked, and FCC Net Neutrality was repealed. In response to these actions we did see some movement from browser vendors: Google is set to add ad-blocker technology to Chrome, and Firefox has added opt-in tracking protection. We also saw some movement in do-it-yourself VPN services like Algo, Open VPN, and Streisand. Tor didn’t get as much attention as I would have liked, but Mozilla did step up and match donations to the Tor Project. All in all, it was a pretty rough year for privacy/security minded folks on the Internet. And really everyone in the U.S. has been affected by the Equifax hack, and we have likely barely seen the fall-out from that incident. On the bright-side it’s made our legislative branches become acutely aware of the problems of consolidated data collection, and we are likely to see some major changes coming in the new year. – Chris

ADRIENNE’S PREDICTION:

Now that Google Home has hit the ground running, I predict this year the company will integrate its popular home assistant into their mesh network platform, Google Wifi. Each router will act a lot like an Amazon Echo Dot, but bring in the added mesh networking capabilities. Right now, a 3-pack of the routers costs $299, with additional units costing $129 (the same as a Google Home); however, I believe the company will introduce a smaller router, without the ethernet ports and with tiny speakers, at around $69 to compete with the $49.99 Echo Dot. Google’s goal is to get an assistant in every room in order to control your smart home. They’ve already pulled ahead of Amazon with their multi-room support, which not only has intelligent voice detection to allow you to only interact with the Google Home closest to you but also allows you to control playback on other Google audio devices in other rooms. Of course, for Google to control your whole home, they’ll need to expand compatibility, but since their API opened to the public at the end of 2016, both third party and native support for devices will be coming in 2017.

Adrienne’s absolutely crushed her 2017 prediction of “Google’s goal is to get an assistant in every room.” This year, Google expanded its hardware virtual assistant product offerings in an attempt to compete with the Amazon, the clear incumbent in this space. After an aggressive holiday discount, The Google Home Mini is currently priced at only $29. As Adrienne predicted, this makes you the ability to control your smart home with your voice in any room in your house. While they didn’t accomplish through adding voice to their mesh networking platform, I think we can give her a pass. Especially since there is still reason to believe that this may come true in 2018, as the Google Wifi is due for a hardware refresh. – Dave

DAVE’S PREDICTION:

I predict we have not seen the end of consumer-gradenial of Service (DDoS) attacks caused by consumer grade IoT devices. In fact, I feel it is possible we will see a large scale event in 2017 that would cause the disruption of legitimate internet traffic in the United States for up to 24 hours. As we covered in our Insecurity of Things blog series last October, it only takes a few dozen hardware manufacturers to not follow best practices to leave over a half million devices vulnerable to hijacking.  With these manufactures already facing heavy competition and slim profits margins, coupled with the influx of new startups rushing to into the space – security and privacy are not given the priority they deserve. Part of our mission here at CRT labs is to educate REALTORS® and consumers about these issues, and it is very promising to see both parties starting to prioritize them when they are deciding what devices to put in their homes. However, until the hardware vendors start taking on the responsibility, there is still a significant risk for large scale attacks. For more information about best practices and how you can keep your devices secure, please visit one of our partner organizations – the Online Trust Alliance.

While Dave’s prediction of a large scale disruption of legitimate internet traffic for 24 hours didn’t come true – thankfully! – it certainly wasn’t a great year for security and privacy. One information security resource recently reported that 33% of all business were hit by a DDoS attack in 2017; that’s up from 17% in 2016. Were Internet of Things devices involved in the increased number of attacks? They sure were, so much so that some tech journalists took to using “the DDoS of Things” instead. DDoS attacks are sometimes launched as a smokescreen for other kinds of cybercrime, and nothing about 2017 suggests that this bit of double nastiness shows any sign of abating. So Dave might not have hit a home run, but his batting average is way up there. – Joe

Gift Guide 2017: Picking the Best Gifts

Our last gift guide comes in collaboration with Deena Zimmerman, one of our Chicago-area REALTORS® and a commercial practitioner. Deena clued us in to not only some great gifts for her clients and colleagues, but to some great ways to personalize holiday gifts and best practices for giving during the season. She’s provided us with some non-tech gift ideas (and of course, some technology too!), and we’re thrilled to have her guest blog for us this week. These gifts are sure to go over great with clients in both commercial and residential settings.

It’s that time of year again when we are wishing our clients and colleagues happy holidays and showering those closest to us with thoughtful gifts and well wishes. I am blessed to have a wonderful referral network, especially awesome Residential Realtors across the country, who have referred me truly wonderful clients, many of whom have become like family to me.

I have a number of clients who are out of state, so I love to buy them “Love from Chicago” themed gifts. For example, this could include a Chicago favorite of mine,  Lou Malnati’s pizza (they have awesome dry ice frozen shipping options) and a tin of Garrett’s popcorn (Chicago mix of course!) along with coffee from various coffee roasting clients I represent in Chicago. This is a great way to show a very personalized “Chicago Touch” while also showcasing the various Tenants I represent locally in Chicago.
I also work with a lot of brokers/developers/landlords on a number of various projects every year, many of whom I have become very tight. I want to make sure I send them a personalized gift as well. I take the time to reach out to their co-workers or assistants to find out what they love. These gifts can vary from spa gift packages at the Peninsula to customized gift baskets with various types of alcohol. I am also a huge fan of sending an Open Table gift certificate so they can take a loved one out for dinner wherever they want-and they can download the certificate on their smart phone, so no need to print! I am currently putting a customized gift together now for one of my largest referral resources who refuses to let me give him a referral fee when he sends clients my way. So I am doing a basket with his favorite spirits/mixers and champagnes that he can keep at the office to share with co-workers and his clients as he does a ton of entertaining.
I also LOVE buying men I work with customized flowers from Flowers For Dreams. It’s fun to get flowers for guys and Flowers for Dreams donates a portion of all proceeds to various charities.
As I first referenced above, I represent a lot of local tenants helping them find space to lease or purchase and love to buy their products as gifts for other clients (some of my clients include those who are in acupuncture, restaurants, bakeries, wine distributors, spas, gyms, etc.) This type of personalization, along with charitable groups like Flowers for Dreams and Ruckus Teen Products, an AMAZING program for Teen Entrepreneurs at Concordia Day School not only makes me feel great supporting these amazing groups, but I also find it really helps me stand out.
For retail tenants I work with who geek out on tech as much as I do, I love to put together gift baskets with the various products I mentioned above and also include fun gadgets like a Nest, a portable Bose speaker (my favorite is the Bose Mini II that also works at the beach!), and a beacon that they can affix to their storefront to monitor daily foot and vehicular traffic to help identify key sales hours during the day.
Finally, I don’t send these gifts until after the holidays. I wait until mid to end of January and use it as more of a message to thank them for 2017 and to say how fired I am to work with them in 2018. I send holiday cards now, and then these gifts later. That really helps to stand out and remind them I am ready to rock out 2018 with them!

Deena Zimmerman is an award-winning broker who has worked in the real estate industry since 2004. Serving as a vice president in the SVN Chicago office, Deena’s focus is on investment sales and tenant representation, specializing in finding high quality sites throughout Chicagoland and surrounding areas for national operators, franchisees, and first-time entrepreneurs.

Gift Guide 2017: Advanced Smart Home

Last year, we highlighted some great tech gifts to give during the holidays, and broke them down by different price points: under $100, $100-199, and over $200. This year, we decided to do things a little differently, and highlight four categories of smart technology. Three of our guides (coming this week) will focus on beginning, intermediate, and advanced smart home products; and then next week we’ll have a commercial/office tech gift guide. These guides will cover a variety of price ranges, so there’s sure to be a gift for everyone on your list at any price point. Note that we’re using the suggested retail prices; you can search the Internet for better deals, especially during the holidays.

Today, we’re focusing on advanced smart home tech. Are you or your giftee ready to start taking on your own smart home projects? These ideas will help you hit the ground running with some easy DIY creations.

1. littleBits Smart Home Kit, $249. littleBits have been one of my favorite tech products since my days in working with K-6 teachers to integrate tech into their classrooms, and I was thrilled to find out that they make a Smart Home Kit. Designed for “big kids” – and adults – this easy-to-use kit uses snap-together circuits and sensors to create a variety of smart home projects, including an automated cat feeder, a door sensor for your fridge, and more. Programming is done simply with IFTTT commands, letting you also get a great introduction to some of the more advanced features of IFTTT.
2. Kooke Smart Home Sensor Kit, $21.99, and Raspberry Pi 3, $35. This Smart Home kit is a great way to begin creating IoT devices using Raspberry Pi. The kit comes with a temperature sensor, gas sensors, light sensors, and more, and includes web tutorials to get started with Raspberry Pi and Smart Home products. You’ll need to purchase a separate Raspberry Pi for each project, but you’re getting a great value for a variety of sensors! This kit will require a bit more programming knowledge than a kit like littleBits.
3. Lynda.com membership, starting at $19.99/mo. Want to begin to how to create your own Internet of Things projects, mess with a Raspberry Pi, or perhaps pick up a programming language (or two)? A Lynda.com account is a great investment. They have classes in virtually anything and everything, including high level overviews of concepts like Blockchain and hands-on instruction for IoT devices and more. There’s even a 30-day free trial to the site to start! Lynda is a great way to learn about IFTTT and Raspberry Pi hardware and software for the kits above.

If you’re looking to really get into creating your own smart home products, these are a great springboard for many projects. Soon, you’ll be customizing the smart home of your dreams!

Gift Guide 2017: Intermediate Smart Home

Last year, we highlighted some great tech gifts to give during the holidays, and broke them down by different price points: under $100, $100-199, and over $200. This year, we decided to do things a little differently, and highlight four categories of smart technology. Three of our guides (coming this week) will focus on beginning, intermediate, and advanced smart home products; and then next week we’ll have a commercial/office tech gift guide. These guides will cover a variety of price ranges, so there’s sure to be a gift for everyone on your list at any price point. Note that we’re using the suggested retail prices; you can search the Internet for better deals, especially during the holidays.

Today, we’re focusing on intermediate smart home tech. Do you or your giftee have a few smart devices, but want to start integrating them more? This guide is for you!

1. Samsung SmartThings Convenience and Entertainment Bundle,  $205. We’re huge fans of the SmartThings hub, which alone retails for $99. A smart hub allows you to control your smart home in a convenient and easy way, cutting out the need for multiple apps for multiple manufacturers and products. The SmartThings hub also offers some great programming options that go beyond simply turning devices on and off, and programming your devices is usually just a few taps in the app. The bundle listed here gives you great bang for your buck and includes two smart bulbs by Sylvania that can light up in thousands of different colors as well as a SmartThings motion sensor. The motion sensor is great – you can set it up near your front door and tell SmartThings to flash a color on the light bulbs when someone is coming and going out of the house. When purchasing a SmartThings kit, make sure that the recipient has an open Ethernet port on their WiFi router – the hub requires this in order to control devices.
2. Nest Secure, starter kit $499. The Nest Secure is a new player in the smart security market, and costs a bit more than systems by other companies, but you’re really getting your money’s worth here – especially if you already have Nest products in your home, like the Nest Cam. There’s some truly innovative features here, including the Tag keychain for arming/disarming the system, or temporarily disarming of the system if you want to open a window with a sensor for fresh air or opening the door quickly to let the dog do his business. If you know someone who is interested in getting a security system set up, the Nest Secure is a great way to go.
3. Awair Glow, $99. We’re big fans of knowing about the air you breathe, and the Awair is a great tool at an affordable price for monitoring air quality within your home. The best part is it doesn’t take up an outlet – you can plug any device into it and either use it as a regular plug, or you can even plug in non-smart devices and control them through the Glow. You can even do some programming using the Glow – if your humidity drops below a certain level, it can power on the humidifier you keep plugged in. It works with both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, so it can give you verbal feedback about the air as well. It’s a great starting device for indoor air quality monitoring.

These products are great for people who have started dipping their toes into the smart home waters and want to unlock the full potential of their smart home. Stay tuned to see our favorite advanced smart home tech for the super savvy in your lives!

Gift Guide 2017: Beginner Smart Home Tech

Last year, we highlighted some great tech gifts to give during the holidays, and broke them down by different price points: under $100, $100-199, and over $200. This year, we decided to do things a little differently, and highlight four categories of smart technology. Three of our guides (coming this week) will focus on beginning, intermediate, and advanced smart home products; and then next week we’ll have a commercial/office tech gift guide. These guides will cover a variety of price ranges, so there’s sure to be a gift for everyone on your list at any price point. Note that we’re using the suggested retail prices; you can search the Internet for better deals, especially during the holidays.

Today, we’re focusing on beginner smart home tech. If you or your giftee have never played around with smart home devices, this is a great place to start! Our gifts will get you up and running in no time, and are a low-stress way to dip your foot into home automation, voice assistants, and more.

1. IKEA Tradfri smart lighting system,  $7.99 – 34.99. Like our previous choice, the Philips Hue, the Tradfri starting kit comes with two bulbs and a hub, but has options with dimmers, motion sensors, and a variety of different types of lights. The price point is much lower than Hue or other bulbs, making this an attractive option for a starter kit for beginners. As of this writing, the bulbs only work with a proprietary app or with purchasable dimmers and remotes, but IKEA plans on integrating with HomeKit and Alexa in 2018, meaning the lights will become even more customizable through those platforms. Like other bulbs, you can set up programs (like turning on lights at specific times, or when the sun goes down), and the motion sensor allows you to set up lights that turn on and off when motion is detected. Overall, this is an attractive first lighting kit that is easy-to-use and will get anyone started on a smart home in style.
2. Amazon Echo Dot/Google Home Mini, both $49. Last year, we highlighted the Echo Dot and “regular” Google Home in two separate gift guides; in 2017, the Google Home Mini was announced at the same price point as an Echo Dot. We are including both on this gift guide because, a year later, both products are neck and neck in terms of functionality and usability for the beginner smart home user. Choosing an ecosystem is a personal choice – Amazon’s Alexa is great for people who find themselves using Amazon products frequently, and Google Home is an excellent option for people who have other Google services. Both work with major smart home systems like SmartThings, Philips Hue, and more.
3. WeMo Mini Smart Plug, $34.99. Turn almost anything into a smart device by adding a WeMo smart plug to your wall outlets. You can control lights, humidifiers, fans, and more. The WeMo out of the box has a lot of great features – since its WiFi enabled, you can control the plugs from anywhere, its easy to program (for example, you can turn your Christmas tree on at sundown with just a couple taps), and even includes a great feature where if you set your plugs to “away” for vacation, it’ll turn on/off devices at random so it looks like you’re still at home. The plugs also integrate with a ton of different platforms, including Alexa and Google Home, Nest (which is handy for using the Nest’s home/away functionality), and IFTTT. The mini plug has a slimmer profile than its cousin, the WeMo Insight, and tucks away easily without interfering with the second outlet on the wall.

Using these products can get anyone started making their home smarter without breaking the bank. All the devices are easy to use, easy to set-up, and work with a variety of systems so if someone gets the smart home bug, they can continue to expand their horizons and add more to their house. Tomorrow, we will cover technology for people who are interested in starting to customize their smart home and suggest some gifts that are a bit more advanced. Stay tuned to see our favorite intermediate smart home tech!