Adventures in WiFi: Smart Home Devices, Meet Your New Router

A long, long time ago — in internet years, anyway — usability pioneer Jakob Nielsen codified ten general principles for interface design. Nielsen had the then-new Web in mind, but some 20-plus years later these principles continue to be relevant.

My favorite of Nielsen’s principles has always been this:

User control and freedom
Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo (emphasis mine).

I’ve been thinking a lot about these principles, because I recently replaced the nine-year old WiFi router in my house. At the same time I changed the network name and password to make access to the router more secure. If I had done this a few years ago, I’d have told my family what the new network name and passwords were, they’d have connected their smart phones (because smart phone makers long ago figured out how to support undo and redo), and all would have been well.

But now I’ve got a bunch of smart home devices — thermostats, security cameras, air quality monitors, smart lights, and more — and getting all of them to play nice with the new WiFi network has proven to be, well, adventurous. In this first of a series of blog posts, I’ll highlight the easiest, least frictional experience I had with one device that sets a high bar for the others, user-experience wise. That device is the Logitech POP Home Switch.

First, though, an acknowledgement: not all smart devices are the same. They do different things and require different levels of security regarding changes made to them. The steps I need to take reconfiguring my front porch security camera should be different than what I need to do to the POP Switch. Yet the reason I’m highlighting the POP Switch experience is because it is well-done and elegant, and security and elegance are not mutually exclusive. More “complicated” smart devices can learn lessons from it.

The POP Switch Experience

Logitech’s POP Switch comprises two parts — a bridge, which plugs directly into a wall outlet, and a switch, a 2.5” square rubberized controller that can work with things such as smart lights. Pressing the switch in various ways allows you to change lighting scenes (for example) without getting out your smart phone and using an app. Truth be told, it’s a sweet product.

But what makes it especially nice is the way it behaved when I fired up my new router with new credentials. The bridge immediately started blinking (because it was now offline), and finding where to go in the POP app to get the bridge back on line was a snap. And if a good interface captures 1) the task you’re performing, 2) instructions on how to accomplish the task, and 3) the status of what’s going on, the POP app hits it out of the park. Here are the sufficiently brief steps I had to take to get my POP Switch onto a new network, as experienced through the app:


It probably does without saying that my experience with other smart home devices in my house didn’t go as smoothly.

Why Is This Important?

Good design is always important. But it’s desperately needed in the still-new world of smart home devices. As the department within the National Association of REALTORS® that is most focused on smart home technology, CRT Labs has a responsibility to help shape the nascent world of smart home tech, both for homebuyers and for the REALTORS® they hire. IBM’s Security Intelligence blog recently pointed out in a thoughtful piece that many design decisions are made for the first owner of something, and that the needs of subsequent owners are often neglected.

“The needs of subsequent owners” sound a lot like the needs of a homebuyer, don’t they?

Over the coming months I’ll continue to document my experiences with smart home devices and changing configurations, documenting as best as I can which ones are painful and which ones are relatively painless. More and more smart devices will be included in real estate transactions, and the smart home industry has a lot riding on “support redo and undo.”

#013-Things Thursday – Ring-a-ding-ding, smart city progress & more

A graph showing the air quality for Louisville Kentucky. Anything that is 51 or above is moderate air quality. Anything 50 and below is good air quality. In Louisville, from 02/06/17 to 02/16/17, the air quality was reported as mostly good.

Using smart city data that is available through open services, I was able to create this graph on Louisville air quality. Anything 50 and below is good air quality and anything above that is moderate air quality.

It looks like Amazon and Google are looking to use their voice hubs as a way to make calls. Also, smart cities need best practices just like smart homes. What about the niche of smart home security becoming a fertile ground for startups?

  1. How the Internet of Things inspired a new startup niche (via Entrepreneur)
    With a diverse array of devices from a large set of manufacturers, security of the connected home could be compromised. Enter devices and services to help secure your devices. Entrepreneur puts together a round up of companies who are trying to help make the smart home more secure.
  2. Amazon Echo and Google Home want to be your new house phone (via Engadget)
    As Amazon tries to even the playing field in the communications services with its release of Chime, their version of Google Hangouts, Engadget ponders what it would mean for the Amazon Echo or Google Home to become a communications hub. There are a lot of hurdles to clear before this happens, but being able to quickly communicate through these devices is something I look forward to.
  3. Smart cities get connectivity guidance from Connected City Blueprint (via readwrite)
    A smart city will become a data-rich platform for a REALTORS’ business. Micro-climate data, traffic flow, pedestrian flow and air quality will all become data points in the listings of the future. So, what smart cities are missing right now are a blueprint, or best practices, for deployment. Enter the Connected City Blueprint. It allows for cities to collaborate and share their experiences, helping those who are starting on the smart city path see what hurdles others have encountered.
  4. How’s the air up there? In Louisville, you can just ask your lightbulbs (via C|NET)
    For cities moving into the smart city arena, Louisville may be a great example of how to do it. They recently partnered with IFTTT to provide smart city data through their services. So, you can make your Philips Hue bulb change color to indicate air quality. Or, you can graph air quality of Louisville (see image above). It’s pretty cool. I created an applet to capture air quality data when it changes and put it in a Google Sheet. It took me about 3 minutes to set this up. Once more cities do things like this, we may have an amazing repository to pull from and create some cool mashups of real estate data and smart city data.

That’s all for Things Thursday this week. Have questions? Want us to cover something? Let us know. You can follow us on Twitter @crtlabs or Facebook.

Facebook Live Office Hours: mHub Tour

CRT Labs extended our office space by moving in to a small office at mHub, a makerspace here in Chicago. This will help our engineers develop and test our electronics projects. We took a tour of mHub during our Office Hours to show off some of the cool new tools we’ll have access to in the space. As always, if you like our Facebook page, you can watch these videos live on Fridays at 3PM EST!

Facebook Live Office Hours: mHub Tour from CRTLabs on Vimeo.

How to be Smarter than the Homes You Sell

Today’s post is the first of many written by guest bloggers for CRT Labs. We’re working with industry insiders all the time, so we are teaming up to give readers first-hand information on how technology is shaping real estate. First up is Lee Adkins, founder of Amplified Solutions

Smart home technology is a relatively new industry, but it’s impact on real estate is here to stay. It is more important than ever that as a Realtor you understand the basics of this technology and how it will impact our industry and daily lives.

Here are my top 5 points to help you better understand smart home technology.

1) Control the temperature and environment of the home
This is probably what most people think of first when you mention a smart home; Devices can adjust lights, outlets, other devices and temperature either on a schedule or by certain criteria you can set. This can both save energy and provide convenience and even measure air quality. These devices can also provide historical data to help you save money by providing information such as peak times of energy use or totally monthly energy consumption.
Common devices: Nest thermostat, SmartThings, TP-link smart plugs and switches, Belkin WeMo devices, Philips Hue devices
(Some utility companies offer discounts for various devices that help save on energy usage, check specifics of your areas and wow your clients!)

2) Provide safety (alarms, lights on while gone or when returning)
In addition to energy monitoring and efficiency, there are many safety features of smart home technology. One of the easiest and more affordable complete systems is the SmartThings system. SmartThings offers a few packages to get you started – no special installation needed and no monthly fees, and the system works with many other devices from other companies. You can control exterior lights for safety – on a schedule (that can even change automatically with the seasons), manually or when a certain event happens, such as you return home after dark. The systems also has separate “modes” so that you can create an out of town mode where a different set of rules happen – such as an interior light on or to alert you if a door opens or a certain high or low temperature occurs. Nest also offers a camera and smoke alarm/CO2 alarm that work together with thermostat as a good system.
Common devices: SmartThings, Nest

3) Provide convenience, voice activated answers and commands
The Amazon Echo (Alexa) is probably the most common and comprehensive device in this space. This is largely because it has been around longer and they have allowed outside developers to create “skills” that you can add to the Echo. Amazon has also released the Echo Dot, which is just a smaller and less expensive version, with a less powerful speaker – designed to be connected to another speaker or sound device, but sufficient to operate without an extra speaker. Google Home is a newer player here, but basically like searching Google with your voice. Google also owns Nest, so it plays nicely with all the Nest devices as well. Voice Activation is here to stay. You can set a timer while cooking something, ask for conversions or even just how many days until a certain date. You can of course also order items from Amazon via the Echo. You can ask, “What time is the Falcons game?” or “What channel are the Grammys on?” or “What time is it in Australia?” or whatever you want to know – or ask Alexa to tell you a joke…
Common devices: Amazon Echo, Google Home, Siri, Apple Home App

4) Help the family communicate and work together towards a happy home
This is something I think we’ll see more adoption of soon. It’s easy to have each family member set up with their phone as a “presence” sensor which allows the devices (and or other family members) to know if someone is home or when they came and went. Great for teenagers or young drivers and certainly there are convenience components to this – like keeping the air or heat at a certain level if everyone is gone all day, but having it turn back on when someone arrives home or at a specific, consistent time each day. You can also have lights turn on automatically if someone comes home after dark. I’m sure you’ll soon be able to easily leave voice memos for family remembers that can be played or updated as people arrive home or even play a video message on a TV or phone.

5) Be aware of privacy issues – devices watching, listening, recording
Certainly there are viable concerns that these devices are always watching, listening and possibly recording. It’s known that many of these do record commands and send to the manufacturers for improvement. Adding cameras and/or microphones to a home is easier and cheaper than ever before. I have heard several stories already of home sellers hearing conversations by potential buyers about levels of interest in the home or “we’re making an offer ASAP” which is something to be cautious of as well – if only just from a negotiation standpoint. 

On a recent trip to NAR in Chicago, I got to visit CRT Labs and learned that the Amazon Echo (Alexa) was likely the device most likely to “play nice” with the majority of the popular devices and platforms. I have played a bit with Google Home as well and it works well too with some devices, especially Nest which is owned by Google. The Amazon Echo (with a Prime membership) has an astonishing amount of free (and commercial free!) music and shows and movies that push it over the top for me at this time. Samsung purchased SmartThings in 2014 and I’m sure they have big plans to integrate with their existing product lines. Think that your phone will remind you to pick up a new water filter for your Samsung refrigerator next time you’re at a place that sells them or a reminder that the lightbulb inside has 5% left, or a smart TV that reminds you that you have laundry still in the washing machine.

If you wanted to get started, I would recommend a SmartThings system (easy to install and relatively inexpensive) and an Amazon Echo as an add on to that. A Nest thermostat is another good layer and all three of these devices can work together pretty well with no special technological knowledge.There is no one right way and more of these devices seems to be working together in the Internet of Things. I would encourage you to venture into it – it’s a pretty cool place…

Lee Adkins is the Founder of Amplified Solutions – a consulting company focused on operational excellence for real estate teams and brokerages. He has served in many leadership and committee roles at the State and Local Associations and is currently a Vice President at the Atlanta REALTORS Association. He frequently teaches and speaks at various conferences around the country. Visit www.AmplifiedSolutions.co to learn more or find free resources, tools and suggested reading list.

#012-Things Thursday – Voice, Memory and Security

Picture of a passport with tickets. Google home can now help you locate where you left things. Just tell it where you put it and it will hold onto the information.

OK Google, where’s my passport?

What if your smart devices can help you remember where you put things? Well now they can. Also, security is becoming increasingly important.

  1. Google Home Can Help You Find Misplaced Items (via lifehacker)
    In the voice assistant wars, Google just released what I think is my new favorite feature. The ability to remember where you’ve placed things. As an example, let’s say I put my keys on my dresser. I can tell Google where they are and then ask later where they are. So, I say, ‘OK Google, my keys are sitting on my dresser.’ The Google Home will repeat what I told it to show me it has captured what I said. Later, when I need my keys, I say, ‘OK Google, where are my keys?’ The Google Home will replay my answer. Pretty cool.
  2. Why Alexa Is Winning The Smart Home War (And What’s Next For Amazon’s Assistant) (via Wareable)
    As a counter to the Google Home above, Amazon is not to be outdone. Wareable says that they are in the lead and have the tools to keep them there for quite a while. They’re deployment base is larger and they have a very versatile API right now. What’s next for the Echo? Find out in this article.
  3. Security Is The Categorical Imperative Of The Internet Of Things (via readwrite)
    I don’t have anything to add to that. It’s extremely necessary that IoT companies start with security when building their products. We are pushing on this and consumers need to start demanding it as well.

That’s all for Things Thursday this week. Have questions? Want us to cover something? Let us know. You can follow us on Twitter @crtlabs or Facebook.

Facebook Live Office Hours: Smart City/IoT

Last week, we worked with Tech in Motion Chicago to put on a meetup to discuss smart city/IoT in Chicago. Brenna Berman, CIO of the city of Chicago, was our keynote speaker, and we had panelists from all over the city talk about how IoT will shape the future of the city of Chicago – and cities all over the world. Our Office Hours this week discussed the meetup. You can also view the entire talk below. As always, join us on our Facebook every Friday at 3PM Eastern to watch our Office Hours live!

Facebook Live Office Hours: Smart City/IoT Meetup from CRTLabs on Vimeo.

Smart City/IoT Chicago Meetup from CRTLabs on Vimeo.

A Technophobe’s Smart Home

I’m relatively new to smart home tech – I don’t have a computer science/engineering background, and I don’t feel warm fuzzies talking about the latest and greatest computers, cell phones, or other devices. In fact, when it comes to the internet of the things, I would go as far as to call myself a technophobe – wary of what these technologies can do for me. So when I started at CRT Labs, I had some trepidations over smart home tech and its place in my own home, but over time, I’ve found a place where my life intersections with these technologies. Understanding your personal drawbacks on technology can help you to implement a smart home you’re proud of, and can help you get over some of the “bumps” in adopting a smart home system.

It’s only scary at first…

My biggest personal drawback on adopting technologies is that I don’t like feeling that undergoing such a large change could ultimately be rendered obsolete by one simple upgrade in technology. Luckily, smart home technology companies, on the whole, seem to understand that most items in your home are designed to last quite a long time (like thermostats and light bulbs) and are making their own products with that longer lifecycle in mind. So unlike your phone, which usually only has a two-year lifespan, you’d expect your thermostat to last around 35-years. Now, a Nest thermostat might not last for 35 years, but Nest will want you to be able to use their devices for several years. There will of course be exceptions to this rule – especially as companies jockey to become the “standard” in this space – but on the whole, these companies do want to stay competitive with their non-smart counterparts with their longer lifespans.

Armed with research done by my colleagues here in the labs, I started thinking about what types of things I could do within my own apartment. I live in a 900-unit complex, where my only windows are floor-to-ceiling and give me a southern exposure. This means my apartment gets very warm and has very little natural airflow. The first piece of “smart home” equipment I bought was a Netatmo Weather Station, so I could monitor the weather outside to see how it affected the temperature and CO2 levels inside. And because I was monitoring my indoor CO2, I was able to begin to correlate higher CO2 levels with certain activities – while I knew that running my oven would vent off CO2, I was able to see just how much it would rise, and now know to open one of those windows while cooking in order to offset some of that gas.

Next up, I wanted to solve my indoor lighting issue. As I mentioned, I only have one set of windows in my entire apartment – meaning that the bedroom doesn’t get any natural light. I also do not have any ceiling-mounted lights (I live in a converted fruit market with an industrial loft feel). So some form of smart lightbulb system made sense to me. I decided to go with the Philips Hue system after good reviews from my coworkers. I bought Hue bulbs for the lamps in my hallway, living room, and bedroom, and supplemented those with Belkin WeMo products for lamps with unusual bulbs. I also put a WeMo insight switch on the string lights around my porch outdoors. Not only are these devices all easily controlled with Hue dimmer switches or the Logitech Pop Switch I purchased, they also can all be controlled by voice through Google Home. The lights outside go on at sunset and off at 10pm, a program that I easily put together in the WeMo app; and the lights in the bedroom can turn on as the sun rises in order to help us wake more naturally.

After solving my lighting problems through smart devices, I felt a bit more confident in my technological skills, and have rounded out my apartment with a few more products. First up was the triple-threat of products from Nest: the Nest Thermostat, Protect, and Cam. The Nest thermostat is one of the labs favorite thermostats, and I’ll admit that installing it felt a little daunting, but Nest’s customer support helped me out by putting together a personalized wiring guide after I emailed them a photograph of my old thermostat’s wires. I was able to then watch a video about install, and got the whole project done in under 30 minutes – and promptly celebrated my dominance over technology. The Nest Protect is a smoke detector and CO monitor in one, and came in very handy a couple weeks after install – not only did it alert my phone when my bacon started smoking in the oven, it allowed me to silence the alarm (the Protect is about 10 feet in the air, so it would require a ladder to get to usually), and it also kicked on the whole house fan through the Thermostat in order to help vent the smoke out. The Protect also alerted my NestCam to take video, which allowed us to archive a very funny video of me running around the apartment to try and salvage a few strips of bacon.

Finally, I decided to pick up a SmartThings hub, which allows for the devices in my home to talk to each other and easily set up automations – within the SmartThings app, I quickly set up my hallway lights to “turn on” when I get home (using the location services of my iPhone and setting up a “geofence” around my apartment to trigger the automation). This is a huge lifesaver for me at night, so I don’t have to fumble around in the dark to find the light switch when I come inside (its not in the most convenient location in the hallway).

I’m not fully sold on a Tony Stark-style smart home system like J.A.R.V.I.S, where TVs come out of walls and start playing the news and your favorite beverage is waiting for you in the morning. And there are certainly privacy concerns when you decide to live so much of your life digitally, even when the technology lives squarely within your home. But by identifying my challenges and deciding to focus on using smart home technology to improve my quality of life, I was able to find a great middle ground between my technophobe heart and the part of my brain that wanted to understand CRT Labs’ goals on a personal level. By looking at  how you’re currently living in your own home, you can also start looking at how technology could improve your day-to-day life, and here in the labs we’d be happy to answer any questions you might have about how to begin adopting technology yourself. Feel free to comment below, and stay tuned for more articles on this topic as we explore all sorts of different ways we’re using smart home technology in our own lives.

CES 2017 Round Up – Part 2: Products We Are Excited To Follow

Following up on last week’s CES 2017 Trends Roundup, we wanted to share five products that we saw that we are really excited to watch in 2017!

personal safety realtors occlyOccly Occly is a wearable personal safety device specifically designed to be a visual deterrent. It can be worn on the body or clipped to an accessory. Occly is armed with a panic button, four cameras that provide nearly 360 degrees of coverage, sirens, a microphone, LED lighting, wireless capabilities, and a number of automatic alarm sensors.
Shield The NVIDIA Shield is a media streaming device, similar to an Apple TV or Chromecast that allows gaming, apps, and home control in one. It also touts support for Google Home.
Flow Plume LabsFlow FLOW is a smart, connected mobile accessory to track, monitor and reduce your exposure to air pollution – indoors, outdoors and on the go.
spec sensor air quality monitorSparrow Sense SPARROW is a wearable environmental health and safety monitor that measures Carbon Monoxide (CO), along with temperature, pressure and relative humidity. It can be attached to your smartphone case, clothes, bag, purse, stroller, bike, and even placed in your car.
Solpad Solpad’s have redesigned the solar panel, integrating batteries into the panel itself, and added software and hardware to integrate it with smart homes and a mobile app. Integrating the batteries into the panels could potentially cut installation costs in half.