Things Thursday #020: What makes a city smart?, Microsoft entering the thermostat battle, and some great resources on smart homes for you

A hand holding our environmental quality sensor, which is called the Touchstone. It's about the size and shape of a bar of soap.

The Touchstone sensor from CRT Labs. This device will read temperature, humidity, light, CO2, VOCs, particulate matter and more.

  1. What are 10 key things that make a city smart? (via ReadWrite)
    This is a great roundup of what a city needs to be smart. From connectivity to sensing, ReadWrite put together a great roundup. If you’re interested in the real estate perspective on smart cities, we’ve got a series for you to check out called ‘The Building of Functioning Cities‘.
  2. And finally: Amazon Echo 2 incoming and more (via Wareable)
    Yes, this is a list of smart home/wearable items for you to peruse. They have some good intel on Amazon’s latest smart speaker as well as what Apple’s up to on the smart home front. Check it out.
  3. What to know about smart home technology: 10 smart home resources for REALTORS (via CRT Labs)
    Another roundup??? What’s going on with this list? 🙂 I would be remiss if I didn’t point you to our roundup of resources you can take advantage of to bolster your understanding of this emerging market. Why does it matter to you? Because it matters to your clients. Read on to find out more.
  4. Microsoft’s Cortana-powered thermostat is totally gorgeous (via CNET)
    This is definitely something to consider. A nice-looking thermostat from Microsoft and Johnson Controls. No pricing info yet, but keep an eye on this. It’s called the GLAS, it’s voice-enabled (with Cortana, Microsoft’s answer to Siri and Alexa) and it monitors indoor and outdoor air quality. If you want a voice-enabled thermostat now, check out the Ecobee4 with Alexa integration. If the $249 price point is keeping you away, you should look for rebates from your utility or insurance company.
  5. Touchstone: Environmental Quality Monitor for your home! (via CRT Labs)
    Finally, a look at what we’ve been up to. This device is not on the market yet, but take a look at our work. Really proud of our group here at NAR. Akram, one of our lab engineers, provides a pretty deep dive into what we’ve been up to with this device. I’m really proud of our team and their efforts to make this piece of hardware and the software behind it. They’ve been extremely supportive of one another and have collaborated better than I could have imagined. Kudos to them.

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

Touchstone: Environmental Quality Monitor for Your Home!

The Touchstone is an open hardware and software indoor environmental quality sensor designed by the National Association of REALTORS/CRT Labs. The idea behind the Touchstone was conceived in the summer of 2016, when we at CRT Labs were exploring various types of personal air quality monitors available in the market. We found that most of them were around $150-$200 for one device, costing a lot more in some cases. They used cheap sensors that weren’t accurate, and almost all had a dependency on a combination of a smartphone app and some cloud platform on the internet that it pushes data to. If we want to monitor the environmental quality of the entire home, we would have to spend around $200 for each room and give up privacy for the sake of cloud access to our data.

The Rosetta Home 2.0 platform developed by CRT Labs aims to solve exactly this issue. We developed it with an offline first mentality – no internet required. Cloud connectivity is optional for data backup, large-scale research and more in-depth data analysis. You are not locked into any one cloud provider or a mobile platform. With the addition of the Touchstone, a home’s environmental quality can now be monitored locally, accurately, and at a relatively affordable price.

A Touchstone can measure the local temperature, relative humidity, carbon dioxide concentration, TVOC (total volatile organic compound) concentration, PM2.5 (particulate matter) mass concentration, sound intensity, light intensity and barometric pressure. With advancement in MEMS and CMOS technology, we now have access to sensors that are extremely cheap and have decent accuracy, and more are being available every day. In order to find the right balance between price and performance, several sensors are tested along with higher-end reference sensors that we know are accurate from literature review of other studies. Sample CO2 data from one of our sensor tests is shown in the graph below:

From the graph, we can see that the sensors can vary widely in the readings. Similar tests are being done for other parameters that we measure. We found that some of the sensors that report incorrect values are currently being used in popular air quality monitors in the market today. Our goal is to maintain relatively high accuracy in sensor readings. This allows our Touchstone devices to be used in large-scale research projects that can provide large data-sets of anonymous environmental quality for different types of climate zones and different types of homes across the country. Ultimately, the goal is to yield useful correlations between this hyper-local data and energy use and human activity.

The Touchstone devices wirelessly send data to a receiver that’s also on the same network. For wireless transmission, an FSK radio transceiver running at 915MHz frequency is used. This frequency band is license-free and set as an ISM band for commercial and industrial products. Using a dedicated transceiver as opposed to relying on commonly used protocols that operate in the 2.4GHz bands such as WiFi, ZigBee, Bluetooth and others allows for robust, low-power and long-range wireless operation. The radio modules have a transmission range of over 500 m in open air and over 150-200 m in occupied buildings. Due to their operation in the sub-GHz frequency bands, they have much better obstacle penetration, greater reception and stronger immunity to the ever increasing RF noise in the spectrum. This contributes to superior performance for the specified application of data logging within buildings. Using dedicated radios also eliminates dependencies on internet access (wired or wireless) on every sensor location as well as electric power in some cases where the sensor can run on batteries for several years at a stretch. Currently, the Touchstone runs on a 5V USB power supply, the same one we use for charging our cell phones. There are application-specific versions currently in development that allow for lower power versions of these boards. The Touchstone and other boards in its family can all be made relatively cheaper than their commercial counterparts.

The gateway receiver has the same radio module which constantly monitors all incoming wireless sensor data from around the building and pushes it over USB to the Rosetta Home platform running on a Raspberry Pi. The data can then be aggregated and monitored in real-time locally, and also pushed to the cloud for remote-monitoring and research purposes if necessary.

Currently, we are designing and testing various types of enclosures at a manufacturing facility called mHUB here in Chicago. Here’s a Touchstone prototype in its enclosure and its relative size in the average hand:

This is how the assembled boards looks like without the enclosure:

The assembly of the board is currently done manually at CRT Labs, as we are iterating over the hardware design and as sensor tests yield more data. Over the next few months, the assembly of the boards will be done at mHUB, which has factory-grade equipment using which the production can scale to several hundred units per day. These devices when complete will be used for research studies to be conducted by CRT Labs in Chicago, and later, in various cities around the country in the coming months. The data that comes from this research can give us an insight on how residential and commercial buildings perform across seasons, and how they impact energy usage. Ultimately, this will lead to more energy-efficient, smart and healthier buildings in the near future.

#016-Things Thursday: Cleaning the air without planting trees and more

An image of a product called CityTree, which has a park bench on each side and a 15ft wall of plants attached to both benches.

CityTree by GreenCity Solutions is an IoT device that monitors and cleans the air with plants.

In this week’s Things Thursday, we have a lot for the future, but also a lot focused on health. What if some devices

  1. Disney Research’s technology could transform IoT landscape (via Android Authority)
    Disney Research is one of the premier IoT/emerging technology labs in the world. They’ve got offices in Switzerland, Pittsburgh (in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University) and, of course, California. You might be surprised that Disney is doing scientific research, but when you think about the theme park business, it makes sense. Disneyworld and Disneyland are like miniature cities. So, from the lab comes another cool project from them. They’ve figured out how to reduce the power and improve the connectivity of IoT devices without an antenna. This is important for sensors that may have little to no external power options. They’ve also done research on powering devices without traditional power sources. Keep an eye on them.
  2. Microsoft Research’s ‘Emma Watch’ helped a Parkinson’s patient write again (via Wareable)
    Pretty amazing work from Microsoft Research. Parkinson’s wreaks havoc on your central nervous system and can make everyday activities a challenge. A researcher at Microsoft is building a device to reduce tremors for people living with Parkinson’s. In order to help people write or draw, the watch has tiny motors that vibrate on the patient’s arm, disrupting the feedback loop of the central nervous system. It’s pretty amazing. Click through and watch the video.
  3. Connected trees will be scrubbing the air in a city near you soon (via ReadWrite)
    Smart cities will not just be connected and gathering data, but they will help cities perform better. GreenCity Solutions are building these amazing benches that have plants and sensors embedded in them. They claim that their benches can filter the same amount of air as 275 planted trees. This means less watering needed, but the benefit of filtration from the plants is pretty great. Currently, CityTree is only in the European market and they have plans to expand to the US in late 2018. Even still, it’s a great example of how to green a space and provide some seating options. To find out more about why smart cities matter to REALTORS, check out my post on Building Functioning Cities.

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

The Building of Functioning Cities: A Smart Cities Series

There is a blurry cityscape in the background with the phrase 'The Building of Functioning Cities' overlaid. This is a line from preamble of the REALTOR Code of Ethics. We believe this statement reflects the potential impact of smart cities on our industry.

Smart cities will impact the way we live and work in the very near future. Real estate stands to benefit from the data produced in these cities with improved services for clients.

In the labs, I often point out to visitors that we’ve based our work on the preamble to the Code of Ethics. I’ve included it below with the relevant bits highlighted:

Under all is the land. Upon its wise utilization and widely allocated ownership depend the survival and growth of free institutions and of our civilization. REALTORSÂŽ should recognize that the interests of the nation and its citizens require the highest and best use of the land and the widest distribution of land ownership. They require the creation of adequate housing, the building of functioning cities, the development of productive industries and farms, and the preservation of a healthful environment.

At CRT Labs, we use this to focus our mission. It’s not only key to your work, but also, to the potential that the Internet of Things, renewable energy, and community gardening have to impact your industry. In order to support the ‘building of functioning cities’ tenant, we’ve spoken to several smart city projects throughout the US. We believe that data from the smart city will go a long way to shaping how you do business in the future. It will change the way you interact with your customers and help you in supporting their buying choices. We are just at the very beginning of this and there’s still a way to go before this is mainstream, but what’s already happening is exciting.

What are smart cities?

Simply put, smart cities are cities that use existing data and connected sensors to:

  • Capture data and performance metrics to improve city services
  • Monitor city performance
  • Inform the general public

Cities great and small are employing smart city techniques all over the world. Singapore is one of the big leaders in this space, as is Barcelona. Here in the US, cities large and small have active programs. From Columbus, Ohio, to Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky as examples. For this series, I want to use what’s in my own back yard. Chicago has garnered a lot of attention of late for its Array of Things initiative and the use of its open data portal to engage the citizens.

Why do they matter?

Here’s why it matters to you: there are massive amounts of data that will be coming off these devices that will show how specific areas of a city are performing. As examples, you’ll be able to see things like:

  • Pedestrian and vehicle patterns and counts aggregated by time of day
  • Utilization patterns for parks and community buildings
  • Temperature variation at your work and at your home on a block by block basis
  • Air quality outside your door and any destination you need to travel to
  • Average sunlight exposure at any location
  • Standing water after a rainstorm

A number of those things above are key to how you’re home or property performs. Understanding microclimates will help buildings use less energy because they can adjust based on time of day or season. We can also understand busy residential and commercial areas are and use that as part of our marketing material or a widget on a website. When are the peak hours at the community pool or park? Data for a community could also inform when you hold open houses. How many people are in a neighborhood during a given day?

This is just the surface. I’m going to use this series to interview people here in Chicago who are involved in the smart cities initiatives and highlight where there are opportunities for real estate. If you have a story about smart city activity in your area, I encourage you to share it.

Related Articles from CRT Labs:

Building Better Air

I recently wrote about our newest project, A Pocket Guide to Cleaner Air, a book that educates those in the commercial real estate market about how to help their office clients pick and care for plants that can help make their indoor air cleaner and their workers more productive and healthier. Today, I’m going to show off one of the steps the National Association of REALTORSÂŽ is taking to help make our office environment in Chicago better. Just like the steps that IREM has taken towards the WELL standard, we are hoping that these plants are a start towards thinking about the indoor space we spend our time in every day. That step is a plant wall, installed on the 4th Floor of NAR’s HQ, which aims to clean our air of CO2 and VOCs to help make the IT department a healthier place.

Plant Wall in the IT department at NAR

Plant Wall in the IT department at NAR

We’ve covered a lot of the benefits of putting plants in indoor spaces on posts before, but to reiterate, we spend about 90% of our time indoors, and the EPA estimates that indoor air quality is 5-10x worse than outdoor air quality! At NAR, we can’t just open up our office windows to try to get in some air, so we need to take measures to help make the air that we are circulating (and recirculating) be as fresh as possible, so we enlisted our friends at Plant Parenting here in Chicago to think of a solution to get some of the plants from the NASA Clean Air Study into our office space. We have pretty typical cubicle walls, with paneling that can be taken out and replaced with different materials, so after measuring the paneling, we discovered we could actually fit some trays right into our walls! Howard at Plant Parenting was able to install this wall for us in a morning, including putting in all the plants. We have 4 kinds of air-purifying plants along the wall, which I will describe below with their benefits.

Plant Wall at the National Association of Realtors

There are 4 different plants that purify the air in these trays!

First up we have dracaena warneckii, a plant that cleans benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene. The warneckii is a bushy plant native to tropical Africa, but it can also grow quite tall depending on the variety. We have the bushy warneckii, because they do not weigh much and thus won’t put a ton of strain on our cubicle walls. We also have a second type of dracaena called dracaena marginata, which comes in a variety of colors and shapes. Marginata not only cleans benzene, formaldehyde and toluene, but also is considered one of the best for cleaning xylene and trichloroethylene. These dracaena are native to Madagascar and other islands in the Indian Ocean. Next up is the Money Plant, and while it won’t make you rich, it will clean benzene, formaldehyde, xylene, and toluene. It is native to French Polynesia. It is one of the hardest houseplants to kill, hence its other name, Devil’s Ivy. Finally, we have a tropical plant from New Guinea called Chinese evergreen, which is said to bring good luck to those who grow it! We’re lucky it will be filtering benzene and formaldehyde out of our air. All of these plants will convert CO2 to breathable oxygen for us as well.

Devil's Ivy on our Plant Wall

Devil’s Ivy close up

We’ll be monitoring our indoor air quality using the sensors we’ve been building in the lab, and seeing how all our hard work getting the right plants together pays off. We’ll keep you all posted, and hope that our results inspire you to start putting plants in your own offices. And stay tuned for more info about our Pocket Guide to Cleaner Air!

Coming Soon: A Pocket Guide to Air Purifying Plants

Over the past few months, CRT Labs, along with NAR’s Library and Information Technology staff, have been researching and developing a series of books about indoor air quality and plants you can grow in order to keep your air fresh and clean. The first in this Pocket Guide series is a book specifically aimed for commercial practitioners, and will educate REALTORSŽ about the best plants to advise their clients to buy for improving the indoor air quality of different office spaces. Further guides will dive into different residential air quality concerns.

NASA Plant Study

In the late 70s and early 80s, NASA began evaluating a variety of plants on their space stations to help clean the air onboard of not only carbon dioxide, but also from gases called volatile organic compounds. These gases, when contained and allowed to circulate in an indoor space, can lead the building’s occupants to contract a variety of illnesses. NASA identified 31 plants in their Clean Air Study as some of the best filters for these contaminants. We single out 10 of these plants due to their high ratings in the Clean Air Study as well as their availability at home and garden centers to focus on in our Pocket Guide. The book examines the best plants that work together to mitigate common indoor air quality issues in commercial spaces, teaches how to take care of these new plants, and includes rich color photographs of each plant discussed. Look for the book coming out in late spring or early summer this year, but until then, enjoy this excerpt from the book! These two paragraphs are from chapter two, titled “Thinking About the Air You Breathe.”

The average person spends around 90% of their time indoors, and the EPA estimates that indoor air quality can be two to five times more polluted than the air outdoors. This rise in indoor pollution is partially due to the fact that office design has shifted towards materials that release volatile organic compounds into the air. Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are found in almost all the materials in your buildings, especially in new construction – including the furniture, carpets, paints, cleaning products, and more. Buildings, which are more energy efficient than ever before, have tighter seals and are better constructed, which traps any pollution created indoors, or brought from the outdoors, in the building itself. These factors contribute to these higher levels of VOCs, as well as CO2, in the indoor air. Even while indoor air filtration systems are in use, VOCs can remain and continue to off-gas into the indoor environment.
VOCs, CO2, and other indoor environmental factors all contribute to sick building syndrome, which the National Institutes of Health define as “various nonspecific symptoms that occur in the occupants of a building… [which] increases sickness absenteeism and causes a decrease in productivity of the workers”. The symptoms of sick building syndrome include headache, dizziness, nausea, eye/nose/throat irritations, dry cough, dry/itching skin, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, sensitivity to odors, hoarseness of voice, allergies, cold/flu-like symptoms, asthma, and personality changes. Looking at this list, there’s an overlap in symptoms that are commonly associated with high levels of CO2 and VOCs in the air, meaning that sick building syndrome is likely brought on by these very gases.
The NASA Clean Air Study can be read in full at NASA’s website.