CRT Labs Year in Review

Goodbye 2016, and hello 2017. CRT Labs has had quite a first full year. A lot of products have surprised us; a good number have disappointed. We’ve been working hard to create our own innovative products for members and their clients and seen some great results in a short amount of time. We’ve developed software and hardware meant to analyze cities, communities and buildings.

Our goal at CRT Labs is to represent our members on the technology front and educate people outside of real estate on the value of our members and membership. In the past year we’ve won $30,000 for a local organization, volunteered at a local Boys and Girls Club, and designed our own indoor environmental and air quality-sensing hardware and software. Our hardware, the PiAQ (Pie-A-Q) and Touchstone, have drawn great interest from outside groups, and we are working on refining this hardware to increase accuracy and bring costs down. We spoke to 10,000 plus members and non-members and helped open eyes to the values and challenges of the internet of things. We hosted thousands of members in our labs and gave many tours highlighting our work. We also spent a lot of time educating vendors, universities, research laboratories and organizations to the value of our membership. We will spend a good amount of time in 2017 refining our hardware and software. And look for us to expand our educational offerings and push on the innovation and advocacy front as well.

There were a lot of interesting developments in smart home tech/IoT & renewables: the solar shingles announced by Tesla, home energy batteries that are attractive, voice control taking over IoT. These positive developments stand in contrast to the Mirai attacks and the decommissioning of devices that aren’t too old (leaving owners in the lurch).

The smart home market is gaining momentum and it will provide you with opportunities to rethink how you market yourself. What will 2017 bring? Wait until next week where each member of CRT will be making their smart home and IoT predictions.

What X-Files Aliens Can Teach Us About User Experience

I recently started re-watching The X-Files, particularly the “mytharc” episodes. You know, the conspiracy-crazed ones with the aliens hell-bent on colonizing Earth. And it was right at the end of a particularly long binge session – a few minutes into the first season finale – that I realized showrunner Chris Carter and his creative team all would have made excellent user experience designers.

It’s in that episode (“The Erlenleyer Flask”) that we’re introduced to one of the first alien/human hybrids. And not to be gruesome, but the important thing for this discussion is that this hybrid gets shot while fleeing the police. He bleeds, and he bleeds green:

Up until this happens, we don’t know anything about the person trying to get away from the cops. But when the camera pans down to his spilled green blood, we know exactly what he is.

He’s an alien.

The X-Files was a creative tour-de-force, inventing and re-inventing ways to tell stories about the stuff of our wildest science fiction dreams. But some stories are best left unchanged. Some things don’t need to be reinvented. And alien blood needs to be green.

What’s This Got to Do With User Experience?

Companies are tripping over each other trying to bring the latest and greatest smart thermostat or lock or smoke detector to market (and into your home), and to a great extent their success or failure will depend on the user experience their engineers and designers have brought to the product. Because smart devices require their users to learn new (and sometimes fairly complex) things, the best experiences will be the ones that don’t force users to learn too much or to unlearn the helpful, leading truths they already know.

So why do the LED status lights on the front of one smart hub we have in the CRT Labs glow green when everything is OK, and the other glow blue?

Why does one hub blink blue when there’s a connection problem, and why does the other hub blink purple?

And what could magenta, pink, and white possibly mean?

Smart hubs have an important job: they need to clearly communicate the state of a complex smart home network. But indicating the status of a complex system need not be complex itself, and from what I’ve seen, we’re headed in the wrong direction.

Designers and engineers need to honor what the user brings to the experience, keep the cognitive load low, and pump their smart devices full of some alien blood.

We’ll know what it means.

CRTLabs’ CES-capades

ces smart home floor
Every red dot is a smart home vendor on one floor of CES. Phew!

Hey. Happy New Year!

Anything happening in the world of smart home tech? No? Didn’t think so. 😛

So, until something does, we’re sending our Lead Lab Engineer, Chris Coté and Lab Engineer, Dave Conroy, to a small get together in Las Vegas called CES, which, if memory serves me, stands for Consumer Electronics Show. 😉

They’ll mingle with 180,000 plus of their closest friends and figure out what’s coming. Me? I’ll be in Chicago, posting what they find and running command. In order to prep for this, I’ve been reading ‘The Rough Riders’ by Theodore Roosevelt, as I believe I will need all my fortitude, courage and strength for the next three days in order to keep up.

teddy roosevelt rough rider
An approximation of how I’m dressed in Chicago CRTLabs.

Follow the hashtag #realtorces to keep up with us. If you have things you’d like them to see or find out more about, tweet us @CRTLabs and use the hashtag. Wish Chris and Dave good luck! You can follow them on their personal twitter handles as well. Chris is @entropealab and Dave is @conroydave. Good luck! Oh yes. I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Coldwell Banker for the exhibitor passes they provided us as a sponsor of the show. Thank you to David Siroty and Athena Snow for making this happen. Follow their CEScapades here.

The CRTLabs Gift Guide, Day Three

On our final day of gift recommendations, we’re featuring three smart home devices that most of the time pass the $200 mark.

Gifts between 100 and 199 dollars

  1. Smart Things Home Monitoring Kit For $249 (MSRP), you’ll get a hub, one smart outlet, a motion detector, and two sensors that can tell you if your windows or doors are open. Samsung’s starter kit is a great way to start building your smart home network.
  2. Neurio Intelligent Home Energy Monitor You may suspect that running your old wonky refrigerator is costing you way too much money; the Neurio($249 MSRP) will let you know for sure. It installs directly into your breaker panel and tracks your power use in real time.
  3. Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance Starter Kit For right around $200, the Hue Starter Kit lets you “paint” your room in millions of colors and set the mood for just about anything. Utilitarian tasks such as scheduling when your lights go on and off are covered, too.

The CRTLabs Gift Guide, Day Two

Yesterday, we featured some great tech gifts that cost no more than $99. Today, we’ve upped the ante. Note again we’ve provided the suggested retail price, but shop around and you’re sure to find some great deals.

Gifts between 100 and 199 dollars


Netatmo Weather Station

The somewhat oddly-named Netatmo Weather Station (only half of it provides weather data) is a $149 home data powerhouse. The indoor module tracks air quality, CO2 levels, sound, temperature, and humidity; the outdoor module keeps an eye on temperature, humidity, air quality, and barometric pressure. Home health monitoring doesn’t get any easier than this.

Amazon Echo

Yes, the Amazon Echo ($179, but frequently on sale) is cool all on its own, allowing you to control it with just your voice. “Do I need an umbrella today?,” “what time is the Bears game this Sunday?,” and “how many cups in a pint?” are questions it can answer with aplomb. But it’s the compatibility with devices from Philips, Belkin, Samsung, and Wink that make the Echo a slam dunk for home automation.

Canary Security System

There’s no shortage of home security cameras on the market, but the Canary ($199) is a favorite of CRT Labs. It has all the things you’d expect (night vision, motion detection, a 1080p HD camera), as well as some things that are nice surprises (air quality and ambient light detection).

August Smart Lock

Lock and unlock your door, issue virtual keys to guests, and find out who’s coming or going into your house with the August Smart Lock ($199).

The CRTLabs Gift Guide, Day One

Today, we’re featuring some of CRT Labs’ favorite tech products, all of which cost less than $100. Tomorrow we’ll feature more gift-giving ideas that cost between $100 and $199, and after that we’ll help you bust the bank with stuff that costs more than $200 (but which is totally worth it).

(Note: we’ve provided the suggested retail price, but shop around and you’re sure to find some great deals.)

Gifts for under 100 dollars


  1. Hiku Shopping Button Did someone just eat the last Hot Pocket? The hand-held Hiku (normally $79; $49 holiday pricing) shopping button adds items to a shopping list by scanning barcodes or by listening to your voice. Consult the list on your Android or iPhone when you’re at the market.
  2. Roost Battery The Roost battery (MSRP $34.99) turns your “dumb” smoke alarm into a smart device, sending low battery alerts to you, and notifications to you (and others) if smoke is detected. Best of all (?) it can silence the alarm when you tell it you’ve only burned the toast.
  3. Parrot Flower Power Sensor Need a gift for a green-thumbed friend? The Parrot Flower Power sensor (MSRP $59) measures sunlight, temperature, fertilizer and moisture and sends an alert to your Android or iOS device when your plant needs some love and care.
  4. Cree Connected Dimmable Light Bulbs Is there someone on your list just getting interested in smart home technology? There are few more reasonably-priced ways to get into smart home technology than Cree connected light bulbs.