Coming Soon: Sending Money With Your Voice. Available Now: A FitBit That May Make Apple Nervous. Plus Three More Items in Five for Wednesday.

Welcome to Five for Wednesday, CRT Labs’ long-running (since March 2014!) series of curated tech stories. (Find all the previous posts here.)


a photograph of an Amazon Echo speaker


      1. Within the next year or so you’ll be able to send someone money via gear that’s running Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa.
        Parents with kids in college are NOT looking forward to this.
      2. FitBit continues their march into Apple territory with the release of their most Apple Watch-like wearable yet, the Versa.
      3. Why did Credit Karma acquire Penny, a personal finance app with a chat interface? Because they’re hoping the software will make it easier for folks to have conversations about things like qualifying for mortgages.
      4. Green tech and sustainability fans, check out the second residential structure that meets the requirements of the Living Building Challenge.
      5. Or maybe you’d rather live in one of these homes, whose owners really, really like smart home tech.

CES 2018 – Five Key Takeaways

With the pace that technology is currently advancing, it is amazing to see how it becomes increasingly woven into our daily lives. The Consumer Electronics Show, now in its 51st year, is the proving grounds for these new advancements. With over 170,000 attendees and 3900 vendors, CES is the world’s largest tradeshow. Over the past three years, CRT Lab’s has covered the trends that emerge, and what they mean for real estate. This year, we saw the following five key trends.

1) Increased Focus on Air Quality

There is a special marketplace on the show floor within CES that is specifically made for startups and technology pioneers called Eureka Park. This section is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and Techstars, and is a great place to get insights on where technology trends may be headed.

As we began to notice two years ago at the Lab’s first visit to CES, air quality is getting more and more attention of more importance to today’s consumers. In previous years we have met innovative startups like Plume Labs and elichens. This year, having built our own indoor air quality monitor, we were able to meet with and collect samples of the latest innovations directly from the sensor manufacturers.

2) Google Has Arrived

This year Google made its first-ever appearance at CES. They had an especially rocky start with their giant two-story outdoor booth having to be shut down due to heavy rains on day one, and faced power issues midweek.

Despite all this, by perhaps what may be brute-force alone, their presence was felt. Previous years at CES have been absolutely dominated by Amazon’s Voice Assistant Alexa, and for the search giant’s first year ever to be exhibiting – they had incredible product penetration.

Photo by Dieter Bohn / The Verge

From sponsoring the city-wide monorail, buses, taxis, and their incredibly impressive two-story outdoor booth, it seemed like Google was everywhere.

A Google Assistant shows off the company’s all white jumpsuits (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

In fact, they even had real life Google Assistants working overtime on the exhibition floor giving product demonstrations, running contests, and doing giveaways of Google Assitant compatible devices.

3) Urban Agriculture

If you’ve visited CRT Labs over the past two years, you’ve most likely seen some of our aquaponics systems. Filled with fish, ghost shrimp, herbs and vegetables, these systems work based on a symbiotic relationship between the aquatic life and the plants growing above. As more and more people are moving to major urban areas, the demand for locally grown produce is only growing higher.

Aquaponics @ CRT Labs

The Grove aquaponics set-up for CRT Labs, with kale above and goldfish in the tank.

This year at CES, there were dozens of companies trying to capture some of that demand by offering consumers a way to grow their own vegetables at home. What is reassuring to us that this will be a future trend to watch is just the sheer number of different approaches companies are taking to solve this problem. We saw sleek, counter-top units like the Aspara Smart Veggie Grower, to full popup greenhouses like the Grow Pods by Opcom.

4) Smart City and Autonomous Vehicles

We saw an incredible amount of technology this year that was trying to marry all of the innovation together to provide solutions for smart cities. Two of the best examples of this would be the Bosch Climo System and Toyota’s e-pallet, both of which won Innovation Awards this year. The Climo System is a smart air monitoring solution designed and developed to evaluate, visualize and act upon the outdoor air quality enabled with real-time tracking of ambient air pollutants. According to their website, the Climo System has eight different sensors that measure particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. It is also equipped to monitor pollen levels, which is a common cause of allergies. We can’t help but be reminded of the Chicago based project, the Array of Things, which has similar goals.

Toyota announced a new business alliance between partners Amazon, Mazda, Pizza Hut, Uber, and Didi (Chinese Ride Sharing) focusing on what they are calling “Mobility as a Service”. As part of this, they also revealed the first of their concept vehicles, the e-Pallet.

Photo by Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

The idea being that the e-Pallet would be a completely modular and customizable solution for autonomous transportation needs. From ridesharing and automated delivers, to on-demand retail experiences, the e-Pallet is made to be the starting point for any company who has a use case for electric autonomous vehicles.

5) Voice Control Integration Becomes Deeper

This year at CES we saw the deeper integration of voice assistants into the smart home. The best example of this would be Kohler, who unveiled Kohler Konnect this year. Enabling voice control technology for your shower, bathtub, toilet, mirror, and faucet. While this main seem a bit overkill at first, there are many uses cases for touchless/handsfree operation in the bathroom. In fact, Kohler received a CES 2018 Innovation award for the efforts, in their company’s impressive debut.

For more coverage, check out this great video from REALTOR Magazine:

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. 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 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!

Using the Touchstone to Track New Build VOCs

One of the coolest things about working in a lab that makes its own hardware and software is the ability to get to find situations to test those products, and I was super happy to be able to getting to test a unique use case for the Touchstone indoor environmental quality sensor we’re working on: monitoring air quality during construction. I recently bought a three-story row house here in Chicago, and before moving in we wanted to do some cosmetic changes – a fresh coat of paint in the third floor bedrooms, brand new carpeting on the third floor as well as on 45 stairs (yes, that’s a LOT of stairs!), and new hardwood flooring on the first floor. All of these projects would be off-gassing various VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and it felt like a great time to bring in a Touchstone to monitor how high these levels got and how quickly they would dissipate. Finally, it also gave the team a chance to test user experience with installation – I am the least tech-savvy member of the bunch, so making sure the instructions were easy to follow was key.

Raspberry Pi SetupTouchstone protoype setupSetup was easy, thanks in part to some of the trickier bits being done by the team before I went to my new house. The setup includes a Raspberry Pi (which I’ve used in other applications, like setting up a welcome kiosk for our Information Services department), a USB stick that allows the Raspberry Pi to talk to the Touchstone, and the Touchstone itself. I also brought with me a Verizon MiFi hotspot, since our internet would not be connected for another week and the system needs internet to communicate to the software component called Grafana. Grafana is a way to display data directly from the Touchstone itself – while we are working on our own software, we are using Grafana to track data for research purposes.

I set up the Raspberry Pi and MiFi in my kitchen on the second floor, and then the Touchstone in the hallway on the third floor.

I set these up the day that painting started, 8/11/17, with final touchups of paint happening on 8/17/17. The units have stayed plugged in since, allowing us to see how the levels “settle” over time. It’s been hands off since installation, except for when we got our internet connected in the house, when I switched the Raspberry Pi over from the MiFi network to its final network home. That process was pretty easy, and the instructions the team wrote were clear and allowed me to do the switch with ease.

What did we learn about VOCs in that time period? As expected, total VOCs went up during construction, stayed elevated during the “worst” parts (when we had paint drying, carpet installing, and the hardwood floor going in simultaneously), and then dissipated rather quickly once we took steps to rid the air of VOCs. We also were able to tell when people were most active near the Touchstone itself, since CO2 levels would raise, which I thought was a funny way of measuring the progress of the carpeting install.

touchstone grafana data

The straight line from the 19th to the 21st is when the unit was offline between taking down the MiFi access point and getting our new internet installed. The 15th was the most active day for installation; the spike on the 18th likely corresponds to the actual move-in date, where lots of cardboard was being tossed around, lots of people were moving around, and any carpet fibers that were buried even after a vacuuming were being kicked up.

We mitigated VOCs in two major ways – creating cross breezes through window airflow, and by constantly running our indoor whole-house fan. We had the air conditioning on during the day – it was about 85-90 degrees during that week, and with workers bustling about we wanted to keep them comfortable – but since we were not living in the house yet, opening the windows at night to let out vapors was an easy and fast solution.

Some things to keep in mind with the graph above – we are tracking four different things that all actually do not usually exist on the same scale as each other, so the end values can’t really be judged without looking at individual points and comparing them to known ranges. But for a quick visualization, this works out great, and being able to track trends is an important part of monitoring indoor environmental quality.

Now that I’m moved in, I am planning on relocating the Touchstone after unpacking to a place that gets a lot of use, like the kitchen or living areas. That way, I’ll be able to directly see the impact had in the areas I “live” in the most. If I do see trends in VOCs or high CO2 levels, I can consider putting some pet-friendly plants that I am researching for part two of our Pocket Guide to Cleaner Air series. While indoor environmental quality sensors won’t diagnose specific issues, they are a valuable tool in tracking your home’s health, just like your Fitbit helps to track metrics about fitness, and we think these metrics will lead to happier home occupants.