If you’re skeptical about the smart home as popularly envisioned, you’re not alone, and you’re not wrong. Replacing your current appliances with connected alternatives is an expensive proposition, without a convincing payoff. Fortunately, that’s also not your only option.
Emerging along with the headline-grabbing, complicated, and relatively pricey Nests and Winks of the world are another breed of smart home product entirely. These are devices that don’t require marathon installation sessions or advanced engineering degrees. In fact, they require hardly any know-how at all. And best of all? They work with the products you already own.
The idea of making an existing “dumb” gadget smart rather than replacing it entirely isn’t new; any television with an HDMI port has been just a Roku away from streaming Netflix for years now. The push towards a more fully connected home, however, has inspired a range of affordable add-ons that give even the most unassuming devices in your house internet brains, without many of the drawbacks that come with more well-known attempts.
A Simple Plan
The most exciting smart home product of the year so far isn’t a connected refrigerator, or a light bulb that can tweet. It’s a simple 9V battery, just like the one currently residing in your smoke detector, with one important difference. It’s connected to the internet.
This is Roost, a Wi-Fi enabled 9V battery—and accompanying app—that turns your existing smoke detector, however old or plain, into cutting-edge connected equipment. It sends you a notification in the event of the alarm being triggered, in case you’re away from home, and lets you know when it’s running out of juice, so that you can replace it well before that late-night “low battery” chirping drives you insane.
It does all of this for $40, which might sound expensive for a battery, but is less than half the cost of a similarly smart Nest Protect smoke and carbon monoxide alarm. The Protect has a few more tricks, but as Roost CEO Roel Peeters is quick to point out, it and other out-of-the-box smart home solutions also require time-consuming installation.
“People focus on the cost point of the device, but the installation cost is often times overlooked. It’s the actual cost of installation, but there’s also the risk factor: Am I going to be able to get this to work?”
The wired version of the Nest Protect, for instance, requires fussing with fuses and exposed wires, making it a project many customers might not be comfortable undertaking themselves. Installing a Roost, meanwhile, is as simple as swapping out batteries and downloading an app.
The push towards a more fully connected home has inspired a range of affordable add-ons that give even the most unassuming devices in your house internet brains.
And while you might not be beholden to your current smoke alarm’s looks, the fact remains that at least Roost gives you a range of aesthetic choices. If for some reason you want the Nest Protect’s functionality but don’t love its design (although you should, it’s lovely!), you’re out of luck. The flexibility to choose what your smart gadget looks like becomes even more pressing you’re dealing with items that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, or that take up a large part of your kitchen.
The best solution to that problem so far, it turns out, is also the simplest: Just buy the things you like, and make them smart yourself.
A LittleBits More Effort
The Roost will launch later this year, but there’s a more hands-on smart home strategy that you can buy right now. LittleBits, a company focused demystifying the world of DIY electronics, introduced its $249 Smart Home Kit last November.
The Smart Home Kit contains 14 LittleBits “modules”—including a temperature sensor, MP3 player, infrared transmitter, and more—along with accessories that help those units communicate with each other and the outside world. As you might have gathered, whereas Roost offers a vision of clever, simple, single-solution upgrades, the Smart Home Kit proposes something a little more involved. But with that elbow grease comes a lot more freedom, at less expense.
“Let’s say you have a perfectly good refrigerator in your kitchen and you just want to update it so that it can be smart and let you know if it’s overheating,” explained Krystal Persaud, Director or Product Design for LittleBits. “Instead of having to buy this whole new fridge that would cost you thousands of dollars just to add the internet, we’re modular. You can literally add the internet to anything, and connect anything to a smart device.”
In other words, LittleBits can make whatever’s already in your home as smart as your imagination allows. The company recommends several projects to get you started, including configurations that let you use your phone to control a creaky AC window unit, or to turn your lamp on or off.
There are also dozens of projects recommended by the active LittleBits community, ranging from productive (a smart thermostat) to slightly silly (an alert that plays the AOL “You’ve Got Mail” sound every time you receive an email from specified contacts).
While LittleBits still needs to convince people outside of the maker community that it’s intuitive enough to take on, it’s currently the easiest way to retrofit your entire dumb home into a smart one. And playing around with a few circuits is arguably less daunting than dropping hundreds of dollars on a single smart garage door opener. It also lets you keep maintain your individual style; as Persaud points out, “decorating and controlling your home is a very personal thing… We were seeing this plethora of shiny white boxes that you install on a wall that become part of your phone. Why does it have to be like that?” Retrofitting your existing home lets you think outside those boxes.
Your Home, But Smarter
With powerhouses like Google and Apple committed to participating in the smart home, it’s clear that whole-house solutions will continue to assert themselves. But companies like Roost and LittleBits are showing that it’s not the only way. A smart home doesn’t have to be expensive, or require a gut renovation. It just needs to make your life easier.
“It’s about what problem are you solving,” says Roost’s Peeters. “Are you solving a real problem for a consumer, or is [the smart home] just a Silicon Valley pipe dream where we think we can improve people’s lives marginally and on the edges, and people are going to pay money for it.”
That’s the question every smart home hopeful, from Nest to Wink to Roost to LittleBits and beyond, will have to keep asking themselves over the next few years. So far, it looks like the little guys are closest to the right answer.