Twin Cities homes are going high-tech thanks to 'smart' devices

  • Article by: KATIE HUMPHREY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 26, 2014 - 6:07 PM

Houses are going high-tech amid the booming “Internet of Things.” But do you really need that Wi-Fi-enabled toothbrush, and what if it gets a virus?

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The Nest Learning Thermostat picks up on your daily schedule as well as your heating and cooling habits and programs itself accordingly.

The alarm goes off, and you stumble out of bed.  

The house senses you stirring and wakes along with you.

The thermostat kicks the temperature up a few degrees, the window blinds slowly open. Lights blink on as you walk into a room, dimly at first, so your eyes can adjust. By the time you’ve reached the kitchen, the coffee is ready. You open a cupboard to reach for a mug, and the radio pops on, ready with the daily weather report.

Welcome to the “Internet of Things,” an era when ordinary objects — from coffeepots and refrigerators to doorknobs and thermostats — are being transformed into high-tech devices controlled by sensors and smartphones. A future house might even run itself — with doors talking to the lights and lights talking to televisions.

The Jetsons would be jealous.

Yet as the number of “smart” devices multiply, there are serious concerns about safety and privacy — anything on the Internet could be vulnerable to hackers. Then there are the amusing questions of necessity. Do you really want an Internet-connected toothbrush that reports your teeth-cleaning habits to your dentist?

“Technology for technology’s sake is interesting to a very small subset of people,” said Scott Vlaminck, co-founder of SmartThings, a Minneapolis company that makes home automation kits. “For real-world use, it needs to solve real-world problems.”

Cool down by phone

Jess Myers of Inver Grove Heights uses the popular Internet-connected thermostat Nest to solve a common Minnesota dilemma: climate control when coming home from a summertime weekend at the cabin.

“It used to be you’d turn the [home] thermostat up and it’d be 85 degrees in your house” when you got back, Myers said of his summertime quandary.

Now he opens his Nest app on his phone and turns down the temp as he’s heading home from Up North.“That alone is worth it if you can’t sleep when it’s hot,” he said.

Nest, which also makes smart smoke alarms, made headlines in January when Google bought it for $3.2 billion. The thermostat costs $249 and promises convenience and financial savings through energy efficiency.

That appealed to Jeff Sauer of Roseville. He bought the first version of Nest and now says he has a “love-hate relationship with it.” A frequent traveler, he likes the ability to control his home temperature from afar. But he said the suggested temperature settings for peak efficiency seem more appropriate for a milder climate.

“They’ll scold you for [not] being energy-efficient when it’s minus-18 degrees outside in Minnesota,” he said, joking.

Then there was the day his Nest lost its Wi-Fi connection and turned off. After some quality time spent on the phone with tech support, the company sent him a replacement thermostat.

“I understand that a lot of this is [first-generation] stuff,” Sauer said. “As part of that, you take the good and take the bad.”

Thermostats are just one way to get started.

Counting up every TV, appliance and household gadget, tech research firm Gartner says there could be 26 billion smart devices by 2020. That doesn’t include computers, smartphones and tablets.

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